Thursday, March 30, 2006

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What's the purpose of the quasi-popular IR book?

I don't catch The Daily Show very often, so this might be a small-N observation -- but it seems to me that he and Stephen Colbert have a much higher ratio of book authors on their show. Not potboilers, either -- Michael Mandelbaum was on Jon Stewart's show plugging The Case for Goliath.

Over at Duck of Minerva, I see that Daniel Nexon caught Mandelbaum's appearance as well -- but this leads him to ask a different question:

I haven't read Mandelbaum's book yet, but based on his comments and the editorial reviews at Amazon, it looks like a pretty standard retread of hegemonic-stability theory as applied to contemporary US foreign policy....

A lot of academics, particularly in the Washington foreign-policy cloud, write these sorts of books. I have no idea about the specific quality of Mandelbaum's book -- for all I know, it is the best example of this kind of argument for a semi-popular audience -- but I'm not sure what to make of this particular subgenre of professorial writings.

So, my question to you all: how should we assess books like Mandelbaum's? I know there is a real role for journalists and academics to take academic theories and bring them to bear on contemporary foreign policy debates, but at what point does derivative work become simply superfluous?

A few replies:
1) Think of the audience. Taking the Mandelbaum book as an example, I seriously doubt that most policymakers have the time or inclination to read the original theoretical work on hegemonic stability theory (Kindleberger, Krasner, Keohane, Lake, Snidal, etc.... well, maybe Kindleberger). Furthermore, HST was generally devoid of normative implications -- which is cdertainly not true of Mandelbaum.

Hayek called popularizers of abstruse ideas "second-order intellectuals." There's a value-added to this project -- though it also carries a danger when the ideas are badly translated.

2) Sometimes fuzzy is better. The advantage of peer-reviewed discourse is that it forces everyone involved to think in a rigorous and analytical fashion, discarding hypotheses or theories that are insufficiently developed. A more popular book can allow more creativity in thinking about how the world works. If these ideas catch on, they force academics to think more seriously about them, even if they would have been discarded if first presented in an academic setting. One example of this is Joseph Nye's "soft power" concept. I have my problems with this idea -- but I can't deny that Nye hit on something ineffable in international affairs that merits further discussion.

3) Don't knock down the strawmen!!. Popular IR books almost inevitably overstate the academic thesis they're propounding. This is great for IR scholars, because it creates a "strawman" version of the hypothesis that authors can cite and then knock down, demonstrating that they've grappled with contending hypotheses. I, for one, am happily citing Mandelbaum's book (among others) as sources for the argument that U.S. hegemony translates into U.S.-preferred international regulatory regimes -- which I then knock down in All Politics is Global.

4) There's money in them thar books. 9/11 and Iraq have amped up the demand for bigthink IR books and the quality of the supply is uncertain. Every author thinks they're going to hit the motherlode. And who are we to begrudge them the effort?

UPDATE: Nick Borst posts another excellent reason in the comments: they're the gateway drug for more rigorous IR scholarship. To cranky codgers like Nexon and I, it is easy to detect when a popular book is riffing off of a scholarly idea. If you're in high school or an undergraduate, however, every idea seems new. It wil be far easier for your average 18 year old to absorb IR theory from Mandelbaum than from those expressly writing for a scholarly audience.

posted by Dan on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM


"Every author thinks they're going to hit the motherlode. And who are we to begrudge them the effort?"

What? Academics envious? No that can't be.

posted by: Robert Schwartz on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

The reason policy makers don't pay much attention to IR literature is that most IR literature is really ridiculous. It's not that it works on paper but fails in the real world. It's that it doesn't even work on paper.

Parsimony. LOL.

posted by: John on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

There is a great Kinsley column about how authors of books should really be writing magazine articles, because they can make their point without spending a year or more writing, and no one's going to read the book anyway.

posted by: alkali on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

I think these types of books can be great, they are really accessible to people without a background in I.R.

Personally, I started out on books like these and eventually worked my ways up to hard hitting serious I.R. publications.

Though I.R. scholars can safely disregard most of the theories in these books as rehashes, they are invaluable for bringing new people into the discussion.

posted by: Nick Borst on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

Nexon and I?

posted by: Crankygrammarian on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

These are books are great when you're tenured. Money, baby. But for the untenured, no matter how sensible or well-intentioned or well-written or informative or useful for policymakers or well-received, the navel-gazers and IR snobs will sniff down their noses and dismiss it as "not serious."

More's the pity.

posted by: Hemlock for Gadflies on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

Nick Borst hit the nail on the head, atleast for me.

When I started to get interested in world events in middle/high school I didn't run out to the library and pick up a copy of American Political Science Review (even if I had I wouldn't of understood a word of it). Instead I went to Barnes and Noble and picked up books just like The Case for Goliath. In my case it was Thomas Friedman's Lexus and the Olive Tree.

These books led me to entering college as a political science student and the POL survey classes introduced me academic literature. The end result was an acceptance into a Ph.D program (which I start in the fall).

Journalists/writers like Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum create the next generation of political science academics.

posted by: Chris Albon on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

I haven't read Mandelbaum's latest, but I did start his last book. Yes, "start." Mandelbaum is definitely writing for the young reader about whom Chris Albon so sloppily writes. (Crankygrammarian: I'd like to join the club.)

I'll never start another Mandelbaum book. While I agree with Nick Borst's point, there are so many better places to start -- in general, I'd recommend historians over political scientists to any middle- or high-school student.

And, "alkali" is onto something: there's not much political science that is better as a book than as a paper.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

The Daily Show Interview Page lists the 16 most recent guests.

There are 7 authors promoting their books, 5 actors, 3 columnists (all of whom have written books) and a musician.

So that's 62.5% author, pretty impressive.

posted by: Jacob on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

"Every author thinks they're going to hit the motherlode. And who are we to begrudge them the effort?"

Every author should learn grammar before he (or she) puts pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).

God save the English language!

posted by: Econoclast on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

Andrew you’re not a crankygrammarian, my comment was just sloppy. Serves me right for typing while talking on the phone!

posted by: Chris Albon on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

I hesitate to even post here with all of you pedants ready to strike. If Mandelbaum, Friedman, and others are for elementary and high school students, then what would you recommend as the next level? At least provide the name of a periodical or text for the unwashed masses! Foreign Policy? Foreign Affairs? Do I need to know a secret handshake or something?

posted by: Doug on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

Building on point 1: the popular books seem to me to usually be an effort to translate IR theory - which almost by definition is a backward-looking effort to provide a framework for explaining events that have taken place in the past - into forward looking policies recommendations.

I'm not much of an academic, but I have to believe that once you've put the time and energy into studying a problem, you really really want to tell people what to do about it, or at least why your explanation of a past event or pattern of events relates to current (or future) ones. You can't do that much in peer-review since there's no clearly testable hypothesis in a recommendation for future policies.

posted by: Masaryk on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

ditto on Chris Albon's comment, completely.

As for Doug's question about reading, I also wonder what folks could consider wuality intermediate reading - beyond pop stuff like Friedman, yet not academic texts. FA is good, also the Economist.

posted by: b. phillips on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

And there I go, adding fodder for the grammar/spelling police. Of course I meant "quality"...

Perhaps all of us of the younger generation should focus on one task at a time.

posted by: b. phillips on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

Doug: Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy are good. For heavy-duty theory, try International Security.

posted by: Les Brunswick on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

Jane Austen and the singular "their"


posted by: Doug (from Fistful) on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

As a IR-obsessed 16-year-old, I feel obliged to say that I actually prefer more scholarly IR work to popular work. About a month ago, I read The Twenty Year's Crisis and Richard Haass' The Opportunity in quick succession, and had such wiplash that, even considering how good many of Haass' policy recommendations were, I found the book hard to enjoy.

posted by: Minipundit on 03.30.06 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

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