Sunday, May 31, 2009

Just How Irrelevant Am I?

. Sunday, May 31, 2009

I very much appreciated Dr. Oatley's take on the irrelevance of much IR academic work to policymakers, and how that isn't necessarily a bad thing. I am in full agreement up to a point: the change in the discipline from deductive to inductive research, or from "grand" to "mid-level" theory-building, explains much of the gap between academics and policymakers*. Much modern research is concerned with fitting past data onto models, or developing post-hoc explanations for political phenomena. These may be of limited use for policymakers. The following paragraph, however, struck me as a bit odd:

Contemporary IR’s lack of policy influence is therefore the inevitable consequence of the field’s effort to become more scientific given what we seek to explain. Although economics has powerfully influenced our quest for rigor, the belief that policy influence is the natural consequence of this endeavor suggests that we have lost sight of how IR differs from economics. Economics as a social science (along with sociology and perhaps psychology) tells politicians how to use policy to change social outcomes. IR as a social science explains why governments adopt some policies rather than others. The better we are at explaining the choices that governments make, the fewer novel insights we can offer to policy makers.

Modern economics seeks to explain what people (including politicians) can choose; i.e., the range of feasible options given the constraints that everyone faces. Political science seeks to explain what people (esp., but not only, politicians) actually do choose. Now, it is true that we often model political actors as rational actors, but in the more sophisticated research these actors are boundedly rational (i.e. subject to biases like everyone else) and/or face incomplete information.

If IR research can improve the quality or amount of information that policymakers have at their disposal, then IR scholarship can have relevance for policymakers. For example, if we can provide insight into the political incentives facing national leaders, then perhaps we can affect the way that policymakers approach diplomacy. If we can provide tools for interpreting past behaviors in more rigorous ways then we may be able to help policymakers interpret signals and intentions. Academic scholarship can frame the issue in ways that are not always immediately obvious.

It's possible that much IR research is of little or no practical use to policymakers, but some of it may have utility. And if the recent economic crisis has taught us anything, it is that future events can make past theories seem much more relevant than they seem today.

*Although it should be said that this wasn't really Nye's original point; he was complaining about a lack of academics in the policy world, and the incentive structures that contribute to that gap.


Just How Irrelevant Am I?
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