U.S. Social Science and International Relations

February 9, 2015

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Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new series “The Schoolhouse”. The aim of this series is to explore and debate the state of advanced graduate education in international affairs. We aim to move beyond the often-repetitive and tiresome debates about the usefulness of scholarship to policy. We believe there are deeper issues at stake. Please join us and chime in in the comments section or with a submission.


In the eloquent essay that kicked off “The Schoolhouse” series, my colleague Frank Gavin pointed to a number of issues that affect and infect graduate education in international affairs, particularly at the PhD level. Many of these problems are not exclusive to international affairs, security studies, and related disciplines and fields but rather more broadly afflict the social sciences in American universities. Therefore, to solve the problems of our own turf, we need to have a serious conversation about improving the whole U.S. social science complex. It is toward that end that I propose four reforms. U.S. universities should:

  • Re-organize the social sciences to create multidisciplinary academic departments that are focused on problems. For example, let’s create new departments of international politics, history, and policy.
  • Introduce the teaching of professional ethics into social science PhD training.
  • Reward scholarship that addresses the concerns of the wider world (i.e., “policy relevant scholarship”) in hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions.
  • Increase the role of policy practitioners in the social sciences, especially in schools of international affairs and public policy.

These reforms will broadly benefit social science but will especially benefit international relations/security studies (IR/security). They will help to focus social science scholarship on more important questions and to improve the quality of social science research.

Problems, Not Disciplines

U.S. universities should create more social science departments that are problem-focused and are multidisciplinary. Universities should also periodically reorganize the social sciences to sustain this focus on problems and on multidisciplinary research over time.

The natural sciences show us the way, setting an example for social science to follow.

The natural sciences are broadly organized around solving problems. Basic science proceeds without specific reference to problems, but it hopes that its discoveries will help solve problems someday. Applied science is more explicitly focused on solving problems—promoting human health, industry, agriculture, communications, infrastructure, security, and so forth.

To address these problems the natural sciences often organize their work in multidisciplinary units that include scholars from disparate disciplines.

The natural sciences have a culture of reorganizing academic departments and programs to maintain a focus on problems and a multidisciplinary work style, as old problems are solved and new problems appear. This culture of reorganizing has nurtured the birth of many new natural science fields and departments during the last few decades. A partial list:

  • Biochemistry, a product of the merger of biology and chemistry in the 1950s.
  • Biomedical engineering, with subsets that include biomolecular, biomedical, and biotechnical engineering, which all begin to overlap with genetic engineering.
  • Chemical engineering, and the related fields of molecular engineering and nanotechnology.
  • Neurophysiology and neural engineering of sensory systems.
  • Materials science and engineering, forensic engineering, biomaterials engineering, and (industrial) process engineering.
  • Environmental biotechnology.
  • Environmental systems engineering, a field that blends civil and environmental engineering, chemical engineering and materials science.
  • Ecological engineering, a field that merges ecology and civil engineering to study sustainable agriculture and permaforestry.
  • Energy efficiency in data structure.
  • Information and systems assurance and trust engineering, a field that works on cyber security, making cell phones secure, etc.
  • Applied systems engineering, a field that works on automation, robotics, mechatronics (mechanical/electrical engineering). See, e.g., the many toys that are now robotic.
  • Biomechatronics.
  • Energy engineering, a field that designs wind, solar, and other energy systems.

Wow! Lots of innovation and reorganization! (Thanks to Corri Zoli of Syracuse University for the list. How does she know so much??)

These three practices—focusing on problems, doing research in multidisciplinary teams, and periodically reorganizing to sustain this problem-focus and multidisciplinarity—are signatures of U.S. natural science and important ingredients for their success.

In contrast, academic departments in the social sciences are largely organized around disciplines—political science, economics, history, anthropology, sociology, and psychology—rather than problems. They rarely have multidisciplinary faculty. And they are rarely reorganized, i.e., merged, divided, or eliminated to make room for new fields or departments. Disciplinary silos are largely treated as sacrosanct, to remain forever unchanged because they never have been changed.

The disciplinary silos of social science date from the founding of social science in the late 1800s (specifically, from 1881 for political science). Whether or not these silos were ever functional, they are not functional today. They now serve chiefly to inhibit cooperation among scholars from related fields who have much to teach each other and should be working together. They are impediments to invention and progress.

Organizing the social sciences around disciplines rather than problems also distracts social scientists from addressing the problems of the real world. It fosters a drift toward a “cult of the irrelevant”—an internal discussion of arcane questions that the wider world is not asking. Over the years many observers, including luminaries in our own field such as Hans Morgenthau, Joe Nye, Mike Desch, Bob Gallucci, Dick Samuels, and Steve Walt—have complained of a broad departure from relevance in much social science. This malady stems partly from the organization of the social sciences around disciplines rather than problems.

In short, the U.S. social sciences are frozen in poisoned amber. The discipline-focused structure of the social sciences is dysfunctional and archaic. The disciplinary silos of this structure foster blinkered, sterile academic monocultures.

The Solution

It’s time to create multidisciplinary social science departments that focus on problems, and to shift resources and authority from disciplinary departments to these multidisciplinary problem-focused departments.

Re-focusing the social sciences on problems instead of disciplines would offer three benefits:

  1. Research would be more directed at problems that matter.
  2. Synergies across disciplines that are now uncaptured would be realized.       Multidisciplinary problem-focused units could gain the benefits of disciplinary cross-pollination that disciplinary silos now prevent.
  3. Bad marriages within disciplines could be ended. Disciplinary subfields that quarrel with each other more than they cooperate, and could achieve more apart than together, could be fruitfully separated.

For example, let’s create a new field of International Politics, History, and Policy (IPHP) as a home for the study of IR/security. The new field of IPHP would address major international security problems: preventing war, controlling war, ending war, managing weapons of mass destruction, framing and assessing national security strategies, framing and assessing strategies to protect human rights and to address other humanitarian problems, applying ethical ideas to conflict problems, and more. The IPHP field would include IR political scientists and diplomatic and military historians as core members. It could also include scholars from other disciplines who care about problems pertaining to the use and control of force, and have useful expertise to contribute. These might include comparative politics scholars, area studies scholars, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, legal scholars, scholars of religion, physical scientists with security-relevant expertise—for example, physicists, biologists, epidemiologists, and nanotechnologists—and policy practitioners.

A new field of this sort would capture the large synergy, now uncaptured, among scholars from these disciplines, especially the now-lost synergy between political scientists and historians. Creating a new IPHP field would also end bad marriages between the American politics and IR/security subfields in political science, and between diplomatic/military history and other parts of the history field. These marriages were once harmonious and fruitful but now involve more conflict than cooperation in many political science and history departments. Separation will benefit all parties.

Other new fields might also be created that combine political science with history, and perhaps with policy scholars or practitioners. For example, American politics, history, and policy; or comparative politics, history, and policy.

We need an audit of unrealized cross-discipline synergies among the social sciences, and between social and natural sciences. How many potentially fruitful cross-discipline relationships do disciplinary silos and barriers now impede? Let’s make a list, with an eye toward capturing these synergies by bringing these scholars together in new fields and departments.

Since IR/security is an inherently multidisciplinary field, the study of IR/security would gain even more than most social science fields from reorganizing to create multidisciplinary departments and programs. Consider:

  • The RAND scholar group that founded the study of nuclear strategy was multidisciplinary. Key personnel included political scientist Bernard Brodie, historian William Kaufmann, economist Thomas Schelling, and mathematician Albert Wohlstetter.
  • Political scientist Robert Jervis’s cornerstone IR scholarship is strongly informed by cognitive psychology and by deep historical study.
  • Political scientist Kenneth Waltz was strongly influenced by economics (the theory of the firm) and by broad historical study.
  • The MIT Security Studies Program’s early faculty included an electrical engineer (Jack Ruina), a physicist (George Rathjens), a historian (William Kaufmann), as well as political scientists.
  • The books in the flagship Cornell University Press Studies in Security Affairs book series (the “Art, Jervis, and Walt” series) are mostly authored by political scientists but often draw heavily on historical evidence and research. (Think of books by Barry Posen, Jack Snyder, John Mearsheimer, Steve Walt, Dick Betts, and many others.) Important books by historians appear there as well.
  • The Tobin Project National Security study group, a project I work with, includes political science IR/security scholars, diplomatic historians, and policy practitioners as core members. Scholars from physics, comparative politics, and legal studies also participate.

More precedent for broad multidisciplinary units in social science is found in international relations departments or schools at the University of Southern California, Georgetown, George Washington University, American University, Lehigh, University of San Francisco, the London School of Economics, and King’s College London. Precedent is also found in highly-enrolled interdisciplinary teaching programs at top universities. Examples include the very popular and long-running Social Studies undergraduate major at Harvard; the popular Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) undergraduate major at Oxford; the Committee on Social Thought at the U. of Chicago; and the popular interdisciplinary undergraduate International Relations major at Tufts.

What’s the bottom line? IR/security scholars should found a new multidisciplinary field of international politics, history and policy, and make it their base of operation. And much of the rest of social science should do likewise, launching similar reorganizations that refocus scholars on problems and erase silo barriers that now prevent cross-discipline synergies from being realized.

The value of multidisciplinary research is widely recognized but little interdisciplinary research actually happens in university social science departments. It’s time to “walk the walk”: to reorganize social science so that multidisciplinary work becomes reality.

Teach professional ethics

Universities should introduce the teaching of professional ethics into social science PhD training.

Social scientists allow their research to drift into irrelevance partly because their professions are not imbued with a sense of duty to serve the wider world by their scholarship. More discussion of professional ethics, and an effort to create a shared agreement on the nature of those ethics, might help.

Professions that are not compelled by market pressure to serve their clientele will tend toward unusefulness unless they establish an ethical rudder beneath themselves that keeps them in service to others even when they can get away with being unuseful.

Accordingly, foundations and others who support social sciences should ask universities they support: do the university’s social science PhD programs teach professional ethics? Social science has an implied social contract with society: In exchange for the privileges and freedoms of academic life, social science agrees to help solve problems that concern society. Social science PhD students should be asked to reflect on this implied social contract and to consider whether an obligation to produce socially relevant work flows from it. Other issues of ethics—including faculty obligations to graduate and undergraduate students, and to one another—should be considered as well. For example, is it okay for professors to impose their political or methodological views, or their research agendas, on their graduate students? Is it okay for faculty factions to impose hegemony on their department or their field on matters of political orientation, methods, or subject matter? These questions should also be on the table in a social science ethics curriculum.

Does ethics training work? The U.S. military exposes its officers to intensive ethics training. By all accounts this training is quite effective, proof-of-concept that ethics training works if it’s done right.

Reward relevance

Universities should generously reward social science scholarship that addresses the concerns of the wider world—i.e., “policy relevant scholarship”—in hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions.

This requires that departments reward candidates for promotion or tenure who address important questions, and dock candidates who focus on trivia. In many social science departments today, scholars are judged chiefly or solely on the methodological polish with which they answer their research questions. The importance of their questions is not assessed. Instead scholars should be judged on the importance of their questions, as well as the quality of their answers. A good answer to a trivial question is still trivial.

As a second step toward relevance, colleges and universities should reduce the role of peer review—i.e., deference to external letters, and requiring that publications be peer reviewed to count toward promotion—in tenure and promotion decisions.

An overdone obeisance to external peer review has lately taken hold in the social sciences. Deference to external peer reviewers pervades personnel hiring and promotion decisions, and a presumption that only peer-reviewed publications are worthy has become commonplace. As a result scholars are often given no credit by their departments for publications in leading policy journals, because few policy journals are peer reviewed.

For example, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and The Journal of Democracy are not peer reviewed. Hence publications in these journals are often not counted toward tenure (!). By most measures Foreign Affairs is the most impactful journal in the international relations field and is among the most impactful journals of any kind. (In 2004 and 2006, Foreign Affairs was ranked the single most influential media outlet in the U.S. in a survey of U.S. opinion leaders.) But articles appearing there are dismissed as without importance by university departments.

This dismissal of publications in non-peer-reviewed outlets, and the dismissal of publications in policy journals that results, strongly discourages untenured scholars seeing promotion from doing policy-relevant work. It is among the forces that draws social science toward irrelevance.

Instead, the faculty of social science departments should examine the entire corpus of work produced by candidates for promotion, including publications that were not peer-reviewed, and judge it for themselves. That was the practice back in the day; we should restore it.

The role of external peer review should be tempered for a second reason: it promotes arid, barren monocultures in academe. Deference to external peer reviewers in personnel decisions breeds conformity to dominant field fashions. Unconventional departments become more conventional as input from conventional-minded external tenure reviewers operates to conventionalize their faculty. The distinctive character of these departments fades as they regress toward the national mean. External peer review thus becomes an instrument of majority tyranny in academic fields, and of intellectual homogenization. Majority views become universal; bastions of divergent thinking are overrun. As a result there is less competition among ideas. Instead a deadening conformity to one way of thinking develops. Creativity is stifled.

Peer review should not be eliminated. Rather, its role should be moderated. In making hiring and promotion decisions universities should consult outsiders judiciously when they lack expertise needed to reach a fair judgment. But they should not outsource their decision to these outsiders, as they do when they defer unduly to external peer tenure reviewers, and when they consider only peer-reviewed publications in promotion decisions.

Experience from macroeconomics suggests that peer review could be tempered with little harm to quality control in scholarship. In recent years valuable new macroeconomic ideas have often appeared in non-peer-reviewed online economics forums (for example, blogs run by Mark Thoma, Brad DeLong, Mike Konczal, Matt Yglesias, and Paul Krugman). Peer-reviewed economics journals have been less vibrant, as they suffered from being slow to publish, and from their editors’ and reviewers’ tendency to reject submissions that did not conform to their personal (usually neoclassical, anti-Keynesian) ideology. Overall, there is no clear case that peer reviewed publications in macroeconomics are superior to non-peer-reviewed publications.

Universities that persist in practices that discourage policy-relevant work (like considering only peer-reviewed publications in promotion decision) should be named and shamed. Foundations and other donors should consider this issue in making funding decisions.

Hire policy practitioners

Universities should increase the role of policy practitioners in social sciences, especially in schools of international affairs and public policy. As an example of this, the School of International Service at American University recently brought on retired General David Barno, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as a practitioner in residence.

Policy practitioners have wisdom to bring to the consideration of public policy. They should be included in the mix in schools and departments where policy-relevant subjects are studied, including IR/security.

Let’s get moving with these changes, people! It’s late!


Stephen Van Evera is Ford international professor of political science at MIT and a member of the MIT Security Studies Program. He has written books on the causes of war and on social science methods, and articles on U.S. grand strategy, U.S. defense policy, nationalism and the causes of war, the origins of World War I, American intervention in the developing world, conflict in the Mideast, and U.S. strategy in the “war on terror.” He is chair of the Tobin Project working group on national security. He thanks Corri Zoli and Philip Zelikow for important education on matters relevant to this paper.


Photo credit: Matthew Petroff

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4 thoughts on “U.S. Social Science and International Relations

  1. As a historian, I applaud the authors approach bringing relevance back to academia. In some respects he is proposing a “back to the future” approach which is sorely needed.
    If we look at various problems facing us, let take the Middle East; one thing that strikes me as being ever present in the policy solution proposed, is a lack of understanding about how and why the problems developed (history), the interactions of various groups in the development of a problem (sociology and political science) and the basic economic underpinning of a problem. Without an interdisciplinary approach that focuses on the problem and not the methodology we are never going to come close to solving it.

  2. This is an important challenge, and I think the shifting of professional incentives are well placed.

    The thrust at becoming “practical” or “applicable,” though, seems misplaced to me. What about “intellectually rigorous” or even just “engaged”? Buying into the notion that academia should be better at solving problems is actually very old: it is, for example, one of the inspirations for the old behaviorist revolution.

    A fundamental problem with fields like IR is that is has become professionalized in an environment where, as Van Evera points out, it is also unaccountable.

    The changes advocated above, like reorganized program structures, will simply professionalize it in a different way.

    I’m not saying that the current system is not broken. Rather, the solutions here are, frankly, not new and probably not transformative. There are policy-oriented programs, for example, that reward the kinds of things Van Evera is suggesting.

    I think what we are really driving at, here, is not practical application. Rather, it is intellectual and scholarly fruitfulness. Society’s contract with social scientists is not that scholars will solve problems, though that may be part of the bargain. Rather, it is that they will maintain, challenge and expand our understandings of the social and intellectual world in a way that equips experts, young adults and others to deal with new and pressing challenges.

    A multidiscipinary international affairs model is a good start (but wait, doesn’t the English School do this?), but let’s not burden it with solving the world’s problems. Let’s ask it to understand those problems and challenge us.

  3. This post by Stephen Van Evera strikes me as especially relevant. Upon returning to academia after more than two decades as a consultant for tribal, federal, state and local governments, I was astounded to find my discipline (economics) still mired in 70-year old debates about the efficacy of macroeconomic tools that were, at best, inadequate for dealing with the evils of yesterdays long past. Leo Rogin offered a compelling argument that whatever meaning and validity might be attached to economic science was then and is now (and always will be) dependent upon whether it allows us to deal with the present evils of the day. Otherwise, we squander our intellectual capital and, like Prufrock, measure out our lives with coffee spoons. Ugh.

    1. Thanks to Hank Forseman, Charles Pace, and RedWell for your thoughtful comments.
      I hope to see more thinking from you on how to bring about the improvements in social sciences that are implied by your criticisms of current social science. If we need social sciences that are more multidisciplinary and more focused on problems, how can we bring this about?
      The problem focus of the natural sciences is largely maintained by pressure from industry funders who want specific problems solved so they can advanced their industry. There is no equivalent mechanism to focus social sciences on problems. Can we invent a substitute?
      A second issue: greater focus on problems by social science will also bring greater pressure from actors in society who will be harmed by truthful research that affects their interests. These actors will seek to disrupt such research by punishing those who do it, or to sponsor fraudulent pseudo-research to crowd it out. In short, with a focus on problems comes potentially harmful interference from outsiders who don’t want the problems solved. How can social science buffer itself against such interference? We need smart thinking about this.
      To me, teaching professional ethics is a partial answer. Social scientists should be imbued with an expectation that good scholarship often brings hostility and even abuse from actors outside academe, and with a sensibility that scholars have a duty to not to shy away from research that will attract such hostility. Rather, such hostility should be worn as a badge of honor that shows that one’s work touches an important problem.
      In short, social science should adopt a professional culture that expects and accepts brickbats and hardship as an aspect of its professionalism, much as military officers, police, firefighters and journalists accept personal risk as part of their professionalism, and monks from some religious orders accept material deprivation.
      But clearly a cultural engineering project of this sort is only a partial answer. Does anyone have a better ones?
      Also, RedWell, I’m wondering what policy-oriented programs you have in mind that reward the kinds of things I suggest. Who has a model we should follow?