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IR Theory and Practice: A Parting of the Ways?

31 July 2012

IR Theory and Practice: A Parting of the Ways?

Portrait of Michael Tierney, copyright The College of William & Mary

Michael J Tierney

The latest Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) report provides interesting reading on the state of international relations as a discipline. In an interview with the ISN, TRIP co-author Michael Tierney discusses the popularity of constructivism within IR studies and the growing discrepancy between IR research and political reality.

Prepared by: ISN staff

ISN: What do you consider the most interesting findings of the 2012 TRIP report?

Michael Tierney: Well, we asked close to 100 questions, so picking out the results from one or two is difficult. That said, here are the results that jump out at me as either interesting or surprising.

First, while both academics and pundits have been discussing the "rise of China" for the past decade, the results from the 2011 survey really highlight the perceived increasing importance of China in the international system. This year we asked IR scholars numerous questions about China and overwhelming numbers of them believe that China will become increasingly important in years to come. Even scholars in Europe see China as increasingly relevant to the interests of their own countries. But, perhaps surprisingly, we have not yet seen a sudden surge in the number of scholars that are doing research or teaching about China or East Asia.

Second, in their IR courses, professors from almost every country assign large percentages of readings from US researchers. In fact, most assign more readings from US-based scholars than from researchers in their own countries. This is even true in countries perceived to have their own distinctive approach to IR, such as the UK, France, and Turkey. The only country where professors assign more work from their fellow countrymen is Finland! In fact, answers from Finnish IR scholars stood out as distinctive on a large number of the questions. I've never been to Finland, but this makes me think more research is required. I think field research is required and I volunteer to go…

Third, if you still think the "isms" matter for the study of IR, then there are some interesting changes in the order in which the isms are represented. In general, we see a slow decline in the number of scholars who associate with own research with one of the four main "textbook" isms of Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism, and Marxism. As important, the most common answer to the question, "Which paradigm best describes your approach to the study of IR?" is: "I do not use paradigmatic analysis."

Despite this fact, many scholars do place their research within one of these paradigmatic traditions. What we observe over the past 10 years of doing these surveys is the rise of constructivism and the decline of realism. Despite these results, IR scholars still teach the IR paradigms in their Intro IR courses in much larger numbers. In those courses Realism and Liberalism are the most prominent, by far. And, while there are few IR scholars who self-identify as Marxists in their own research, we still teach Marxism about as frequently as we teach constructivism.

Can you confirm the impression that IR is a healthy and growing field of academic study?

IR is certainly a growing field. This is especially true outside the US I've been in Ireland for the past month and it is striking how much the IR field has grown in this country. 30 years ago there were only a handful of IR scholars in universities here. Now there are almost 50 professors and multiple different degree programs. The causes in most countries are similar – the demand among students is growing. While there are many causes for the rise and fall of various fields of study, universities increasingly do respond to student demand. And demand for courses in International Relations is very high.

What does the report say about the relationship between theory and practice? Do policymakers listen to academics? Do academics provide answers to the questions policymakers face?

Both scholars and policy-makers perceive a growing gap between theory and practice and (surprisingly) large numbers of IR scholars see this as a problem. The picture of professors in their ivory tower detached from the practice of IR and happy about it, is not entirely accurate. Large majorities see "the gap" as a problem that needs to be addressed. Also, the problem is perceived to be larger among US based IR scholars, who are much less likely to work for their own government or for an IO than are their colleagues in other countries.

In related news...

Only 26 percent of scholars claim that their research is "applied" or "more applied than basic."

90 percent of scholars believe there should be "more links between the academic and policy communities."

Of course, there is plenty of room for IR scholars to influence practitioners or become practitioners and many do. But, in my view, the skills needed to succeed in the IR academy today are increasingly divorced from the skills needed to become an effective practitioner.

You've been surveying IR teaching, research and policy for a couple of years now. Can you observe how certain issues rise to prominence while others become less important?

Well, the one thing that I have noted is the lag between change in the real world versus subsequent change in academia. Despite the conventional wisdom that I hear at conferences, scholars rarely chase headlines in their teaching and research. We have seen an increase in scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and terrorism since 9-11, but this has NOT been a dramatic increase. We have NOT yet seen much of an increased focus on China or issues in East Asia despite the fact that these same scholars perceive the increasing importance of China for outcomes in IR. It takes a long time to gain expertise in some region, method, theory, or issue area. It also takes a long time to shepherd a paper into a published peer reviewed article. So, most scholars are not chasing headlines.

All this said, there are some trends that I observe from doing these surveys and from coding journal articles in the top journals: younger scholars tend to be more positivist than their mentors; they tend to understand and use quantitative methods more than the previous generation; the number of women in the discipline is increasing; the focus on ideational factors is rising; and, as in many other disciplines, the percentage of articles that are co-authored is increasing over time.

For the first time this year, your survey included IR faculty members from 20 countries. In what aspects of IR teaching, research and policy do the countries differ from each other?

There are exceptions in all countries, but if we are going to generalize: It appears to me that there are three groupings of countries. One group is similar to the UK – more qualitative, less positivist, more normative – and these tend to be commonwealth countries like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and to a much lesser extent, Canada. Then there is a second group that is more like the US – Hong Kong, Ireland, Singapore, Turkey, and Israel. Then there is a large number of countries with their own distinctive similarities and differences. There appears to be many similarities among Latin American countries. And, then there is Finland. Finland is a real outlier!

There is a lot of work to be done with the TRIP survey data and the TRIP journal article database. We are sharing these data with a group of researchers from outside the project over the course of the next year to see what they can make of it.

After we vet these data we hope to make them public.

Michael J Tierney is Director at the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations at the College William & Mary, where he is also Hylton Associate Professor of Government and International Relations. Together with Susan Peterson and Daniel Maliniak he authored TRIP Around the World: Tearching, Research, and Policy Views of International Relations Faculty in 20 Countries.


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