Saturday, August 1, 2015

Unbridled Curiosity or Arrogance: You Make the Call

As I start into the new project, comparing the civil-military relations of many of the world's democracies, I realize I am once again entering an area in which I have little expertise.  This is not a new feeling, as each major research project of my career has me walking into countries/areas in which I have no experience.

This started with my dissertation which focused on secessionist crises in Africa and South Asia, two parts of the world I had studied the least.  While my second book focused on an issue that I had studied in my dissertation, irredentism, it meant doing fieldwork in Hungary and Romania.  I had not studied or been to either before.  The third book on NATO could have been a bit more familiar to me, as I had been to many of these countries as a tourist and I had lived the NATO life from the Joint Staff.  However, I had never studied the domestic politics of most of the places we studied, a key ingredient in understanding the civil-military dynamics of each.

Why am I thinking about this?  Well, the current project would not seem to be that off the paths I have trod--looking at legislative oversight of militaries.  While I am not nor have ever been a legislative oversight guy, the basic question is an extension of the previous book.  However, in the distribution of labor for this project, my co-authors are getting the cases they know best (and I know best), and I am getting the coolest travel but also the cases I knew the least: Japan, South Korea, Argentina, Brazil and Chile.  While most of the fieldwork will not commence until my sabbatical a year from now, my fellowship applications (to fund part of my sabbatical) have me thinking about this now.

And I realize that my unbridled curiosity might be facilitated by arrogance.  How dare I think that I can understand a place I have never studied before?  Especially those countries where the English-speakers are not so prevalent.  Writing about Canada despite never studying the place before 2007 was not as chock full of hubris (despite offending one reviewer).  Navigating in a country where the language is so different that I cannot understand the signs?  Now I am intimidated.

I guess my confidence, such as it is, is driven by the perception that my lack of knowledge has not stopped me before.  That I only seek to know a small part of a country's history and political processes.  I am not an expert on Danish politics, but I learned enough to figure out what I needed to figure out--why the Danes were among the most forward leaning and least restricted troops in Afghanistan.  I learned enough about African politics to understand why countries took sides in two secessionist crises, but didn't learn much more than that (that I applied for African Politics jobs as I was leaving grad school was more about desperation than arrogance). I learned enough about Somali politics to have a decent grasp on its inconsistent irredentism from 1960-1990, but not enough to understand what is going on today, except as a product of the consequences of the past.

But this tendency to tread where I know not has fed a case of imposter syndrome that someone will find out that I missed a huge hunk of something along the way.  However, so far, so good.  I do know that there are other costs besides being found out.  That if I spent my time focusing on the same few places, I would develop some serious expertise, which could be damn useful.  But my mind does not work that way.  I just keep seeking the questions that intrigue me most, and they keep leading me away from that with which I am most familiar.  Maybe I am easily bored or have attention deficit disorder. 

All I do know is that I have enjoyed the ride that my curiosity has taken me, and it is that curiosity that got me in this business in the first place.  Still, I wonder about the advice of a key role model:

1 comment:

Kim Campbell said...

The problems with Americans writing about Canada is that they interpret Canada through an American lens. I used to get into big (but friendly) arguments with Seymour Martin (Marty) Lipset about this. The same language can be a dangeroys assurance of comprehension where it doesn't exist. One might do better in countries where there is no assumption of understanding and you have to go back to square one to understand culture, history, institutions, etc.