Saturday, September 5, 2009

The comps, and the (non)usefulness of academia.

Last Wednesday I finished the written part of the comps. In brief, the comprehensive exams are a test about everything you learned during the first two years of the Ph.D. I did mine in comparative politics (CP) and international relations (IR). I now know the name of the author, year of publication, the argument made, etc. of well over 450 works; both books and articles.

I studied for a month; little compared to my colleagues who had more time. Although for many this sounds horrible, it was quite nice. Not only did I read many works I otherwise would not have read, it also makes you think of a diverse set of questions. For CP, for example: What political system is best? Is nationalism good or bad? What leads to democracy? Is democracy a good thing? What leads to a large welfare state? Why are people poor? How malleable is one's identity? Etc. And for IR, for example: Why do countries fight wars? Do nuclear bombs bring stability? Why do countries comply with international law? Etc.

But, all in all, after reading the broad field of Political Science, I am not very impressed with what the academic field has achieved so far. To give a telling example from IR. One of the summaries that we made for a 1998 article by Stephen Van Evera said the following: "This article is based on SVE's PhD thesis, which is probably the most widely cited thesis in IR." It continues saying that the prime argument of the book is: "War is more likely when conquest is easy". That is it! This is the conclusion of one of the most seminal books in the field of IR! If I say this back home to my family I am sure to hear "DUH!!".

Let me give one more example. One of the things we did for IR was the preparation, presentation and then discussion about diverse topics. Most of the topics consisted of many slides and often we discussed the topic for a long time. About one topic, however, we were relatively very brief... "The Causes of Peace". Does this tell something about the field, and the usefulness of academia?

Now, what did academia - especially the social sciences - contribute to the world; not including the many piles of paper? The Democratic Peace Theory (DPT) maybe comes closest to the 'real world'. This theory - going all the way back to Kant - argues that democratic countries do not fight each other. Consequently, democracy should be promoted; exactly what Clinton emphasized in his 1994 State of the Union. But, there is also quite a bit of evidence against the DPT. Moreover, does the US promote democracy because we academics tell the policy-makers it is a good idea, or does it happen simply because hegemons promote always seem to promote their own convictions; like Victorian Britain promoted "free minds, free markets, and Cristian morality".*

Anyhow, all in all, I wasn't very impressed with the Political Science literature. Let's see whether I can contribute something in upcoming years. ;)

* I am currently reading "Africa and the Victorians" by Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher (1961).

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