Saturday, March 31, 2012


. Saturday, March 31, 2012

I'm en route. Say hi if you're going.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Academia vs. Policy Snark

. Friday, March 30, 2012

Andrew Exum, today:

Nonetheless, in case anyone is interested, these are the [academic] journals I dutifully scan for articles, listed in the order I typically read them. ...
3. The American Political Science Review
Andrew Exum, 2010:
Anyway, you guys could probably care less why I never read the APSR. 
Wonder what made him change his mind.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On IR Professionalization, Grad School, and What I Think I've Been Doing for the Past Four Years

. Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dan Nexon has written a lengthy diatribe opposing what he calls the "over-professionalization" of IR, particularly as it involves graduate student instruction. Over-professionalization seems to reduce to, basically, extensive training in neopositivist approaches (mostly but not only quantitative) to the study of international relations, with less space for idiosyncratic approaches. Nexon believes this has led to, and is leading to, an impoverishment of IR theory. It's well worth reading, as is Erik Voeten's critique, and comments on both posts.

No one has responded to Nexon from my perspective -- a grad student about to go onto the job market -- and I've been thinking a decent amount about these issues lately, so I'm going to chime in. Before I get into more specific discussion, let me note that it's been very interesting to watch the ways in which my approach to grad school has evolved over the past four years, and the ways in which my fellow grad students have taken different approaches to their time in grad school. For me, having an academic career is only valuable if I can do it more or less my way. I'm not a "careerist" in that sense... if what it takes for me to get a job at a good school is to do a bunch of work that I don't enjoy or find interesting, then I don't want a job at a good school. I'd much rather have a place at a lesser school or in a non-academic setting. Therefore, I'm somewhat risk-acceptant regarding both my professionalization (evidence: my willingness to pick blog fights with tenured faculty) and my research program (which carries a nonzero chance of being an abject failure). Some of my fellow graduate students don't seem to feel the same way, and they make their choices accordingly. There's nothing at all wrong with that, it's just not the approach I'm comfortable taking.

At this point I have almost no idea what the values of "the discipline" at large are, and I'm somewhat skeptical that there is any such thing.* It seems to depend very much on which departments we're talking about, and even then it's somewhat contingent upon the balance of recent hires/turnover within departments. Same with the journals. While different journals (naturally) tend to publish different types of work, it's not clear whether that is because authors are submitting strategically, editors are dedicated to advancing their preferred research paradigms, both, or neither. There are so many journals that any discussion of them as doing any one thing -- or privileging any one type of work -- seems like painting with much too wide a brush. Nevertheless, on to Nexon's claims.

Perhaps ironically, I think the phenomenon that Nexon is trying to describe (to the extent that it exists at all) is best understood using language taken from formal bargaining theory. That is, in an environment where competition for any decent academic job is fierce -- much less a so-called "top tier" job -- there is no possible way that grad students will not be "over-professionalized". Grad students will always be incentivized to game the job market as best as they can, and their advisors and departments are incentivized to help them do it. The job market rewards graduate students that can strongly signal an ability to maintain a productive research agenda into the indefinite future. Even if the efficient outcome is for a less professionalized discipline (if e.g. it leads to more interesting theorizing), and Nexon does little to establish the case that it is (more below), those who defect and become more professionalized are more likely to get jobs because they will be the ones who can better signal their quality to hiring departments. In politics it is often said that you can't enact the policy without being elected, and you can't have a long career doing interesting research in IR without first getting hired somewhere. Getting a job is therefore the first goal of every student, advisor, and department. There is no other measure of success, nor can there be.

From where I sit, as a grad student there appear to be only so many ways you can signal your value to hiring committees that receive tons of applications for each job -- particularly if you're coming from a department outside of the top 10. One way is to demonstrate mastery over difficult material and/or techniques for inquiry that will be useful in conducting research over a long career. Another is by having work published -- indicating that you actually can do research -- and in progress -- indicating that you don't have only one decent idea -- and by getting well-regarded scholars to write strong letters on your behalf. For the first, taking an extra methods course adds to the "toolkit" in ways that taking an extra class out of your major field does not. Or hell, even within your major field, if it's on a topic that isn't directly relevant to your dissertation. Sure, the substantive class will expose you to new ideas, but nothing's stopping you from reading those books on your own. The value added of discussing the substantive work in seminars with other grad students who only had time to skim the reading is almost surely less than the time spent learning a new method. Having more training in more methods gives you a greater ability to ask a wider range of questions and a greater ability to answer them. We're always being told to not let method determine research question, but if you only know one method you have no other option. Moreover, without some methodological chops it is difficult to conduct research that is publishable (the second signal) or that is interesting enough to excite jaded faculty that are writing letters for you (the third). In short, it's important for graduate students in political science to be able to do political science. Methods training is a prerequisite for that.

Unlike Nexon, I don't see this as a very bad thing.** I've taken more methods classes in my graduate education than substantive classes. I don't regret that. I've come to believe that the majority of coursework in a graduate education in most disciplines should be learning methods of inquiry. Theory-development should be a smaller percentage of classes and (most importantly) come from time spent working with your advisor and dissertation committee. While there are strategic reasons for this -- signaling to hiring committees, etc. -- there are also good practical reasons for it. The time I spent on my first few substantive classes was little more than wasted; I had no way to evaluate the quality of the work. I had no ability to question whether the theoretical and empirical assumptions the authors were making were valid. I did not even have the ability to locate what assumptions were being made, and why it was important to know what those are. Those questions, which are central to any study in political science (or should be, anyway), can only be answered once one has some sense of how theory is constructed, how models perform, how data is collected and analyzed, and why every choice made by the analyst is important. Coming into grad school I didn't have that ability despite having being fairly comfortable with basic statistics (what Nexon lumps into GLR -- "general linear reality") and models as an undergraduate economics major. (In my opinion it's still a weakness for me, and for nearly everyone I come across in academia.)

The fact remains: students at architecture schools are not asked to design a skyscraper on the first day. Someone taking their first saxophone lesson is not encouraged to abandon traditional chord structures in favor of free improvisation. Nor would it be productive for most graduate students to be "thinking outside the box" during their early years in graduate school. At that point I didn't even know where the box was. I couldn't possible have been any less professional, and so I was incapable of producing anything of theoretical or substantive value. I don't think a single one of my grad student colleagues was any different.

More importantly, I don't think that learning a bunch of methods closed off avenues of research for me; on the contrary, it opened them up! Learning that not every real-world variable has a Gaussian distribution, that assumptions regarding the data-generating process are very important, that (yes) not every process in the world is linear, that bias can come in all shapes and sizes (regardless of what method one uses, and I don't just mean quant here)... this is important knowledge to possess! I could not acquire it without "professionalizing" myself.

So with the caveat that he has much more experience and knowledge than me, I don't think I can agree with Nexon's core argument: that professionalization of graduate students has led to a lack of interesting theorizing. I believe a decent amount of professionalization is a prerequisite for understanding how good theories are constructed and how they may be evaluated. I do think that there is not all that much interesting theory being produced in IR currently, but I think that's because it's really hard to come up with original theory. Not just in IR... theoretical development moves slowly in all sciences. Most of the work is in pushing at the edges of existing theory in more-or-less straightforward empirical ways.*** It takes something approaching genius to develop original theories and let's face it... most graduate students (and professors, practitioners, and lay-people) just don't possess the necessary quality whether they've been professionalized or not.

If there is one thing that I wish I had spent more time on in my graduate classes it would be taking the philosophy of science more seriously. I suspect, from other things he's written, that Nexon would agree. Other than the first-semester scope and methods class -- which came too soon to be of much use, and doesn't seem to be conducted super-rigorously almost anywhere -- attention paid to the philosophy of science has been spotty, sporadic, and mostly ad hoc. This is, I believe, a problem with social science more generally and not just graduate instruction at the top 20 (or so) IR grad programs. But such a focus would almost necessarily have to lead to more professionalization rather than less.

*When we discuss what "IR" wants in terms of hiring decisions, it seems relevant to note that hiring decisions are generally made by departments as a whole and not just the IR people. I'm sure that in many cases faculty from other disciplines will defer to IR people when making IR hires, but I imagine that there's quite a lot of variation there.

**I'm not sure he does either. He seems to be saying different things at different times. I think what he'd like to say is that a strong methods training would be a very good thing if it didn't lead to the sort of professionalization that he doesn't like. But he doesn't quite say that, and I can't tell if it's really true.

***On a somewhat related point, tangential to my post as well as Nexon's: if I was more familiar with the literature I think I'd like to write a post arguing that political "science" must mean something specific. Political practice is different from political science, and I think there are a lot of uses in keeping the distinction between normative and positive theory intact. The falsifiability criterion seems to me to be as good as any. I think there are good reasons for arguing that certain types of theory is not political "science" without diminishing its utility for people who are interested in politics, theories about the world, etc. The word "science", if it is to have any meaning, must distinguish between styles of inquiry based on their approach, their methodology. I'm not sure where that line falls, but it must exist.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Politics is Everywhere, Even in the Brackets

. Saturday, March 17, 2012

Brad Smith, a UNC undergrad who is currently making his mind up about IR grad schools, writes:

Stated explicitly, the question I hope to answer here is: "Does Obama systematically favor teams from "swing states" when filling out his NCAA bracket?" My theory is that Obama does, indeed favor teams from swing states because, by doing so, he only stands to gain. As long as his predictions are not absolutely outrageous, Obama can favor a battleground state's team over the team of a state that he either expects to win outright or expects to have no chance in in order to curry favor with that state's voters. This might seem like a silly political move at first, but if you think this wouldn't make a difference in the way people might vote, you've never met someone from rural North Carolina. On a more serious note, it makes an intuitive sort of sense that during an election year a presidential candidate should waste no opportunity to squeeze out a little more favor from voters in strategically valuable states. I think that's exactly what Obama's doing here, which leads me to my hypothesis:
Hypothesis: Obama will predict more wins for teams from swing states than the "average" individual who fills out an NCAA bracket.
He has a little toy stats model and (surprise!) finds some basic support for the hypothesis.

My bracket got screwed by Mizzou and -- to a lesser extent -- Duke, but I'm totally fine with the latter.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Word Games

. Monday, March 12, 2012

Dani Rodrik has an op-ed on attitudes towards trade and ethics:
In the very first meeting, he had asked the students how many of them preferred free trade to import restrictions; the response was more than 90%. And this was before the students had been instructed in the wonders of comparative advantage! ... 
Or maybe they did not understand how trade really works. ...
I began the class by asking students whether they would approve of my carrying out a particular magic experiment. I picked two volunteers, Nicholas and John, and told them that I was capable of making $200 disappear from Nicholas’s bank account – poof! – while adding $300 to John’s. This feat of social engineering would leave the class as a whole better off by $100. Would they allow me to carry out this magic trick?

Those who voted affirmatively were only a tiny minority. Many were uncertain. Even more opposed the change.
Rodrik takes this as evidence that peoples' views of trade are muddled. I'm not so sure. His for-instance in the case is not about trade but about something much closer to theft: for no explained reason Nicholas is made worse off and John better off, but there has been no exchange involved. "The class as a whole" is not better off under this scenario -- i.e. it is not Pareto-improving -- except under a very specific and narrow definition of "better off" that does not reflect what happens during trade. Nicholas is better off, John is worse off, and everyone else neither gains nor loses.

More likely students were confused ("many were uncertain") or objected to the capriciousness of the redistribution. Another, later, thought experiment of Rodrik's seems to bear that out:
Let’s assume, I said next, that Nicholas and John own two small firms that compete with each other. Suppose that John got richer by $300 because he worked harder, saved and invested more, and created better products, driving Nicholas out of business and causing him a loss of $200. How many of the students now approved of the change? This time a vast majority did – in fact, everyone except Nicholas approved!
This example is much clearer and also more closely resembles real-world trade dynamics, at least as we often conceive of them. From this Rodrik concludes:
So the students were not necessarily against redistribution. They were against certain kinds of redistribution. Like most of us, they care about procedural fairness. ...
Too many economists are tone-deaf to such distinctions. They are prone to attribute concerns about globalization to crass protectionist motives or ignorance, even when there are genuine ethical issues at stake.
Or maybe not. Maybe, as Rodrik notes in his piece, his sample was of Harvard students who possess high human capital and are thus exceptionally likely to benefit from open trade. When they did not, as in some of Rodrik's other thought experiments, it was because their comparative advantage was being eaten away by some policy or other. The majority of Americans don't have the same preferences, possibly because they do not work in fields with a strong comparative advantage. So maybe "crass protectionist motives" are salient after all.

Perhaps not. I do not doubt that some attitudes towards trade involve ethical concerns. But Rodrik isn't able to separate out what's driving what in this discussion, so tossing off the old models of trade politics is a bit premature.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


. Saturday, March 10, 2012

So it's been quiet around here. I could excuse myself by saying that I've been busy working on my dissertation and teaching my own course for the first time -- which is true -- but the reality is that I just haven't been all that interested in things that have been going on lately. Still, for the sake of keeping the lights on, here is what I think about some of the news of the day:

1. Romney will still win the GOP nomination, and it won't be especially close.

2. The eurozone continues to muddle and buy time, but the problem isn't fixed. I still think something big happens in 2013, and I still think that citizens in democracies will eventually refuse to finance the sort of transfers that will be necessary to keep Greece in the union.

3. If an intervention into Syria were to work, it would require a large, credible, and open-ended commitment from the international community to the security and stability of a post-Assad Syria. This would most likely need to include the U.S. That commitment is pretty much impossible to make given the current political environment in the U.S. and elsewhere. Nor is it clear that an intervention would lead to less bloodshed, or a more appealing political outcome, than non-intervention.

4. I find it pretty difficult to muster outrage about Rush Limbaugh, the coverage of Catholic insurance, or any of that sort of thing.

5. China continues to weaken, and it's another reminder that there is no ready successor for U.S. hegemony.

6. I don't care what Obama said in college, and I don't care if he hugged someone once. Politics is structural people... even if he were a Marxist Islamist atheist dedicated to destroying the U.S. he'd be unable to actually do so. So cheer up.

7. Things are generally getting better in the U.S. and worse in most other places. Except parts of Africa, maybe.

Hopefully more regular posting will be forthcoming.

International Political Economy at the University of North Carolina: March 2012




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