Is the International Relations Field in Crisis?

Academics reflect

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In the days after the American Political Science Association gathered journalists and academics in Washington, DC, many political science professionals are reflecting on and debating the nature of their field. That debate has been especially rigorous among the pros of international relations, who are discussing the problems facing their discipline. Here's what they're saying and why it matters.

  • Our Scholarship Never Makes It to the Public  University of Kentucky professor and writer Robert Farley laments that so little of their research on important topics never enters the popular discourse on those subjects, such as ethnic conflict. "By and large, IR and comparative haven't had the same impact on the journalist community in either their quantitative or qualitative forms. I think that several major concepts/grand theories from both comparative and IR have found their way into the general policy conversation (deterrence theory, for example) but it's more difficult to find uses of clear, sound political science research. IPE might be an exception to this. The immense political science literature on ethnic conflict seems utterly detached from the way that ethnic conflict is treated in the popular media."
  • Why Scholars and Journalists Don't Talk  Tufts professor and Foreign Policy blogger Daniel Drezner says journalists and scholars/academics look at events so differently that the former are unlikely to call up the latter. And the really good scholars don't talk much to journalists anyway because they have direct access to policymakers, who they see as much more powerful. The result is that journalists, and thus the general public, are under-informed and have a very different understanding of foreign policy issues than do the elected and appointed policymakers.
  • Political Debates Out of Step With Scholarly Debates  Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias writes, "The issue here, I think, is really primarily one of politics. The kinds of policy approaches that find support in the IR literature or can be usefully illuminated through it are just too far off the center of the American political consensus. ... The intellectual basis of modern-day rightwing foreign policy is DC think tanks and magazines and has nothing to do with scholarly controversies. This is a very very very bad thing for the world and leads us into some catastrophically misguided policy choices, and it also means that journalists attention tends to be focused on the bounds of the politicized DC debate which is unusually isolated from scholarly approaches to these topics."
  • Should Academics Speak Directly to the Public?  Robert Farley sees promise in the blogger-scholar template. "What I'm interested in for obvious reasons, is the phenomenon of political scientists using the tools they've been given to speak to the audiences that journalists normally command. I suppose that this gets back to the first point; why should political scientists really bother making their work accessible to journalists, when they could just make their work accessible to the audiences that journalists have? While I am convinced that the current preferred model of political science interaction with the public (none) is untenable, I'm not certain that making ourselves relevant to a profession that's dying faster than our own is the right way to go."
  • How Scholars Could Learn From Journalists  The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reflects on an issue of domestic politics that could apply to international relations as well:
Political science does not have a good explanation for Sarah Palin, and while it can, in retrospect, apply its theories of candidate selection, it cannot tell us why John McCain believed that he could trust Sarah Palin, or why President Obama was so stubborn about health care. It cannot shed much light on the personality of a president and how presidential personalities effect governing and management. There are typologies, but they are created post-facto and aren't very satisfying. Historians can locate Sarah Palin fairly easily (as they can Glenn Beck) as the latest in a series of conservative populist candidates that have been revolting against elites from the days of Jacksonian America, but their stories are satisfying because journalists are predisposed to recognize patterns (even where they do not exist) and jump onto a narrative. Historians tend to be closer to journalists in using descriptive, reporting-based analysis, rather than the hard tools of social science, to answer questions.

As for a blind spot, I really wish that political scientists spent more time interacting with the people they write about. The lived experience of politics and the academic representation of it often differ. Journalists and political scientists need to bridge the gap.
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