Is Social Science Too Precious for the Professionals to Hoard?

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I didn’t think a debate I’d encountered in my last International Relations methodology course would wind up appearing so quickly in the mainstream press. But here’s Justin Logan and Paul Pillar debating a question Erik Voeten so neatly reduces to “Is Political Science Too Hard for Policy-Makers?” Stephen Walt, in an article still fresh in my short-term, test-oriented memory, “The Relationship between Theory and Policy in International Relations” in Annual Review of Political Science lays out the issue succinctly.

Policy makers pay relatively little attention to the vast theoretical literature in IR, and many scholars seem uninterested in doing policy-relevant work. These tendencies are unfortunate because theory is an essential tool of statecraft. Many policy debates ultimately rest on competing theoretical visions, and relying on a false or flawed theory can lead to major foreign policy disasters. Theory remains essential for diagnosing events, explaining their causes, prescribing responses, and evaluating the impact of different policies. Unfortunately, the norms and incentives that currently dominate academia discourage many scholars from doing useful theoretical work in IR. The gap between theory and policy can be narrowed only if the academic community begins to place greater value on policy-relevant theoretical work.

I don’t think either side, policy-makers and professors, is dumb. I do question the short-sightedness of policy-makers for quantitative methodologies, as Voeten narrates. Quantitative methods, according to my graduate text perform three goals: identify general patterns and relationships; test theories; and, make predictions. I’m always skeptical of that third goal, but I’d bet the second goal would be quite useful in a policy setting.

But, I’d like to avoid the aridity of the Logan-Pillar debate. Joseph Nye, Jr. argued that “…scholars teach theory and methods that are relevant to other academics but not to the majority of the students sitting in the classroom before them.” Honestly, does “realism” mean anything to you? I’m thinking of Henry Kissinger and the Spartans. How about Dr. Strangelove and nukes? Would you prefer to go into an argument about FTA armed with Ricardo or Smith? Logan and Pillar are just as bad myopic as the Washington elites they are trying to impress. It’s not just scholars and policy-makers who need a little theory. Every reader – dare I say, “citizen” – here needs it, too. Our lives are too complicated to be left to squabbling hacks and professors, with journalists trying to court one or the other.

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Filed under: Academia, Politics, Social Science, USA Tagged: international relations, joseph nye, political science, quantitative methodology, stephen walt, theory and practice


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