Daniel W. Drezner

No one let Alan Wolfe study international relations

I see that Alan Wolfe has an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education decrying the state of the political science discipline. Wolfe makes a few well-worn but not completely worthless points — and then we get to this paragraph: Putting reality first would not only make political science more interesting, it would also make ...

I see that Alan Wolfe has an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education decrying the state of the political science discipline. Wolfe makes a few well-worn but not completely worthless points — and then we get to this paragraph:

Putting reality first would not only make political science more interesting, it would also make it more scientific…. Suppose, for example, we want to predict whether negotiations between historically hostile parties will produce an accord, or fail and result in war. Rather than search for universal laws, we are better off examining a concrete case ? for example, the negotiations that brought Nelson Mandela to power in South Africa ? and then seeing whether the conditions there are similar or different from those in, say, Northern Ireland or the Middle East. The real world contains a great deal of uncertainty, which makes perfect prediction impossible. But it also offers enough regularity to permit modest generalization, especially if we are willing to acknowledge the possibility of error and to revise our expectations accordingly.

I have two reactions to this suggestion. The first is to stop and gaze with awe at Wolfe’s ability to unconsciously mimic those Guinness-in-the-bottle ads that were all over television last year:

Alan Wolfe: I’ve invented a new way of studying crisis negotiations… it’s called the “case study”. Random Political Scientist: The Case study? BRILLIANT!!!

My second reaction is to ponder the logical implications of Wolfe’s suggestion. Surely Wolfe must be aware of the dangers that come from generalizing from the study of a single case — there are too many possible explanations. Wolfe would likely respond that the way to compensate is to assemble as many relevant examples of the category of interest as possible, and then determine what combination of factors is important. Now there’s a name for this kind of approach in political science — behavioralism. Such an approach can be useful (see, for example, the CIA’s State Failure Task Force from the 1990’s) but presents two rather important problems. First, these approaches — just like any other social science technique — generate methodological controversies (see, for example, Gary King and Langche Zeng’s methodological rejoinder to the State Failure Task Force, or this summary of the debate in Nature). Methodology doesn’t just matter for its own sake — there are real world implications. Second, pure behavioralism of the kind suggested by Wolfe is tricky without any theoretical guidance. Throwing a kitchen sink of variables at a question is not of much use unless the researcher has a good grasp of the relationships among these seemingly independent causes. Rational choice approaches are one useful tool, but there are others as well. If Wolfe had provided an American politics example, I probably wouldn’t have written this post (and, to be fair, Wolfe is riffing off of Ian Shapiro’s latest book, The Flight From Reality in the Human Sciences, which I haven’t read but is likely worth reading). But the IR example he offers is a powerful suggestion that Wolfe hasn’t peered into the pages of either International Organization or International Security in quite some time. There are case studies — as well as statistical analyses, formal models, social theory, and other types of analysis — in those journals. If the rest of the discipline wants to copy international relations more closely, fine with me. But I don’t think Wolfe has lookec closely at how IR is actually studied. I think that I’ve demonstrated my subfield’s close attention to the real world, so if you’ll excuse me, I have to run to hear a paper presentation. [What’s it about?–ed. Sovereignty and the UFO. You’re f#@%ing kidding me!–ed. No, I’m really not.]

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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