Daniel W. Drezner

Policy wonks ignore academic political science journals at their own peril

Policy wonks ignore academic political science journals at their own peril

A few days ago Dan Nexon went on a pretty epic rant filled with mixed emotions about the increased professionalization of Ph.D. programs in political science.  Well, not professionalization in general, but rather the tilt of current professionalization trends towards the mathematical.  To be clear, Nexon doesn’t think this is an unalloyed bad, and would probably make the same recommendation I have made about the need to get comfortable with math.  I think Nexon’s discomfort comes from the systemic implications for the discipline that comes from every graduate student responding to these incentives.

Dan’s post has prompted multiple responses, including Steve Saideman and Erik Voeten, that are worth reading.  I’ll try to articulate some of my own thoughts on the matter over the weekend.  For now, however, I want to respond to James Joyner’s reply.  As a Ph.D. in political science who then left the church entered the policy world, James sympathizes with Nexon’s rant and articulates what I fear is a common lament for foreign policy wonks: 

The down side, though, is that the academic study of IR has divorced itself from the real world study of the actual conduct of international relations. Those who serve in government and work in the IR-focused think tanks tend to go to the public policy schools rather than mainline PhD programs. And the work being done by academics in IR is largely irrelevant and inaccessible to the policy community. Indeed, I can’t remember the last time I picked up a copy of International Studies Quarterly, much less the American Political Science Review. Frankly, I’m not sure I could read those journals at this point if I wanted to.

Joyner makes two claims here:  a) the substance of academic political science has become too divorced from policy; and b) regardless of the substance, the methods and the modeling are no so arcane that these articles can’t be processed. 

You know what?  Let’s take a look at the latest issues of International Studies Quarterly and American Political Science Review to see if Joyner (and, tangentially, Nexon) is correct about his twin assertions:  that academic political science is working on policy irrelevant issues, and has anyway become too hard for policy wonks to digest. 

Joyner has half a point with respect to the APSR.  Because that is one of the flagship journals, and because the lion’s share of political scientists are not doing IR or comparative, the bulk of the articles published in that journal are targeted towards Americanists and political theorists.  The February 2012 issue is no exception:  six of the nine research essays would be uninteresting to Joyner (though, ironically, one of those is a critique of experimental methodology). 

On the other hand, the three remaining essays are both pretty damn interesting and policy relevant.  John Freeman and Dennis Quinn’s article on the effect of financial liberalization in autocratic states puts forward an easy-to-comprehend causal logic.  It’s also hugely policy relevant if you’re interested in authoritarian capitalism — in fact, I cited it in a blog post last week.  I should have also cited the other relevant APSR article in this issue — by Victor Shih, Christopher Adolph and Mingxing Liu — on the determinants of promotion to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.  Fortunately, Erik Voeten caught this for me. 

That leaves Faisal Ahmed’s essay on aid and remittances, which raises the problematic point that autocratic governments will exploit large remittance flows to substitute away from public goods to policies that favor narrow ruling coalitions, thereby extending their stay in power.  All three articles use econometric methods to estimate large-N regressions — but the causal stories are pretty easy to get.   In my experience, this is a typical issue of the APSR:  I probably only care about two or three articles per issue, but they tend to be pretty interesting. 

As for ISQ, there are thirteen research articles, and I’m not gonna go through all of them in such detail.  You should, however, because access to this issue is free for everyone!  Going over the essays, I’d say that ten out of the thirteen have direct policy relevance — i.e., they contain an explanation or hypothesis that would be extremely useful to either an operational policymaker or a strategic planner.  As for the methodological barriers, of the thirteen articles in the issue, nine of them follow the same blueprint:  a pretty simple and accessible theoretical section, followed by large-N testing on a data set.  Three of the articles had both a readily accessible theory and used qualitative methods for their data testing.  Only one article would fall under the "too inaccessible to read" category. 

I think the academic/policy divide has been wildly overblown, but here’s my modest suggestion on how to bridge it even further.  First, wonks should flip through at recent issues of APSR and ISQ — and hey, peruse International Organization, International Security, and World Politics while you’re at it.  You’d find a lot of good, trenchant, policy-adjacent stuff.  Second, might I suggest that authors at these journals be allowed to write a second abstract — and abstract for policymakers, if you will?  Even the most jargonesed academic should be able to pull off one paragraph of clean prose.  Finally, wonks should not be frightened by statistics.  That is by far the dominant "technical" barrier separating these articles from general interest reader. 

Am I missing anything?