Theory Rears It’s Ugly Head

June 26, 2009

To all those former professors who bemoan the lack of IR theory here, and for whom the eclectic and practical content of this blog is a continuing affront to the good name of the International Relations discipline, I offer this small tidbit from a fellow blogger and self-confessed IR geek who revels in theory:

 I’m working on a theory that expands how hegemony is attained within the institutional heirarchy of the international order.

I’m not even sure what that means.  I understand the words (didn’t even have to look them up), but I can begin to imagine what the theoretical (much less the practical) implications of that statement are.

Then again, I am jealous that he gets to attend lectures at Chatham House every once in a while.



June 13, 2009

Joseph Nye’s editorial about the lack of policy influence among current IR scholars ought to be required reading for all graduate students faced with the supposedly tough choice between a PhD and a job.  Although I promised (sort-of) at the beginning of this blog that I would mostly avoid the ugly world of IR theory, in this case I felt it necessary to delve a little into the intersection of contemporary scholarship and policy-making.

I refered above to the choice between a PhD and a job as only “supposedly” tough, because in reality the choice is a fairly easy one.  Not that it seems that way to many IR post-graduates facing the potential end of the easy predicatability of their academic career and the daunting prospect of working for a living.  In that situation, which I myself faced in the not-altogether distant past, the comforting embrace of the academy does have a certain appeal, even if one is, like myself, not inclined to theoretical flights of fancy and abstract debate.

No, the attraction of continuing ones education is not about what one does, but about what one doesn’t have to do.  Namely, compete in a difficult, unpredictable world in which the milestones for success are always viewed only vaguely through the fog of day-to-day employment.  That’s not to say that remaining in school and going after a PhD is easy (far from it), only that the gauges for success in academic life are predictable, and the rewards concrete and quantifiable.  In what other human endeavor other than education does one receive a grade upon the completion of the work, factored down to decimal percentages for easy comparison to ones peers and competitors? 

It’s a trait ingrained in our minds from early childhood, learning to expect a grade for easily-defined work conducted under controlled circumstances, with set schedules and deadlines.  After twenty-plus years of existing in that mental framework, the reality of the messy world of gainful employment seems downright terrifying.  No easy metrics for measuring performance, no instant gratification (or mortification) of the results, no set standards for success or failure, just the daily slog of trying to make a little money while simultaneously moving upwards towards some ill-defined and perhaps illusory goal. 

Yeah, a PhD doesn’t sound so bad compared to that.

The point of Nye’s article (and the reason I began this post in the first place) was to illuminate the disconnect between politcal science academics and actual policy-makers.  No doubt the disconnect exists, and Nye appears to feel that it is a troublesome situation that ought to be reversed.  For reasons which Nye does not discuss, pure academics seem to have become more and more rare at the upper levels of government and, in Nye’s view, this has resulted in deleterious policy outcomes. 

However, I can’t help but wonder if the lack of ivory tower types in the halls of power is the result of a self-selecting process.  Perhaps those who aspire to make policy are simply unsuited to the rarefied atmosphere of the upper ranks of the IR academy.  And perhaps those political scientists who are well-suited to debate the intricacies of arcane theory don’t make very good policy-makers.  And perhaps, just perhaps, this is because all too often when the political scientists try their hand at actual politics and policy, the result is a muddled mess of confusion because the real world doesn’t conform to their neat and tidy models.  I, for one, would not be eager to see the result of a surge of senior political scientists on the business of government.  Before they were done getting bitch-slapped by the day-to-day difficulties of actually accomplishing something, they might actually make things worse.

Besides, they’d get their neatly-manicured hands dirty.

More here at the Monkey Cage.

More here at The National Pundit.