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Professionalization and Marginalization of International Relations Field

Continuing a running debate at Duck of Minerva and elsewhere, Dan Nexon argues that the takeover of the international relations academy by quantitative researchers has seriously damaged the field but nonetheless advises those who wish to be employed therein to get with the program. The piece is worth reading in full but the upshot is that, while it might be desirable for would-be IR professors to spend their undergraduate years grappling with theory and only move into statistics mode later in one’s professional progression,

1. It’s next to impossible to get into a top tier IR graduate program without evidence of substantial quantitative background;

2. There’s not much point in developing unique theoretical perspectives, anyway, because they’re only rewarded at a tertiary level even after grad school;

3. There are too many PhDs chasing too many tenure track jobs and hiring committees care mostly about the ability to crank out stats-driven articles;

4. The pressure to crank out a lot of stats-driven articles has in turn pressured journal editors to publish more, shorter articles that strip out any discussion of theory, since the numbers are the point; and

5. These trends are self-reinforcing as people who came up in this environment are now at the top of the discipline and regard outliers with grave suspicion if not outright contempt.

These trends were well in evidence when I started my PhD twenty years ago but the acceleration has been tremendous. The tools were about to take a quantum change just as I was beginning my dissertation in 1994. Then, in order to do substantial large-N regression analysis, one had to order tapes of the datasets, arrange for time on the mainframe, and then hand-code the analytics. Not only was this cumbersome but, frankly, I was never confident in the outputs since it was more than possible that I’d made an error in the coding. By the mid- and certainly late-1990s, it was possible to do the work on one’s personal computer and use pre-loaded formulas. This has made doing statistical analysis markedly easier but at the same time upped the threshold; new political science research uses statistical techniques that either hadn’t been invented when I was in grad school or at least hadn’t migrated into the social sciences.

While I’m not a quant guy, there’s a lot of merit to all of this. My interest has always been public policy rather than “political science” per se but I’ve long since come around to the position that John Oneal was arguing two decades ago–that the lack of rigor in much if not most of the public policy analysis field rendered the work rather meaningless. Indeed, I’m shocked how repetitive the debate is. Arguments that seemed fresh in the early 1990s when applied to the Balkans seem tired now when applied to North Africa–but it’s as if those earlier debates never happened.

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.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.


  1. superdestroyer says:

    Is there any academic field where the situation of too many PhDs chasing too few tenure tracked positions exists?

    Is there any field in the social sciences where statistical analysis has not grown since it has become so easy to do? Is there any field in the hard sciences where the use of statistical analysis has not grown?

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  2. NoZe says:

    Given that we were in the same program at the same time, it’s not surprising that my experiences mirror your own! I did a very quantitative dissertation under Oneal and was lucky that stats software for personal computers was available by the mid-1990s. Now that I’m working in the policy field I rarely if ever look at the professional journals!

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  3. SKI says:

    This just confirms my decision in the early 90’s to scrap the PhD route and go to law school. :-\

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  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Like economics international relations is a science of human behavior. The ideal practitioner would be a keen observer, armed with an understanding of people, the theory of international relations, the ability to gather data, and a comprehensive knowledge of the tools for analyzing that data.

    Human beings are not perfect gases (although in some instances I have my doubts) or uniform solids. Eliminating the first two elements enumerated in favor of the latter three merely provides the appearance of rigor. IR will become uninteresting and irrelevant, a poor pastiche of physics.

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  5. milprof says:


    Good post. I’m someone of the same vintage and share your sense of being torn between a policy world that is interesting and fully of important questions — which are being answered in a terribly slipshod way, and an academic world where incredibly sophisticated tools are used to tell us ever more about the fine structure of correlations between POLITY and MID, and damn little about the world.

    I’ve settled more on the policy side professionally. I admit it’s partly for selfish reasons: it’s more fun being on the fringes of the policy world and at least reading the high-tech IR stuff when I want to, than it would be to sit in an office at State U. cranking out my next JCR submission and spending all my time hanging out with other people working on JCR articles.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Eliminating the first two elements enumerated in favor of the latter three merely provides the appearance of rigor. IR will become uninteresting and irrelevant, a poor pastiche of physics.

    This is precisely my concern. The best can in fact do all three. John Oneal, who was essentially half of the IR faculty at Alabama when I was there, was such a creature. He was simultaneously brilliant at mathematics, keenly interested in the human experience, and deeply concerned about the theoretical questions involved. He was an honor graduate of West Point who went to Vietnam, resigned his commission as a conscientious objector at a point where he no longer had any personal risk, and then went to Stanford for his PhD and applied an Army officer’s work ethic to his craft. But I encountered far too many quantitative scholars who seemed to have no real interest in politics or human endeavors and simply cranked out research.

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  7. sam says:

    The problem here, as elsewhere, is that it’s all too easy to become seduced by the apparent rigor of quantitative analysis. The models and formulas produce a false sense of intellectual power. A false sense of omniscience. As if the messiness of the human world is really reducible to some kind of decision procedure. As an antidote to the Platonic conception of mathematics, Wittgenstein on mathematics might be recommended. Even God cannot answer the question, “Does the sequence 777 occur in the expansion of pi”, without doing the dirty work. And even then, there is no guarantee.

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  8. Michael says:

    This is a great post. That last paragraph really hits home for me. When asked to tell people why my political science dissertation is interesting, I want to say “It’s not, which is in line with most research I’ve read in grad school.”

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  9. Alex says:

    Speaking as a physical scientist, I’d have to say you’re misusing the word “quantum”. It doesn’t mean “big” or “sudden”, it means “characterized by integer values”. A better physics metaphor would be to say that the tools “underwent a phase transition”.

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  10. James Joyner says:


    Speaking as a physical scientist, I’d have to say you’re misusing the word “quantum”. It doesn’t mean “big” or “sudden”, it means “characterized by integer values”.

    Words have different meanings in different contexts–and words that emerge as jargon in one field often come to have different, even opposite, meanings in others. In the social sciences–and ordinary speech, for that matter–quantum means exactly what you say it doesn’t.

    Quantum change … refers to sudden, dramatic, and enduring transformations that affect a broad range of personal emotion, cognition, and behavior. This phenomenon has been described since the beginnings of psychology, most notably by William James in Varieties of Religious Experience.

    Google will turn up countless other examples.

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