The Starbucks Curse: A Research Design Thought Experiment

Originally published 13 December 2016 and then re-published following the Great Server Error of 2016,

Answering research questions is one of the hardest and most valuable skills we can impart to students. But we often do this by teaching good research design–demonstrating the ideal, illustrating it with examples of designs that approximate the ideal, and then inviting students to imagine their own ideal research designs.

There are many pedagogical benefits to this method, but it overlooks a central fact: good research design is rare for good reasons.

People, including students and faculty, live in a world in which truth-claims are supported by research designs that wouldn’t pass muster with even the most generous reviewers. We can do a much better service by pointing out how to make a bad research design.

I present one here: The Starbucks Curse.

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Conspiracy Thinking In The Age of Trump

Originally written for Formichewhich published an Italian translation.

Americans long held up the quality of their democracy as a standard for the rest of the world to follow. In many political science metrics, other democracies are—literally—measured against American democracy to determine their quality; in theorizing about how “democracy” works, American institutions are routinely adduced as an unproblematic model. One of the supposed strengths of American institutions was that the sorts of paranoid conspiracy theories that appeared in other countries were, allegedly, never influential in the United States.

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Indulging Predators or Divorcing Research from Researchers?

(What follows is speculative, and I reserve the right to retract it if I’m, well, wrong.)

One of the many ways in which institutions have been shown to have abused the trust placed in them concerns the manner in which universities have conspired to enable and to protect male professors who sexually prey upon women in their orbits.

The fact that (almost always) male professors have long been able to act with near-total impunity toward their (almost always) female victims is unambiguously bad. The fact that institutions are being forced to reconsider their positions and policies toward these tendencies is unambiguously good. The further fact that taking sexual harassment seriously will help to sustain careers and (more important) the wellbeing of women is even better. And the fact that we cannot undo the harms that have been done is a call for serious reflection and unambiguous regret.

These cases have also demonstrated, again, that sexual predation and violence is endemic, and flourishes wherever trust exists to be abused. Consider the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s analysis of sexual assault cases involving doctors and patients, for instance. Parallel discussions involving campus sexual assault (usually stylized as student-against-student) have reshaped, however incompletely and imperfectly, the way that universities as institutions deal with such issues among the studentry.

But there remains a question about how we will deal with scholars as scholars once we have determined that they have committed sexual abuse. This will, over time, play out in myriad ways, from debating whether to rename scholarships, named chairs, and prizes given in the name of scholars found to be responsible of committing such abuses, to deciding whether professors and graduate students can socialize in the presence of alcohol. One core problem, however, will be this: scholars produce work that exists independent of themselves, and we will want to decide on whether their theorems, proofs, articles, and theories should continue to be employed, taught, cited, and honored after the scholar who produced them is found to be a predator.

For a long time, the answer was “no”. If you were a male professor and a “star”, your university, discipline, and colleagues would sanction what seems (to me, a relatively young male professor) to be a wholly unimaingable (but creepily, aggressively, violently real) level of sexual predation. For “stars”, you could earn sobriquets like being a “bad boy” or live by excuses like “he’s from an older generation,” but lurking in the background was always the reasoning that, at some level, being a really, really good physicist meant that you could also be a sexual predator. Your scholarship could outweigh–could serve as penance or an indulgence for–your sins.

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Is Democracy Bunk?

Attention conservation notice: Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels have written a very good book that deserves a wide audience. Their critique of behavioralist and liberal (Manchester not FOX) verities raise real doubts about how political scientists and others study and justify democracy. Their points also matter for prominent IR theories of foreign policy behavior. Their book suffers from a lack of comparative perspective, an overreliance on cross-sectional observational data, and some presentist biases in their history–all of which argue for more, not less, research in their program.

***

High school civics teachers across the United States preach a happy catechism of the virtues of American democracy. The people form a body of free citizens. Endowed with the power to vote, these citizens choose representatives to advance their interest in lawmaking and enforcing the laws. Those representatives act according to the will of the people, and should they disobey, they will be replaced through the peaceful revolution of the ballot box by a new representative who will serve the people’s bidding. Democracy thereby constitutes a self-correcting machine for the translation of the wishes of the people into the best possible policy.

In Democracy for Realists (2016, Princeton University Press), Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels refute that litany. In place of the happy vision’s individual citizens calculating whether the government of the day has succeeded, they describe a world in which individuals invent facts to justify the positions their group identifications has supplied them with. In place of a citizenry rationally deciding that the government of the day is competent despite setbacks beyond its control, they show that even an exemplary president is apt to lose if some event beyond his or her control causes a spike in prices or joblessness. And instead of a democratic system correcting its errors and improving the policies it produces, they depict instead a myopic Leviathan randomly lurching from policy to policy, reversing itself on a whim, responding only to the tyranny of popular opinion.

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Women Also Know Stuff About Resource Politics

I’m leaving this post as a live marker of citations as (1) a public good for other researchers on resource politics (particularly oil/gas) and (2) a private good for me.

Many prominent researchers on the role of resources in political development and institutions are men, such as Michael L. Ross, Victor Menaldo, Jeff Colgan, and Jeffrey Sachs. But many more are women. This post stands as a statement about why researchers cant say that women don’t do resource politics. Its not meant to be exhaustive (for one, it focuses on the political science side of resource politics) but I am interested in keeping it up-to-date.

Big Theory

Rentier State

Democratization

Institutions

Conflict

Women’s Rights

Leader/Regime Survival

Measurement

Economic Development

Health/Nontraditional debates

Water

Get an International Relations Ph.D. in 5 Minutes

At Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt lists the five things a B.A. graduate in International Relations will actually remember five years after graduating. I think his list is (a) right and (b) horrifying because its right, because it largely recapitulates some lessons that IR scholars confidently but wrongly impart to their undergraduates, even though we know better.

Taken together, Walt’s list is an excellent summary of the kind of international relations you should understand if you were trying to become the next Otto von Bismarck. The focus is almost entirely on great powers and their employee-officials–the admirals, generals, diplomats, and merchants who want certain things from their governments and societies. It well describes the sort of status games and international relations that defined intra-European relations between roughly 1865 and 1945.

Yet for those of us trying to understand worlds beyond that–not only the world of 2016, but how international relations functioned in East Asia or ancient Assyria–Walt’s toolkit offers almost no purchase. Are you interested in how to explain TTIP or TPP? The only thing that Walt offers to you is comparative advantage, which hardly suffices to explain why rich-world governments are trying to export protections for intellectual property. Curious about why Russian and American nuclear stockpiles have been diminishing in quantity for decades? Good luck–the only tool Walt offers is balance of threat, which cant tell you why Washington viewed Moscow as so much less of a threat in 1989 compared with 1981. And if you want to craft an effective strategy for dealing with global climate change, well, once again you only have one tool: Walt suggests that something called social construction explains why attitudes toward global warming are shifting. Of course, without a lot more work, you cant explain why those shifting attitudes are only weakly (at best) influencing global coordination on the issue, or why its proven so much harder to fix carbon emissions than CFC emissions, or why national opinion polls reveal so much variation between (say) the US and other wealthy countries. And if you think that peoples identification as members of a nation, race, or gender matters for international society, you’re similarly relegated into this vague laundry list of social construction–not the real issues of war, trade, and bureaucratic politics.
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Thinking about shooting an elephant

When I started doing international relations professionally, I subscribed to many beliefs I no longer hold. One such belief was the idea that states are the principal actors in international relations, and that as a consequence real IR scholars study what states are and what states do.

I won’t detail all of my disagreements with this proposition, not least because, as a working matter, most of my work still involves trying to figure out how particular states work and how particular states interact. But over the past seven years Ive become increasingly interested in how individual people involve themselves in international relations.

Viewing the world from the individual-up instead of the state-down has a lot of interesting implications–not least the fact that one suddenly realizes that all of those people getting on airplanes, making goods for trade, and depicting other countries in fiction are doing a lot more international relations than professors clacking away in their offices.

Engaging in the international entails learning how one relates to others on the basis of categories that are assumed or irrelevant when one deals with others in the domestic. For expats, a category into which I once fell, performing the roles associated with national identity becomes rather more obvious. Much as I have been most conscious of my racial identity in contexts where I am a visible minority, so I am most aware of my national identity and all that entails when I am treated not as me but as an American.

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The Credibility of the Dark Side

A recurring theme in international relations, and the social sciences more generally, concerns the importance of credibility. In situations as diverse as nuclear deterrence or hiring a babysitter, judgments of whether another actor will do what they say they’ll do can dramatically alter the outcomes of any social process. Since credibility forms the basis for action in many instances, thinking through its basis matters a lot. Is credibility a property or a trait of an actor? Is it entirely situational? Is it conditional on a combination of actors incentives and type?

Its in that spirit that I want to investigate why anyone would ever trust Darth Vaderand to show why under some circumstances trusting a Sith Lord is the rational choice.

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