More on the role and character of IR theory

In a discussion on Dan Drezner's blog -- a discussion spawned by the Marc Lynch posting that I reference here) "Steve" posted a comment about the nature and deficiency of IR theory in general. In part, he comments:

My assumption is that IR is generally a field more akin to philosophy than to, say, country studies (or history, or whatever). We don't look to philosophers to find out what to do about Al Quaida, or Bosnia, or XX, why would we look to IR scholars? (frankly, this strikes me as a bit strange, but it seems to be about right...).
Two things leapt to mind for me pretty much right away:

1) looking to IR for specific policy advice would be like looking to physics to find out how to build a bridge. Physics is a self-consistent, deductively rigorous portrait of the physical world that permits us to explain phenomena in a distinct manner. But it doesn't tell you how to build a bridge. For that, you want engineering and architecture, fields that take some of the insights into the world that are provided by physics and combine them with a lot of empirical practice to produce phronesis -- practical wisdom -- which can directly guide action. Theorists rarely develop phronesis, and they rarely even inform it directly. Instead, their influence is at a further remove than that -- although it is there, especially in the long term.

2) what strikes Steve as "strange" strikes me as perfectly comprehensible. What strikes me as more than a bit strange is that anyone would actually look to IR theory to find out what to do about Bosnia or Iraq or anything else. This doesn't mean that I don't think that policymakers should consult theorists and examine social-scientific accounts of things, but it does mean that I am wholly unconvinced that doing so will lead either to policy success or to an unequivocal justification for action. As "the slow boring of hard boards," politics is all about trying to bring incommensurate things together, and proceeds via the temporary forging of "good-enough" settlements. Science isn't like that, theory isn't like that -- and to the extent that IR is a social science, IR isn't like that either.

Engineers have to take physics. Practitioners should have to take theory courses, and politicians should draw on the insights that they have gained from scientific accounts. But in the end, practice necessarily escapes (abstract) theory, social life necessarily escapes our social-scientific accounts of it, and an engineer who pleads that the math worked out properly when the bridge collapses should probably be fired for not having consulted sufficiently with the folks who build actual bridges.

That's my reaction, at any rate.

The Irrelevance of IR Theory

In response to Marc Lynch's posts (here and here) about whether IR theory has anything to tell us about al-Qaeda, I posted a brief sociology of IR knowledge-production over at Duck of Minerva. I'm not going to cross-post it, but you're welcome to click on over and have a look . . .


Professor In Your Pocket

</shameless self-promotion>

I especially like how I'm the "solution" the the supposed problem. Can't see that I see a problem with students not attending lectures if the lectures are available in a different (downloadable) format; why waste time lecturing if you could put the classroom to much better uses?


The non-philosopher's guide to philosophical terms

Hysterical stuff.

Thanks to Jenny for the link.

Academic Record Labels

As I make my merry way through the brave new world of podcasting (and am getting some press coverage, certainly moreso than my substantive/empirical work ever gets -- wonder what if anything that says about me as a scholar), something that is either profound or silly has occurred to me. This is based on my off-the-cuff comment to an MTV reporter who asked me to speculate about how this technology would change the university, and whether it would eventually make universities obsolete since all of the content produced by professors could in principle be downloaded for free off the 'Net. My reply: podcasting, or any other way of making lectures available publicly (i.e. outside of the classroom proper -- I think that you could simulate the same effect by broadcasting over radio/television, or video-taping and making the tapes freely available to all; mp3 compression simply makes it a lot easier to do what could have been done before, and in some cases was done before), kills the university only in the way that recording kills music.

Let me elaborate a bit. I have always (and I do mean always) used music-language to describe what I do professionally; together with baseball-language, music-language (and specifically music-industry-language) is a vital part of my metaphorical vocabulary for apprehending my academic ( = scholarly and pedagogical) practice. I have always thought of articles as "singles," chapters in edited volumes as songs that were part of a compilation, the process of revising an article as "remixing," books as albums, and so forth. Sure, part of this has to do with the fact that if I were not an academic I'd love to have been Tony Banks or Vangelis or Neal Morse (bonus points to any reader who can identify all three of these folks, with or without a Google search ;-) or any one of a number of musicians whose music I find fascinating and compelling. [And yes, I'd probably compose very elaborate prog-rock opuses, because that's the kind of geek I am, but that's neither here nor there.] But it also fits, to a certain degree: we academics think about things, compose various ditties that capture some piece of what we're thinking about, utilize the formal requirements of a particular publication or subdisciplinary language-game as a way of giving structure to our musings, and hope for nothing more than readers/listeners. "Nice song" and "good article" have the same value, I think.

Of course, the more scientistically inclined in my discipline would presumably be horrified that I am making aesthetic criteria so central to my metaphor, but I'm not too sanguine about the possibility of "progress" in knowledge anyway, so that doesn't bother me much. After all, As Weber pointed out in "Science as a Vocation, there isn't really any way to justify the notion of science-as-progress except as a value-commitment, which I'd consider to be basically an aesthetic criterion itself. [Wittgenstein mused that aesthetics and ethics were the same, and I think he was right, on that as on so many things.] So yes, social-scientific articles have to participate in the language-game of improving our knowledge of the world, as though it were actually possible to comparatively assess books and articles according to such a metric; personally, I'd say that the most important component of any such assessment would have to be the book or article's systematic exploration of the implications of some given set of value-commitments -- which would be little different from assessing how a piece of music disclosed certain sonic possibilities that other songs hadn't. So it's all aesthetics, in the end. But I know that this places me in a distinct minority.

So, if books and articles can be songs, why not lectures? In fact, lectures are even more clearly performances, and hence assessable on performative criteria. The problem with a lecture is that it's somewhat ephemeral, since it's a live performance; in that way, the podcasts I've been capturing and disseminating are little different than recordings of a concert -- albeit with less cheering and clapping. But the recordings serve the same purpose: making the ephemeral performance available to be re-experienced at some later date. Students in my methodology class have told me that they re-listen to some of my more directive lectures when they are sitting down to draft their prospectuses, which is precisely the use to which I hoped that these lectures would be put.

However, there's one major problem with what I've been doing thus far -- what I've been capturing are live performances, which are time-bound and contextually specific. There are a lot of references in my lectures from this semester to the ongoing situation with the ex-president of our university, references that I hope will not be as current next time I teach this course. Similarly, in other lectures I make reference to current news events, specific comments that came up in class discussion, and so forth. What this all means is that the lectures I've recorded are of limited utility, and won't really allow me to do what I'd been planning to do: record a set of lectures, and then stop using classroom time to lecture. Period. The recordings from this semester are valuable for the current class, and are a useful record of what I did in the classroom this semester, but in order to really make a set of recordings that will be useful in future semesters I need to decontextualize the lectures a bit, which is an artificial thing to do -- but a justified one in this case. It's like going into the recording studio to record a song that you play live, inasmuch as the studio is by definition antiseptic and purified and detached; cutting a studio record is not the same activity as performing live. And while there is value (especially for obsessives like me) in collecting a number of live performances of the same song, because each performance has different nuances, I don't think that there's as much value in collecting different performances of the same lecture. Hence I need to record an abstract, de-contextualized set of lectures, a studio version that will travel across the semesters better. Then class time can be used to engage in q&a, hands-on mentoring, discussion, and so forth.

So how does this make universities like record labels? Well, under ideal circumstances what a record label does is to a) find artists and b) give them the opportunity to make studio versions of their songs so that c) people can connect to the artists' music both through the existence of albums and through d) the promotional and legitimation function that the label performs. This last one works better for niche labels; if I see something that is released by Radiant Records, I know basically what kind of music it is going to be: contemporary progressive rock. And the fact that Radiant releases something means that it's probably a good bet that I'll like it. Ideally, labels would do this in general; in practice, major labels (whose days are probably numbered -- they're largely living on royalties from their back-catalogues at the moment anyway) skimp on this last function in favor of just trying to sell stuff. But these functions are precisely what labels are for.

Now, I think that universities are for pretty much the same things: they give artists (scholars) the opportunity to produce recordings of their songs, and help get those songs into the hands of listeners. In addition, universities are in the business of staging live concerts ( = courses), and that's what people are paying for. You want to hear my take on something, or know what I think? Read what I write, or listen to what I say. But if you want to come and join the learning community that I construct in my courses and more generally at the university as a whole, you need to pay up and commit to the process.

So yes, universities have to change, and the pedagogical practices that I am pursuing with podcasting (and in other ways) may be hastening that process. But universities are far from obsolete. I have a hard time thinking of any other place to engage in my craft.