Tag Archives: international relations

Review of “North Korea in Transition: Politics, Economy, and Society,” edited by Kyung-Ae Park and Scott Snyder

If you want to read an example of the generally worthless state of international relations scholarship, it’s hard to do worse than North Korea in Transition.


It’s not that it’s put out by a bunch of cranks. It’s featured by the Council on Foreign Relations. And it’s not that it is not interesting. I highlighted several passages, many of which were thought provoking.

But… International Relations scholars, famously, can’t predict anything. The beginnings of wars, the outbreaks of peace, the collapse or emergence of empires — I’m aware of no solid model that can predict these as well as, say, the weather two days from now.

Some authors, like Bruce Cummings, appear to just be intellectual jokes

“American television rounded up all the usual images of North Korea: frightening soldiers goose-stepping through Pyongyang, a madman at the help who starves his people, missiles fired “over Japan” ( all missile launches are to the east, to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation)”



But generally, over and over, authors told us only what we already knew, and missed titanic changes under the surface.

It is noteworthy that the chair of the North Korean side in the DPRK-China Joint Guidance Committee for Economic Zones is Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong I’ls’ brother-in-law and vice chairman of the National Defense Commission

(yes, it is a noteworthy indeed that Jong Song Taek was arrested during a committee meeting, and tried as a traitor.)


Kim Jong Un is known to have focused on taking control of the military and the intelligence apparatuses with teh full support of the two key
power holders, Jang Song Taek and Ri Yong Ho, under the tight supervision of Kim Jung Il.

(Well, we know something – perhaps what is not something we’re sure of.  Currently the only question is to what fraction of Jang’s family tree is annihilated.)


This isn’t to say the entire book is trash. Chapter 8, “Low-Profile Capitalism: The Emergence of the New Merchant / Entrepreneurial Class in Post-Famine North Korea” by Andrei Lankov is very solid. In fact, it’s probably worth the price of the book.

The rest of it ca be tossed, though, unless you want to be a pimp, a tourist, a loser, or an escapee in the academic ghetto.

Escaping the Humanities Ghetto: Definitions and Paradigms

In both Political Science and the Humanities, the old boys network which prevented progress is collapsing, though it is hard for those who have lived in a field without progress to describe this.


Earlier I criticized, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer for saying that International Relations work capable of progress is “non-paradigmatic”

Indeed, some senior IR scholars now rail against the field’s grand theories. In his 2010 ISA presidential address, for example, David Lake described the “isms” as “sects” and “pathologies” that divert attention away from “studying things that matter” (Lake 2011: 471). Thus, it is not surprising that “the percentage of non- paradigmatic research has steadily increased from 30% in 1980 to 50% in 2006” (Maliniak et al 2011: 439). Of course, one could advocate for middle range theories while disparaging grand theories, and indeed Lake does just that. The field is not moving in that direction, however. Nor is it paying more attention to formal or mathematically oriented theories (Bennett et al 2003: 373-74). Instead, it is paying less attention to theories of all kinds and moving toward simplistic hypothesis testing.

But if I am fair, I need to also mention that my friend Jason Heppler of Stanford University made a similar claim, about the Digital Humanities:

Those doing digital humanities tend to agonize over how we define the field (or is it a methodology?). Matt Gold’s edited volume Debates in Digital Humanities nicely sums up many of the ways people have tried to define digital humanities and what we mean when we say we do digital humanities. Certainly there are some common characteristics within the broad range of approaches, but the work itself is broad: it’s interpretation, coding, building, archives, theorizing.

Why define digital humanities? The enterprise is somewhat pointless. The promise and excitement of digital humanities lies with what we can do with it, not how it’s defined. But the queston is inescapable.

I don’t believe that the new International Relations work is apardigmatic, or that Digital Humanities is undefined. Rather, like other useful areas, these fields are defined by their tools and methods, not by ancient theoretical battles that can never be won. Chemistry is not the science of phlogiston, it is the science of titration and fission. Likewise, International Relations and Digital Humanities are increasingly defined by the tools they use to make progress, not connections in an old boys network.

This is a good change. Yesterday I mentioned the ghetto of the humanities, those fields whose graduates (a) can’t do math, (b) can’t conduct useful research, (c) can’t stay employed, and (d) can’t get paid.


The adoption of useful tools and progressive science is the best way to turn this around. The emerging paradigms of International Relation are embedded within statistics and modeling. The emerging definitions of Digital Humanities are embedded within text mining, semantic networks, and big data. What do these have in common? Useful tools designed to provide answers and enable progress.

The Language of Theory, or, How to Escape the Humanities Ghetto

This morning I read an article by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Daniel Nexon, titled “Paradigmatic Faults in International-Relations Theory.” This piece originally appeared in a 2009 edition of Internaionl Studies Quartlerly.

I like when people agree with me, so when I saw my words echoed across time (it’s as if Jackson and Nexon read my post, built a time machine, and told their former selves what a great idea they read on tdaxp). Yesterday, I said it was riduclous to describe the International Relations cliques of “Realism,” “Liberalism,” and such as paradigms. I wrote:

The highlighted passage, originally by Daniel Maliniak simply means that empirical research is increasing, and that non-empirical research is declining, within political science. But Maliniak, and thus Walt and Mearsheimer, bizarrely use “paradigmatic” to refer to less paradigmatic (that is, less capable of progress) fields, and “non-paradigmatic” to more to more paradigmatic (that is, more capable of progress) fields.

Political science has been in the fever swamp for so long that the notion of progress as an outcome of normal science has almost entirely been lost. If Walt and Mearsheimer had their way, it might be lost, and the field simply divided into a stationary oligarchy of old boys network.

As Jackson and Nexon write:

The terminology of ‘‘paradigms’’ and ‘‘research programmes’’ produces a num-ber of deleterious effects in the field. It implies that we need to appeal to criteria of the kind found in MSRP in order to adjudicate disputes that require no such procedures. In order to do so, we spend a great deal of time specifying the ‘‘boundaries’’ of putative research programmes and, in effect, unfairly and misleadingly holding scholars accountable for the status of theories they often view as rivals to their own.

Perhaps the most well-known instance of this kind of boundary-demarcation occurs in the debates surrounding ‘‘realism’’ in international relations theory. The proliferation of countless lists of the ‘‘core commitments’’ of a realist ‘‘paradigm’’—by adherents and critics alike—shifts the focus of scholarship away from any actual investigation of whether these commitments give us meaningful leverage on the phenomenal world, and instead promotes endless border skirmishes about who is and is not a realist (Legro and Moravcsik 1999), whether predictions of balancing are central to the ‘‘realist paradigm’’ (Vasquez 1998:261–65), and so forth. Such debates and demarcations not only distract us from the actual study of world politics, but also harm disputes over international relations theory by solidifying stances that ought to remain open to debate and discussion.

So I enjoyed Jackson’s and Nexon’s takedown of the so-called “paradigms” in International Relations.

But they don’t go far enough.

Their piece ends with an appeal to Max Weber (how non-progressive can you get?!?) and an unfalsifiable taxonomy that I won’t go into


A more useful conclusion to the paper would have been to recognize that statistics is the language of theory, the language of modeling. Instead of inviting international relations scholars to chase their own tale and bow to Max Weber and the dead, how much more useful would a positive theory of research programs in International Relations have been? For instance, consider a citation indexing method, such as PageRank [pdf] to determine if they are “clusters” PageRank sets in which certain articles were influential (exemplars?) and others were not. Did Jackson and Nexon really have no one availability to sketch even a proposed methodology for testing their claim?

The answer is probably “no.” My purpose isn’t to pick on Jackson and Nexon, but to point out the weakness of International Relations as a whole. In a related post by Patrick Musgrave, titled “The Crass Argument for Teaching More Math In Poli Sci Courses“, the following diagram showing is shown:


Which clearly displays a “humanities ghetto,” that includes political science.


How can this be, if International Relations is the disciplined extraction of meaning from data, which is the same focus as the high-paying, well-employed fields?

The obvious answer is that International Relations does not teach actually useful methods for the disciplined extraction of data. It does not teach critical thinking or logical reasoning. It teaches something that apes these skills, a rhetorical ability that impresses old scholars and does not help society.

International Relations is a non-progressive field where, by and large, it sucks to be young.


In an evocative comment that ties the article and the blog post together, Patrick Thaddeus Jackson states:

I don’t think that it is our job as university faculty to increase students’ future earning potential. Nor do I think that it is our job in teaching PoliSci undergrads to make sure that they can read APSR in the 1980s and 1990s. Our job is to teach students to think critically about politics, and while I am perfectly fine with the suggestion that some statistical literacy can be useful to that end, I am not prepared to give that higher pride of place than things like reading closely, writing cogently, and disagreeing with one another civilly.

The dichotomy that Jackson notes is entirely false. In his own piece, he was not able to express a constructive critical thought about paradigms — the original Nexon and Jackson article is devoid of the model specification or operationalization that would needed to turn his criticisms and taxonomy into something capable of progress. Any competent graduate from the humanities ghetto can read “closely” or write “cogently.” That’s needed is to think usefully, and for this statistical literary is required.