Wednesday, April 16, 2014

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Boxes

After my talk at the University of British Columbia, I was asked about where I stood between the subfields of Comparative and International Relations.  The observer noted that some of the theory behind NATO in Afghanistan is built on comparative politics, but the subject is very much IR--alliances and war.  So, what am I?  An IR person or a comparativist?  Basically the former with a willingness to use the tools of the latter.

Outsiders may see this as strange, but as social identity theory will tell you, it matters to you and it matters to others how one is identified.  The questions that have always interested me the most are those that cross borders--who gets involved in someone else's conflict (book 1), why do some wars happen and others not (book 2), how do alliances operate in wartime (book 3).  I have always taught IR classes, such as Intro to IR.  However, I have written on topics that fall squarely within comparative politics: why some groups want to secede, how do institutions ameliorate ethnic conflict or not, and so on.  More to the point, my understanding of IR almost always hinges on how I think about domestic politics, and because I am almost always interested in more than one country, I end up applying comparative politics.  That is, theories from the field of comparative politics have often been useful to me as I seek to understand why countries vary in how they do their International Relations.

Perhaps some folks are confused about me.  I do think that this might have been a problem at the start of my career, but I am pretty sure that people have gotten used to folks working at the intersection of the two fields.  I had some senior colleagues who had outdated views of what IR people do, but they had outdated views on pretty much everything else.  For me, the basic thing is that I go where the questions lead me and my curiosity tends towards IR, and then I go to where I think the answers are, which because of my biases, in domestic politics.  

Still, we have the boxes.  They make it handy for studying for comps, for defining job ads, for allocating responsibilities and so on.  I am now in an interdisciplinary place where the distinctions are not between IR, Comparative, Theory and American/Canadian Politics but between Conflict Analysis, Development, and National Security.  I am so confused about my identity these days!

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