Lessons From the Past? Or Justifying an Idiosyncratic Research Agenda?

I remember reading Michael Tomz's book Reputation and International Cooperation: Sovereign Debt Across Three Centuries for a seminar a couple of years ago, and someone having made a remark about how Tomz was probably just really interested in the time period or the subject matter, but had to frame the research in such a way as to justify its relevance beyond what might be the author's more narrow interests.  Since then I've had a few discussions with some of my advisers on the topic of how we frame our research–essentially how we sell a line of research as relevant to our field.  Overall though, I've found that this is a topic that seems to have stayed out of in-class discussions for the most part.

I get that we only have a certain amount of time to discuss articles/books, and that substantive and/or methodological material will often take precedence over other issues more concerned with professionalization.  Nevertheless, I think it's an important discussion to have (although I suppose it is implicitly there when we try to determine where a particular piece fits in a broader literature).  But reflecting on the comments made about the Tomz piece made me think that less attention is paid to justifying research in a temporal sense as opposed to justifying it on the basis of where it fits in a particular subfield.

This is, perhaps, in part a function of the fact that it is not uncommon in quantitative analysis to use data sets that cover time ranges that run anywhere from a few years to well over one hundred years (I'm looking at you COW data).  We run our time series, put our splines in to account for potential variations across time, etc.  But while we deal with long stretches of time it is still mostly in an effort to capture enough data points and variation so that we can generalize broad patterns and, ultimately, make claims about the contemporary relevance of a research agenda, or to test some broader theory or paradigm.  But even testing a theory or paradigm is of contemporary relevance to the extent that it is probably done in an effort to substantiate/validate the continued point of view that a particular paradigm represents. 

But can we study history for history's sake?  And yes, I do realize that there is a whole field filled with people called "historians" out there that do just this sort of thing.  But the the field of history is predominately filled with people that do not use the same sort of quantitative research methods used in political science.  Fareed Zakaria has commented on the accepted wisdom of extracting lessons from history for present application without scrutinizing the peculiarities that may surround those particular examples.  So when someone inevitably asks the question, "who cares?" regarding a particular line of research, I think we are often put into a position of having to show how some particular process carries implications for the here and now, when such justification may be strained.  Rather, we are a profession that exploits history for the present, rather than accepting that the politics and political processes of certain eras may be inherently interesting to some researchers.  Research focusing on the broad and systematic trends of a particular chunk of history may certainly carry important implications for the present, but it may also be the case that these implications are more indirect or toned down than their importance in better understanding the politics of a certain part of history.   

I think this is largely a function of the pressures to conform to professional boundaries that have been established between political scientists and historians.  As I've noted in a previous post I think these boundaries between fields can create some difficulties, and I certainly don't think an academic free-for-all is the answer–A little bit of political science today, some chemistry tomorrow.  And obviously there has been research in political science that focuses on particular eras or time spans, but my overall sense of the field is that such research often has to be justified on grounds that demand a clear extrapolation of lessons to the present.  Consequently I wonder what implications this has on the ability to co-author between certain fields.  I majored in politics and history as an undergrad, and they seem like a natural fit.  I really can't say that I've consciously looked to find out how often historians and political scientists co-author, and maybe this doesn't really matter much.  From what I recall of my history classes, historians really love getting into the nitty-gritty of the past.  But then again, there are also historians who deal with broader trends in historic development.                  


Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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