Wednesday, November 14, 2007
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What's in an M.A., redux
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Rob Farley have fired additional volleys on the utility of an M.A. in international relations.
Except that with this round, the debate is actually about something more fundamental -- the utility of international relations theory to policymaking.
These paragraphs suggest where Jackson is coming from:
[W]here it gets controversial is the relationship between scholarship and object. We have two ideal-typical positions on this: scholarship ought to improve practice, and scholarship can't possibly improve practice, at least not directly. Rob clearly prefers door #1; I prefer door #2. Rob's position is the classic Enlightenment hope for the sciences of society: place practice on a more rational basis, achieve better results, produce a world that looks more like the world we want to live in; I think that's both dangerous and a little naive -- dangerous because it puts a potential transcendental justification for coercion in the hands of would-be reformers (after all, if the experts told us that we can do this, and you disagree, then you're either stupid or obstinate, and in either way you're in the way so forcibly removing you starts to look like a good idea) and naive because it presumes that scholarly knowledge translates more or less simply to the actual world (and once again, if it doesn't, maybe we ought to use force to make the world look more like the model . . .).Farley's response to this is here. My response is below the fold....
From this excerpt, I've concluded that Jackson is likely correct that he should not be teaching anyone in an M.A. program. I am more skeptical that this stricture should be applied to others.
The problem with Jackson's argument is that it sets up a false dichotomy. Neither ideal type holds, and most profs in policy schools are smart enough to know that. International relations theory provides some useful constructs through which one can interpret world politics. Now -- and this is important -- they are far from perfect. Most IR theories -- hell, most social science theories -- do a much better job at after-the-fact explanation than before-the-fact prediction. In teaching them, therefore, one has to be wary of having your students believe that what they are learning is some sort of gospel. [This, by the way, is one reason why an M.A. has value-added -- most M.A. students eventually realize that sometime there is no right answer to a question. B.A. students are more reluctant to believe that the Wizards of IR are not all-powerful.]
Why teach theory at all, then? Two quick answers. First. to paraphrase Churchill, IR theory is a lousy rotten way of understanding the world -- until you consider the alternatives. Policymakers who claim to disdain abstract theories just use implicit ones -- poorly chosen historical analogies, bad metaphors, you name it. Jackson's "intellectually isolationist" approach to teaching policy doesn't make the situation any better -- it just deprives would-be policymakers of a component in their analytical tool kit.
Second, good teachers don't just teach the strengths of a particular theoretical approach -- they also teach the weaknesses and blind spots of each approach. This is the "procedural liberalism" that Michael Berube is so fond of. As Farley puts it:
Why wouldn't it be better if the policymakers in question had some theoretical training, such that they could, on their own, evaluate elements of the claims that the scholars are making? This IS teaching students; it's teaching students to be better, more critical policymakers.Teaching students theoretical concepts and how to critique them is a two-fer. Hopefully, it provides them with some useful knowledge about how the world works. More importantly, however, it should teach them how to judge for themselves about how the world works. That's the best way to get students to temper the idealism that scares the crap out of Jackson.
Oh, one last point -- Jackson's sabremetric metaphor is crap. The Boston Red Sox have been successful in the past half-decade because of a combination of sabremetric analysis, traditional scouting, and a larger budget to fill out the roster. Sabremetrics was not solely responsible -- but without it, there's no way they win two World Series either.
This is how IR scholarship should be viewed as well -- an insufficient but necessary base of knowledge from which one can craft effective policies.
A quick and related point on this: Any good teacher of IR theory at any level will harp over and over to students that any set of theories, schools of thought, or theoretical traditions are not ideologies or gospels, but simply tools. One of the problems however, is the tendency in academia to label people as structural realists, liberals, etc. Too many students (even if only semi-consciously) pick up on this and begin to use theories as if they were much more than just a simple explanatory device for a particular real-world phenomenon. PTJ is right in the regard that this can be scary, even if Dan's paraphrasing of Churchill remains apt.posted by: andrew on 11.14.07 at 11:58 PM [permalink]
I think that Andrew -and PTJ- has a point there. Students do have the tendency to get the theories and use them to explain anything and everything.
This can be a problem with the MA mentality as opposed to a Ph.D. mentality. When you re doing an MA, the idea is "give me anything that I can use in my desired line of work". In the Ph.D. the idea is "what is wrong with what I am reading?". The latter is a very useful because it allows you to develop genuinely autonomous critical thinking.
Having said that, it's common sense that professionals should have the theoretical background to fall back on. It's clearly better to have it than not to have it. And as years pass and maturity sets, I think that knowledge becomes more mature as well.posted by: Nick Kaufman on 11.14.07 at 11:58 PM [permalink]
Sabremetrically? Is he serious? Sounds like he studied for a "BS" degree rather than and MA.posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 11.14.07 at 11:58 PM [permalink]
If we hypothesize that a chicken, an infant, a disc jockey, a soldier, and a foreign service officer all have certain views of how the world works, and they probably have different views of how the world works, and they have differing levels of accuracy in their understanding of how the world works (I am sure none of this is controversial), then we can conclude that there are more or less right ways to interpret the world.
"scholarship can't possibly improve practice, at least not directly -- in part because people claiming to have Reason/God/Truth on their sides ("Jesus/Buddha/Muhammad/science likes my policy better!") have been responsible for most of the senseless death in human history"
Thus, this viewpoint is the most stupid form of self-righteous self-abnegation imaginable. He is really saying his own view is no better than a chicken's, and having any confidence in his own view is actually worse, because confidence is a source of mass murder? Sheer buffoonery.
Having said that, he (and you, and the field of IR) are simply stuck. If we accept my postulate-that a child, chicken, disc jockey, soldier, and FSO have differing and differently valuable understandings of international relations-you simply have to accept that some behaviors yield more valuable understanding than others (for instance, serving as an FSO in Baghdad is probably more valuable than eating worms in the barn). And if you accept that some behaviors yield more value than others, well, what behaviors are they?
Your response is problematic-"IR theory is the worst predictor, except for all the others"- its glib, but doesn't really answer. WHY is IR theory better than, say, practical experience?
And finally, to respond to your own viewpoint. I have worked overseas, and served overseas, have an MA (in political theory), considered studying IR theory. My own viewpoint is that "Practical experience is the worst predictor of International Relations, except for all the others." Academic study of theory is far below that. In fact, I would probably qualify Jackson-I agree with him, but for different reasons. I don't think IR theory is a waste of time because I'm afraid that believing in myself will make me a mass murderer (as you can see, I'm ill-suited for academia). I think IR theory is a waste of time because it isn't the best way to understand something. If you want to learn IR, go to Russia and negotiate an arms treaty, or serve in the military (in only certain ranks, in only certain areas of responsibility) and manage a response in Haiti, or join the foreign service and define trade policy in Africa (or join the Peace Corps, or-and so on).
So what is IR theory? Its just a fun hobby (like philosophy). I will read philosophy off and on for the rest of my life-I like puzzles, I like the intellectual challenge of it. You will read IR theory for the rest of your life, for largely the same reasons. I tried IR theory, but found that I enjoy computer games more. You may attempt to gussy up your hobby with big words to make it sound like more than a hobby (and there aren't many hobbies for which one gets paid, so that helps), but its a hobby nonetheless. Realism vs. Liberal
Skposted by: Sk on 11.14.07 at 11:58 PM [permalink]
When I taught in a policy school, I thought the MA in international relations/studies/policy essentially useless--not because of the material, or the faculty, but because of the students. Overwhelmingly, they seek an MA because (1) they like other countries, which is good; (2) they don't want a PhD, which is good (for them); and (3) they don't know what they *do* want or why they are there, which is very bad.
The lack of purpose drags down every class, and it dragged down me as instructor, too.
In contrast, the domestic policy students (and classes) at the same school were great. They were focused and knew why they were there.posted by: arthur on 11.14.07 at 11:58 PM [permalink]
The problem with averring that practical experience beats IR theory any day of the week is that the idea that practical experience exists without some hidden assumptions of the practitioner is a myth. All policymakers, FSO's etc. have hidden assumptions (assumptions that they may not even fully realize) about how the world works. IR Theory can simply assist in helping to realize what these assumptions are. For example, do you think democracy is worth spreading because it is a really strong force for interstate peace? If so, reading some Michael Doyle or Bruce Russet might clarify your thoughts (or help change your mind if you find his argument problematic). If you think the democratic peace argument sounds a bit off reading some Christopher Layne will do the same thing. Even more, one can measure the affect of this line of thought on ideology and policy since it appeared in the mid-80s.
Or if we are talking about negotiations, then reading Putnam's 2-level games argument will help you appreciate the forces, domestic and international, that affect talks among state officials.
It is very true that it can't tell any decision-maker what to do in a given situation or predict exactly how they will act, but it does work to help anyone who cares about international relations appreciate the pressures policymakers are under, thus helping shape our expectations about what is actually possible.posted by: andrew on 11.14.07 at 11:58 PM [permalink]
And not to beat a dead horse on this with examples, but... if you want to judge the degree to which, say, that new train line running between North and South Korea might help soften the relationship between these two countries reading Robert Keohane's and Joe Nye's work on complex interdependence might help.posted by: andrew on 11.14.07 at 11:58 PM [permalink]
And then, of course, consider that people both North and South may well have read Keohane and Nye, and their perceptions of K&N's predictions will affect how they decide about trains and consequences.posted by: Doug on 11.14.07 at 11:58 PM [permalink]
Doug's comment reveals the fundamental problem of all IR theory and why it can never be the pure social science that KKV would want it to be-- there is a huge endogenaity problem in IR theory (see Ido Oren on this). So, yes, IR theory sucks at prediction, and honestly, I think that theorists who claim prediction as a goal for IR theory are tilting at windmills and doing more harm to the discipline than good. Indeed, the KKV project is not helping in this fashion. Morgenthau understood this.
That said, I think there is a use for teaching IR theory to MA students. In fact, I'm doing it now, teaching IR theory to 21 MA students who all hope to be FSO's and reporters and AID workers and such.
Andrew's point is an important one. All policy makers who claim the uselessness of theory and trumpet the value of experience forget that all the experience they have is formed by some IR theory somewhere. Theoretical training can help you interrogate, clarify, and make arguments for or against policy, it can help you figure out how policy ideas work conceptually, giving you, the policy maker, a framework for making sense of what is going on.
So, to those in the policy world who poo-poo theory, I think that you are doing a great disservice to yourself and theory.
My reply here.posted by: ProfPTJ on 11.14.07 at 11:58 PM [permalink]
"Andrew's point is an important one. All policy makers who claim the uselessness of theory and trumpet the value of experience forget that all the experience they have is formed by some IR theory somewhere."
How is that an improvement?
Practical experience gurus learn from practical experience, but don't question their basic assumptions.
IR Theorists question those basic assumptions. But they ALSO have basic, unquestioned assumptions. Everybody does. No matter how deep you dig into your own soul, you will never get to an unvarnished, 'assumptionless' set of knowledge. All you can do is question at a given level. Any time you do so, you have (perhaps) eliminated one set of assumptions, but replaced them with a different set.
So pragmatists learn X, but operate with basic assumptions X(1). Theorists point out that X(1) are not knowlege, but are preconceptions. Unfortunately, they are operating under their own preconceptions X(2). This is subject to infinite regress, of course.
For theory to be genuinely beneficial, you have to prove preconception X(2) -( or X(3), or X(4), or however deep you are able to dig)- is better than preconception X(1). And that is impossible to do. It may coincidentally be better. But it isn't necessarily better (it may coincidentally be worse). All it does is give you rhetorical ammunition-you can point out your opponent's preconceptions (and you may very well be right), but you cannot point out-you cannot even identify-your own. If your opponent is quick on his feet, he will point out your preconceptions-otherwise, you will win the argument (for the moment).
" Theoretical training can help you interrogate, clarify, and make arguments for or against policy, it can help you figure out how policy ideas work conceptually, giving you, the policy maker, a framework for making sense of what is going on."
Socrates would call you a rhetoritician (sp?). Theory offers debate training. On this, I agree.
Believe me, I used to be one of you. I like reading theoretical stuff. But I have to be honest-my views were more defined by my parents, and how socially successful I was in high school (just like everyone else), tempered over time by my adult experiences in life.
"... if you want to judge the degree to which, say, that new train line running between North and South Korea might help soften the relationship between these two countries reading Robert Keohane's and Joe Nye's work on complex interdependence might help."
Oh, come on.
Skposted by: Sk on 11.14.07 at 11:58 PM [permalink]
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