Daniel W. Drezner

How political scientists should tackle the Big Issues

How political scientists should tackle the Big Issues

There’s some interesting stuff a brewin’ in the world politics blogosphere.

Over at Duck of Minerva, Daniel Nexon notes that world politics journals have done a pretty piss-poor job of addressing Big Issues — you know, things like the 2008 financial crisis.  He then asks how political science journals can properly address such questions:

[N]ot a few people argue that the whole point of academic international-relations work is to avoid faddishness and overly speculative claims about unfolding events. Anyone who has ever heard “journalism” used as an insult knows one version of this line of argument. Still, the fact that international-relations articles usually genuflect in the direction of policy relevance suggests that even those in this camp think journals should have contemporary salience.

I’m not visiting this well-trod terrain to provoke a meta-argument about scholarship. Rather, I’m curious what “big” questions deserve more attention in our journals. The nature and dynamics of contemporary economic order strikes me as an obvious candidate, but what else is out there? And how ought such questions be addressed in a way that maintains a commitment to scholarly rigor–in its myriad forms?

As it turns out, I think Tom Pepinsky gets at one answer in his wish list of how he’d like to reform political science journals.  One of his requests is a return to the long review essay — that is, a full paper devoted to just one Big Book: 

I’m not sure if the practice of writing long peer-reviewed essays on major books has disappeared because no one wants to write such essays, or because journals won’t publish them anymore, or won’t subject them to peer review. But I do know that in the humanities, and especially in disciplines like history which remain book fields, the practice of writing long, peer-reviewed reviews of major books has survived….

My experience writing long review essays is limited (I have done precisely one). But that essay made a key theoretical point, and so long as books continue to be published in political science—and they will—we should give professional credit to long, serious, and peer-reviewed essays that strive to make similar theoretical contributions in response to recent scholarship. Even if they concentrate on just one major work. After all, that is the natural way to foster the rigorous and critical exchange that drives the discipline forward.

So, to answer Dan’s question, I think one way that journals can engage in Big Topical Questions that have a dearth of rigorous scholarship is to engage in the Big Books that are out there in a critical way.  Looking at my library, for example, I see the following ten books that I’d argue merit a full-blown review essay in World Politics, International Organization, or Perspectives on Politics:

1.  Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, This Time Is Different.

2.  Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

3.  Dani Rodrik, The Globalization Paradox.

4.  Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail.

5.  Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats.

6.  Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire.

7.  Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here.

8.  G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan.

9.  Angus Burgin, The Great Persuasion.

10. Mark Blyth, Austerity.

Now, note a few things about this list.  First, they’re all tackling big topics:  the secular decline in violence, the persistence of financial crises, the limits of technological solutionism, the rise of global inequality, and the significance of economic ideas.  These are big, meaty, enduring topics that are not going to disappear anytime soon.  These are not faddish books.   

Second, political scientists did not write most of these books — even though they cover topics pertaining to political scientists.  One way  to look at this is to sniff at such foolhardy outworlders and go about one’s business.  I’d suggest that a better way of responding is to imbibe these works but point out the ways in which pre-existing political science scholarship addresses or exposes some of flaws or weaknesses in their approaches — and vice versa.   

Finally, many of these books would not qualify as "rigorous" in the social science-y sense of the word.  And that’s OK — the point of a good review essay is to apply rigor to ideas and theses that might be compelling but also might be eliding logical inconsistencies.  Pointing out the ways in which political scientists can rigorously test sweeping claims is in and of itself useful.  Projects born out of such efforts — say, Giacomo Chiozza’s Anti-Americanism and the American World Order — are extremely valuable.  Indeed, this might be the best way for journals to wrestle with big and topical ideas without losing their rigor. 

So that’s my (poached) suggestion.  Offer up your own in the comments.