IR and the Public Sphere – The “Cult of Irrelevance”?

Stephen Walt

“I thought scholars like me were going to discover timeless truths about world politics, a grateful policy community would eagerly embrace our results, and then of course follow our advice… needless to say, I was dead wrong. In fact, there is a widespread sense that university-based scholarship is of declining practical value.” – Stephen Walt

Last September, Stephen Walt gave a talk at Brown University on lamenting the discipline of IR’s lack of engagement with the public sphere, and put forward some suggestions on what could be done to increase the relevance and impact of university research. (He also repeatedly blogged about this topic.)

We’d like to summarize his major points here and add our view on the debate.

IR scholars don’t reach anyone beyond their own circles

“We often tell ourselves we are speaking truth to power”, Walt said, “but most of the time the powerful aren’t listening”. In other words, while IR scholarship could in theory make important contributions to the public sphere, in practice their output doesn’t make its way to policy makers and the public. But why not?

The most important reason, according to Walt, is the gradual professionalization of academia – the reliance on specialized jargon and techniques that make our work hard for outsiders to understand and evaluate. Moreover, the criteria by which we judge ourselves systematically discourage public engagement. Writing for popular audiences is seen as a sign that an academic job candidate is “not serious”, and departments place too great an emphasis on research productivity compared to research impact. Finally, professionalization discourages academics – professors and students alike – from tackling contentious political issues, and students are taught to shy away from anything that looks like an overt political stance.

Of course there are some dangers in academics getting too close to policy makers and government. Walt argues that academics might give into the temptation to stop speaking truth to power, and instead “start telling the powerful what we think they want to hear.”

Eight suggestions to change the profession

So how do we strike a balance, as he asks, between “hyper-professionalized irrelevance” on the one hand, and “corrupt opportunism” on the other? Walt has eight suggestions:

  1. Give greater weight to real world impact when evaluating scholars and departments (important public outreach activities like blogging could be encouraged, instead of viewed with suspicion).
  2. Offer incentives for public service and engagement – academics like to get awards!
  3. Encourage junior scholars to engage with the public sphere and even seek experience outside of academia.
  4. Engage directly with policy-makers and knowledgeable citizens, especially when deciding what issues to address – ask Hillary Clinton (and John Kerry) what mystifies them!
  5. Convince university administrators to value public engagement. One way to do this is make funding bodies take into account public utility of research.
  6. Broaden the discussion of academic ethics and responsibilities; do academics have an obligation to contribute to the society that supports us?
  7. Reconfigure the entire field of international studies by distancing it from (American) political science, which relies on quantitative methodologies which are not overly well suited to IR’s unreliable or imprecise data.
  8. Place a greater emphasis on teaching – we may exert our greatest impact on the public sphere by what we do in the classroom.

Grad students’ perspective

We agree with almost all of these points (especially what he said about the immense value of blogging). From our rather limited experience as PhD students, without an in-depth knowledge of university politics and hiring processes, here are a few thoughts:

Zoe: I certainly question the utility of academic work that relies on extremely complex methods or that focuses on such narrow topics as to be completely impenetrable to a wider audience. Especially as a student of political science and IR, I can’t imagine what purpose academics in our field could possibly think they have, if not to contribute to public debate, policy-making and ultimately, (hopefully), to make things a little bit better. If you don’t think your work can do that, why do it?

Moreover, I think encouraging young academics to step outside the academy is inherently useful and shouldn’t be too hard to do – my former university provides a decent example of this. I did my MA in an International Development program where students were encouraged to take semesters off to work in the government, in embassies or with NGOs. In addition, many of the faculty in the program, and the closely linked public policy school, took public engagement very seriously – writing blogs, editorials and even books aimed at popular audiences. While development and public policy programs are much more “applied” than the discipline IR, I think that IR programs could benefit greatly from this openness to life outside the ivory tower.

Of course, I don’t think we should underestimate the dangers of too great an emphasis on the usefulness of academic research. While as individuals and as a discipline we should ask ourselves what we want our work to achieve, I also question the value of only holding academic work to outside standards. In an era of austerity and (at least in North America) some degree of conservative anti-intellectualism, academics should work to combat the idea that knowledge has no inherent value. In the past few years, the Canadian funding agencies for both social science/humanities and natural science research have reworked their criteria for funding, overtly privileging work that has direct “business” applications. I don’t think this bodes well for the future of both basic scientific research and social science work outside of economics and business schools.

Of course, this is not what Walt is talking about, but I fear that today, having “an impact” is often conflated with “is marketable”. This is not what academia should be striving for in our quest for relevance.

What about Europe / Germany?

Mathis: I wonder whether Walt’s remarks apply less or even more in the German and European context. What he says about the sociology of the field certainly rings a bell. German professors used to enjoy many privileges and I’m not sure in which direction the recent changes will move hiring and other practices.

The growing reliance on third-party funding for research probably puts scientists under increasing pressure to market their ideas. As the recent discussion about NSF funding in the U.S. has shown, politicians might pressure researchers to consider societal goals in their applications: In order to access the European Union’s funds for social science research, you’d better make sure your project contributes to the “expected impacts listed in the work programme under the relevant topic/activity”. Yet the people judging the grant proposal will not be policymakers, but fellow scholars – so the mechanisms of specialization still work.

What about selection processes within the profession? From my limited experience in applying for PhD positions, things are looking better than they used to. In the old German system, to get a professor to supervise your PhD, you had to know the person and convince her of your seriousness. Now, graduate schools seem to have a broader list of admission criteria and care about diversity. Insiders still enjoy advantages from their knowledge of how to apply, and because professors might vouch for people they know. But overall I feel the current system might be better suited to get people from different backgrounds into academia.

Given the current situation on the job market, perhaps nowadays more graduates start working on their dissertation even though they would rather work for a business or an NGO. Assuming they don’t get completely “professionalized”, they could develop into the people Walt is waiting for – eager and capable to bridge the divide between academia and the rest of the world.

What about outreach and impact? From what I have seen so far, it seems that very few political scientists are active in politics. Mostly, scientists are invited to present their research results in talk shows or interviews, but seldom make their case in favor of or against a certain proposal. They are analysts, not advocates. This role might change in expert committees with decision-making power, but even there the full-time policymakers usually dominate. (As a very famous German political scientist recently complained, “nobody listens to us professors”.)

Maybe IR scholars should try harder. As far as I know, the blogging scene is extremely underdeveloped compared to the U.S., and I don’t see many German professors on Twitter (or on opinion pages in newspapers). There seems to be some truth to Walt’s remarks about the fear to “not appear serious enough”. A former professor at FU published his hugely successful novels under a pseudonym. And the non-fiction bestseller list in Germany doesn’t exactly feature many scientists.

Finally, some stats: 52 of the 620 current members of the German parliament have studied political science. 7 out of 620 were faculty members at a university prior to joining the Bundestag. My guess is that none of them will ever read a blog about IR.

7 thoughts on “IR and the Public Sphere – The “Cult of Irrelevance”?

  1. I think the main problems are IR’s lack of interest in real practical world problems and the dismissal of normative inquiry.

    Theory, complex method etc. are in my view not the problem. Physics, chemists, psychologist, philosopher etc they all face the same problem: They work with complex jargon and methods that no one understands outside their own circles. On the contrary, I think this abstract methodological and theoretical engagement in IR is essentially necessary to produce practical relevant knowledge.

    The impact of IR depends in my view rather on the questions asked. That means IR should not pose questions that policymakers or businesses wants us to answer. It should answer the big questions like ‘what should human agents do’ to prevent e.g. climate change, a further downturn of the global economy etc., how can improve European democratic legitimation, ‘what went wrong when…’ etc.?

    These are real world problems, and yes, these questions are primarily normative ones. Can social scientists ask normative questions? Yes, they can and, yes, once more, they should! Looking back at the founding history of IR shows us that IR scholars were motivated to prevent a new war World War. The whole so-called first debate was about preventing another great war (balancing power vs cooperation). This theoretical engagement was though driven by a clear practical and normative purpose. I am asking myself what is the purpose of IR today? How norms diffuse internationally? What is the average effect of emotion on strategy selection? Is that of relevance? Yes and no; it depends, –as always – what you make of it.
    A related problem is that prevents an engagement with relevant, normative question is indeed the in mainstream political science/IR widely shared idea of being producers of ‘objective knowledge’. But what does science mean? It is a systematic, transparent procedure to generate knowledge, an orderd practice to make sense of a complex empirical reality. And this procedure is –although not completely free since it is mainly convention-driven- always subjective and thus not ‘objective’. In this sense I would argue that systematic normative analysis has to be put be forward! I am convinced it would IR do a great favor in gaining more practical relevance!

    But for research to be practically relevant it must also be good. And that implies, first, rigorous ontological, epistemological and methodological reflection. These reflections affect how problematize an issue (‘why something happened’) and what recommendations we tend to put forward (‘what should actors do accordingly’). Second, it implies also to be as explicit as possible. This means also to name the things by their name. What do you we mean when we talk about ‘the political’, ‘discourse’, ‘interests’, ‘effects’ etc. Being self-conscious is though of great importance. It helps us to communicate. In this sense, it gives us IR students also the self-confidence in making a point a public debate. And this public engagement is –as put forward by Walt – of real importance. I think IR scholars love very much their ivory tower (maybe because they ask sometimes so boring questions or simply – and hopefully not – because they are asocial nerds); in particular, they love looking down at ‘simple people’ (as recently formulated by a visiting professor in a talk at the Hertie) and looking up to practioner. Some reflection on the self-understanding of the purpose of a scientist would thus indeed be of help. In this context, it is a sad story that the figure of the public intellectual – the one that engages with the simple minded and advocates a position – has, apparently, disappeared (accidently or not with the rise of economic theorizing and positivism). Professors travel rather to conferences to disseminate their work instead of engaging in provocating public debates. In the few appearances in tv shows political scientists rather come-up with non-intellectual ‘sound bites’, accommodating at best the market-logic of the media (and serving their nimbus as analytical ‘objective knowledge producer’). Maybe as a consequence, nobody apart from Habermas (a philosopher!), has been taken seriously in public debates in Germany (How Habermas got at this point is also a good question that deserves more critical scrutiny, given his incomprehensible writing style;-). What a sad story indeed for German political science!
    In this sense, asking real world problems, normative theorizing and public advocacy (writing articles in newspaper, engaging with politicians, discussion with students, provocations) and not the retreat to the ivory tower are in my view the solutions to IR’s future relevance.

    1. I mostly agree with all of this. I find the reticence to ask normative questions, or even have a clear normative stance in one’s work puzzling – mostly because I can’t possible conceive of what is interesting about a lot of the questions political scientists and IR scholars ask if they aren’t underpinned by some normative preferences.
      And I think it’s a shame that we conflate normative work or an overt political stance with bad scholarship… I do think IR should be concerned to a large extent with empirics, but this doesn’t mean we cannot frame our empirical discussions normatively or pass judgement on what we find in our investigations.

      I think other people disagree, though… Mathis?

      1. Niko & Zoe, I agree with your points about the application of normative theory to arrive at clear opinions on political issues. IR scholars probably shouldn’t be shy in that regard.

        But I’m part of the problem to the extent that I tend to get suspicious when peoples’ convictions are obvious in their work. It just signals a potential bias. But if you really think about it, being open about your opinion should be a sign of very good and reflective research. It’s just that there’s so much pseudo-science and ideology going around that many people feel the need to emphasize their neutral/ objective/ evidence-based stance.

        I wonder if this “neutrality” is just a subconscious (?) strategy for discourse (“look at me, I’m a trustworthy scholar”), or a stylistic choice out of habit, or reflects a true conviction that you should refrain from moral judgments when acting in your capacity as a scientist. (And then you can argue if IR researchers can or should be scientists in that sense.)

        1. I think you’re right that seeming neutrality in academic work is a strategy to appear, as you say, as a trustworthy scholar. I have certainly had professors who were so ideological that it impaired their ability to thoughtfully and fairly engage with students with differing opinions and they certainly appeared less professional as a result. On the other hand, as Walt notes, the impulse to go too far in the other direction doesn’t necessarily make for better academics either.

          I also do not think we are scientists “in that sense”, and I question the purpose of pretending we are. From the choice of topic on, everything is somewhat coloured by our normative judgements – what we think is important enough to study, what theory we use, etc.

          So, I think it is better to be upfront about the normative aspects of our work, do our best to present the empirics responsibly, and then let ourselves, and readers draw reasoned conclusions.

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