Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Identity Crises and IR Scholars

What am I?

It’s very difficult for me to precisely orient myself and my work within political science as it is traditionally organised and conducted in North America. As those familiar with how most social science PhD programmes are structured in N.A., students typically take major field examples in two subfields of their discipline. In my case, I ‘majored’ in international relations (IR) and ‘minored’ in comparative politics. I might have instead made my second field political theory, except that my theoretical interests are much closer to what might be called social or sociological theory. In fact, if I later today trundled over to the department of sociology and took the major field exam for sociological theory, I’d probably pass it, which is currently not the case for comparative politics. And while the things I am learning in the seminar on comparative politics that I am currently taking, to prepare me to write the exam in that subfield, help to give me a sense of what political science is, as a discipline, it has not helped me at all in my own research. Those few covered topics which do relate to my research are ones I’ve already read rather deeply on, while most other covered topics relate to things I don’t care to study employing methods I don’t care to use.

When people who are generally unfamiliar with disciplinary distinctions in the academy ask me what I do, I usually answer ‘the sociology of war’. Does this mean that I’m distancing myself from political science, or misrepresenting myself? Does this indicate an academic identity crises? What does this say about international relations scholars and scholarship, that I find myself identifying in this way? I think these are interesting questions to explore as a way of considering how my field and my discipline work, and what sort of knowledge we produce in studying international or global politics.

One important thing to remember about being part of a discipline is that it disciplines you. Comparative politics as a field is, basically, the kernel of American political science, and is in many respects what ‘political science’ is, in terms of what goes on in departments that carry this name. My journey through modernisation theory and the study of electoral politics might as well be through shards of broken glass, but these are the sorts of things that many of my colleagues do. And, quite saliently, my interest in methodology and the philosophy of social science does give me some motivation to look at the methods my colleagues use for their investigations. Critically. Because people like me are nudniks.

An interesting quality of IR is that it actually has quite a lot of space for scholars whose approaches and theoretical backgrounds more closely resemble those of philosophers and social theorists than of typical political scientists. Indeed, this is why there are a number of notable universities where IR is its own separate department, and not a subfield of political science. I have been fortunate enough to secure the supervision, in my work, of one of the more ‘sociological’ scholars in the field, and this goes a long way to making me feel secure in my position within the academy, and not to feel like I’m in the wrong university or the wrong department. And while I probably could also be content in the sociology department – it is perhaps worth noting that both my BA and my MA are neither in political science nor in sociology – it is the case that the study of war, particularly at the systemic or inter-/trans-national level, is traditionally carried out within IR.

However, many of the conditions that lead to me feeling comfortable calling myself a sociologist of war, and in using my preferred methods of enquiry, while being a student in a political science department are partially idiosyncratic. They are a fortuitous confluence of having a particular kind of committee and having a few colleagues whose approaches bear an affinity to mine. Were I in another department, even (or perhaps especially) at an American Ivy League institution, there’s a good chance that these conditions wouldn’t obtain. Toronto is unusual in that respect, in that we have a number of IR scholars who draw upon social theory in ways I find interesting, but it’s also because it turns out that I have, like, two or three fellow PhD students to talk about my work with. And had his or my circumstances been a little different, I might not have ended up such an appropriate supervisor.

I think this highlights the need for departments of political science to recognise that IR is unusually inter-disciplinary, and to make space for IR grad students to maximise their cross-disciplinary education, such as by allowing people like me to fulfill my second field requirement by taking field exams in other departments. It also means encouraging and facilitating scholars with degrees from other disciplines to apply to IR jobs, and vice versa. I recognise that there are plenty of professional/institutional disincentives to this, but it is a possibility worth discussing.


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