IR Wonks vs. IR Journals

Dan Drezner declares that "Policy wonks ignore political science journals at their peril."

Dan Drezner takes issue with my recent post on “Professionalization and Marginalization of the International Relations Field,” especially my assertion that “The academic study of IR has divorced itself from the real world study of the actual conduct of international relations.” He declares that “Policy wonks ignore political science journals at their peril.”

He finds three articles in the latest issue of the American Political Science Review that he believes relevant to IR policy types and several more in the latest issue of International Studies Quarterly. The former is available only to those with subscriptions but the latter is available for all to peruse online. I haven’t the time or inclination to go into the issue in great detail at the moment but can dismiss most of the articles offhand as being uninteresting to me simply because they’re not in my areas of specialization. But there are indeed a half a dozen articles that, judging from their title, would be of interest to security scholars:

Additionally, there are several “Controversy” pieces that are column-style essays, including The Twenty-First Century Will Not Be a “Post-American” World by Joseph S. Nye Jr.

Granted, some of the articles obviously have the issue that policy wonks have with quantitative studies, namely that they’re time bound because of the vagaries of datasets. Studies published in 2012 about things that happened a decade ago are less useful than they would have been while the operation was still subject to policymaking. But others would appear to be more standard Lessons Learned studies that indeed have policy relevance.

The NATO piece by Saideman and Auserswald is particularly relevant to my work and it is indeed quite readable. The only “academic” quirk is the combination of distracting parenthetical citations of the literature, oddly juxtaposed with a ridiculously large number of explanatory footnotes. Aside from that, though, it’s a readable analysis largely free from jargon and entirely free from the data dump of quantitative research.

The Civil War Intervention piece by Biddle and company is a quantitative piece but one that’s readable. Granted, it uses the basic regression analysis that was en vogue when I was in grad school, so I’m at least familiar with the language.

The International Boundary Agreements piece by Owsiak is more of a piece with the type of research I had in mind in my original post. It asks an interesting set of questions and provides answers that are readable to intelligent policy wonks, even those without significant quantitative training. But it’s highly unlikely that it’ll actually be read by said wonks, whether at their peril or otherwise. In addition to the distracting lit review dump, there are five competing hypotheses, an absurdly long methodology section, and an empirical findings section that looks more intimidating than it is because of the CODED VARIABLE and number/symbol dump. More importantly, while the conclusions are finally presented in straightforward prose, the analysis that leads there is entirely reliant on the data analysis rather than theory/example.

At the end of the day, I’m sure Dan is right: there’s plenty of worthwhile academic research in the IR field that policy wonks and policymakers could benefit from reading. But most of it is presented in such a way that they’re not going to read it. Further, the inclusion of one or two “policy wonk friendly” pieces in a journal that has a reputation for being unreadable likely means that the journal itself will get ignored by wonks, with their pieces either getting lost in the shuffle or getting to the wonks through some back channel.

Dan concludes with a “modest suggestion” to bridge the gap:

First, wonks should flip through at recent issues of APSR and ISQ —and hey, peruse International OrganizationInternational 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.

The obvious compromise solution: Have your interns go through the journals, extract the handful that are potentially valuable, and summarize the analysis.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Hey Norm says:

    Well this post is certainly not designed to yield page-views…I’ll give you that.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Hey Norm: Heh. Sometimes, I write blog posts rather than engage in a string of back-and-forth Twitter posts.

  3. Rick DeMent says:

    And yet these are the OTB posts I find the most engaging even as I will to admit to wading into the political food fights.

  4. dennis says:

    James, thanks for this and the previous related post. Just makes me realize, I ain’t as smart as I think I am. I agree with your general posit that strictly quantitative analysis is boring to most of us who like to get to the meat of a subject. At the same time (not being that smart), I do find statistical datasets interpretive of behavioral/psychological/motivational trends being studied.

    But I appreciate the posts. They steered me to new sources I hadn’t known about.

  5. dennis says:

    To put a hilarious note on your point:

    How to Write Like a Scientist

  6. Eric Florack says:

    Drezner’s writings have usually been worthwhile reading, over the years. (Even though I’ve had some rather stout disagreements with him)

    While it’s true the truth is nearly never found by halving the extreme ends of arguments, I suspect in this case, the rarity; that the truth is somewhere between the two of you.