(Re)writing IR’s Unwritten Rules?

A fair amount of conversation, both online and offline, has arisen around my observations about my post on the unwritten rules of disciplinary IR. I have engaged a number of questions, including whether the rules I observed were uniquely American (see the discussion in the comments of the post); how it is possible to communicate the unwritten rules to new people in the field, especially when they often contradict the written rules (at least in part the point of my series of posts here called “The Hard Way,” [so far] focusing on writing, choosing publication outlets, dealing with rejection, revising and resubmitting, anonymity in the review process, and using networks to aid in publishing); and the ways in which race and gender affect both the ‘rules’ and perceptions of those rules. By far the most interesting and challenging question, to me, has been: how would you rewrite those unwritten rules to make them more just?

I will take a shot at it in this post. A few caveats are necessary at the outset, though. First, as I have mentioned before, I’m not speaking as someone innocent of or removed from some of the discipline’s problems, and don’t mean this as preaching, encouraging others to follow my example, etc. Second, what follows is not a claim that the discipline would be different/better if it was run by people currently disenfranchised by its power structures, whether we are talking about women, minorities, or even people located geographically outside the US with reference to the ‘American’ problems of the discipline. Instead, it is an exploration of what the ‘rules’ might look like if values currently marginalized in the discipline were valued more, and if values that currently dominate disciplinary interactions were recognized and possibly even valued less.

Some of the wish list of rule re-writes are fairly straightforward: it would be good if a broad-based standard about the quality of (diverse) work replaced emphasis on pedigree (which, contra Megan MacKenzie, I see lots of places in the world, just with many hierarchies rather than just one); it would be nice if we could all feel a sense of confidence in our work without either feeling or showing self-centered, egotistical behavior; the discipline would be a better place if (all) scholars could resist retaliation, especially retaliation by association; and the discipline’s work would be stronger, more diverse, and more robust if its (positivist, masculinist, often-white, and always narrow) boundaries were deconstructed and reevaluated. But those suggestions are the easy part, because it is often not clear what implementing them would look like, or what the new ‘rules’ would be.

Here are some ideas (additions, subtractions, and discussion welcome, as usual):

  1. Seek collaboration, rather than domination. The current, self-centric model of the discipline encourages self-promotion and the individualization of achievement. While co-authoring is on the rise, a strong vibe that the discipline is a competition which must be won remains in a number of enclaves of scholarly research in IR. In Ph.D. programs, among junior faculty, and even among many senior researchers in the field, a notion that one’s peers are one’s competition and must be upstaged is often implicit and sometimes explicit. Other models, suggesting that achievement be paid forward, that collaborative research is both intellectually and personally better for scholars, and that individual achievement is not zero-sum, exist, but often seem to be a minority in the discipline. If we focused more professionally on equality and collaboration than hierarchy, victory, and domination, the sociology of the discipline’s substance and politics might look very different.
  2. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. While I realize that we often have to write reviews that recognize that the quality of the work submitted is not up to par (and as a journal and book series editor, I write a number of rejection decision-letters), its not un-nice to talk about what about a piece of work can be improved. There are un-nice ways to talk about what can be improved, like there are un-nice ways of saying most things. What I am talking about more is the gossip about people’s personal lives and about their characteristics as scholars and co-workers that often goes on. Much of this gossip is un-nice, and unnecessary. It is often cathartic to the person doing the whining/gossiping/maligning, but that catharsis isn’t worth the cost, and could be channelled more productively anyway.
  3. Relatedly, express yourself. expression is not a bad thing, and shouldn’t be considered as such. As Brandon Valeriano’s recent post talked about, there are emotional dimensions to work in academia – particularly the odd reward structure and the resultant tendency to tie self-worth to traditional indicators of professional success. While it is important to recognize the mental health issues involved and to try to decouple that unfortunate pairing, it is also important to realize that feeling is a part of life, and a part of research. Expressing ourselves in our work happens, even when we portend to the highest standards of objective research – so if we rewrote the rules of the discipline to make it acceptable and understood that we do and feel our research, the negative outlets for self-expression that we often take advantage of might feel less necessary, and our reporting of our research might be more complete and accurate.
  4. Be receptive. Receptivity is a value often associated with femininity, and often understood as a part of a group of traits that are undesirable, like weakness and submission. Many scholars defend all of the aspects of their work when questioned about it, because failing to defend part of the work would be a sign of weakness or submission to colleagues who have somehow gained an upper hand. Even when we do not defend a particular research decision, we will often defend the reasonableness of having arrived at the decision, used the method, or made the choice. When someone is talking on a panel at a conference, often members of the audience are half-listening and half-formulating a question or comment; when that question or comment is being uttered, often authors are thinking about an answer to promote or defend their work. Being receptive to correction, criticism, and suggestion sounds so easy, but is in reality counter to many of the ways that the discipline currently functions and flies in the face of many of its current incentive structures.
  5. Approach the field with a sense of nurture. Receptivity, niceness, and collaboration are part of what it means to approach the field with a sense of nurture, but not all of it. Note that I don’t mean to promote ‘nurture’ as a synonym for maternity/maternalism – instead, I mean that thinking of our scholarship as care labor and our involvement in disciplinary politics as a place of nurture might be transformative of both what we do and how we do it. If research is care labor, than research subjects cannot be thought of as subjects as such: they have to be thought of as people for whom the research needs, as a matter of normative fairness, to benefit. If disciplinary interactions are a place of nurture, then strong mentoring relationships, emotional and professional care (as if the two were really separable), and a sense of not just community but family would replace isolating, self-serving disciplinary politics and incentive structures. A sense of nurture in reviews, in Ph.D. advising, and in promotion and tenure letters might not (though it might) change their content, but it would change their tone, expand their purpose, and change our interactions around these professional milestones. It would also promote both empathy and forgiveness when people screw up. Whether it is in any of the ways that I enumerated in the last post as ‘party fouls’, or in any number of other ways, we are all going to screw up in some way or another in the field. Some of us will break the unwritten rules; others will say or write something that we will learn too late is a mistake; still others will sleep through a presentation – whatever (and however big) we (or our peers) mess up, a sense of nurture suggests that empathy and forgiveness could be an importantly positive part of a revamped disciplinary politics.
  6. Prize diversity. Two types of diversity matter here: substantive (the ontological, epistemological, and methodological premises of our work, as well as the subject matters considered relevant and important to study) and representational (the diversity of the people doing the research in IR, on the basis of race, gender, class, nationality, location, sexuality, religion, etc.). While there are ways that the two might be correlated, they are not essentially the same thing, and both matter for independent reasons. Valuing diversity as a box to check leads to some different behaviors, but rarely overhauls behavior in the discipline and certainly does not change attitudes. I’ve heard countless times, ‘well, a woman would be cited as much as [insert important man in the discipline here] if she had done that work.’ First, no she wouldn’t. It might not even have gotten published. Second, when we lack diversity substantively it bottlenecks representational diversity. And third, citation practices are an active (and political) choice rather than something that we passively observe. If mentoring, hiring, publishing, and citation were done with active attention to both representational and substantive diversity, we might live in a different discipline.

This might be an idealistic sketch of (re)writing some of the unwritten rules of the discipline. The act of ‘writing rules’ is itself an act of governance, whether or not anyone reads or follows them – an act which might contradict the politics of nurture and vulnerability that this post has suggested is a key reformulation in the discipline. Such contradictions, though, it seems, are the life of the discipline, and perhaps a small price to pay for starting a dialogue on how doing what we do could be substantively and personally more full and more rewarding.


  • delibanon

    I don’t get it- you wrote the snarky unwritten rules post in the first place…is this a back track? Why write the original post about how these things ‘matter’ and then recant with a ‘make the world a better place’ list? In my mind, you’re first post provided insight into how you think things do, and should work. This just looks like you got too much egg on your face. I’d post with my real name, but it seems like you might seek revenge…

    • LauraSjoberg

      Lol. Its not about egg on my face – I stand by everything I wrote the first time, and would write it again – I think that the first post provides useful information about how things often do work. While I don’t think everyone behaves like the first post describes, I think enough people do enough of the time that the stuff in it constitutes unwritten rules. But I started thinking, engaged with others’ questions, about what I wanted the rules to look like – in that sense, this post is as much a thought experiment as aspirational. Just because I have some insight into the current rules (and sometimes play by them) doesn’t mean I find them desirable – this is an idea of what I think would be better. I hope that more often than not I play by these rules too/instead, I don’t think that’s the point of writing them. Its more – what would the field look like if it placed its ideas and values differently.

  • babyface

    I agree with delibanon. Moreover, the author of this blog is one of the big offenders of the “niceness” praxis she is suddenly preaching. And yes, the author does strike back at those who dare to question or disagree with her. Does she have the track record in academia that could back up her own sense of self-importance? I think not.

    • LauraSjoberg

      This is a comment more experienced bloggers would tell me not to reply to – and they’d probably be right. I said, at the outset of the post, that I wasn’t pretending to be an angel about any of this – I’m not, and I won’t. At some point in my career, I’m sure I’ve violated every single one of these rules. While I don’t think I’m “one of the big offenders” (for a lot of reasons, not least, as you point out, I’m not important enough to be), I don’t think this is a “let thou who hasn’t sinned throw the first stone” sort of situation – I think ‘sinners’ can aspire to a better set of rules too. Not to mention (as your comment demonstrates), its hard to find those who haven’t ‘sinned’ among us.

      • juniorscholar

        Looking at the timing of the above conversations, it seems you didn’t take much time to reflect on the comments Laura. Maybe instead of defending, explaining etc you should reflect on your role as a bully in the field. I know you by reputation only, but I can assure you that some of your behaviours have had a negative impact and response within the broader field and within the feminist community (gossip and holding ‘favors’ over ones head being the biggest complaints). It has nothing to do with wether you are ‘important enough’ or not. Given your roles as editor of a book series and a signifiant journal for the field, you can- and evidently do- act as a sort of gatekeeper…

        • LauraSjoberg

          JuniorScholar, I don’t think that this is the right place to discuss, defend, or assail my record in the field – as I mentioned both in the post and in the comments, my ideas for how it would be better if the field worked are independent of whether I’m close to perfect or close to the devil about it – they are ideas about how it would be better, and even how I would be better. The “timing” doesn’t say anything about the conversations – thinking seriously about the comments is what inspired me to respond; I spent about an hour this morning doing so. And, as I have said several times, I don’t claim to be perfect about any of these things – but knowing me ‘by reputation’ probably isn’t knowing me. That said, I’m happy to admit that I have flaws, and not only to work on them but to talk about them, if you’d like to – just in another forum. Its fine to email me, even from an anonymous account. I just don’t think that this is the right place for this conversation. I do appreciate the engagement, though.

  • Catia Cecilia Confortini

    Yes, great rules, Laura. And yes, I have yet to meet anyone perfect or even anyone who perfectly abide by these rules. Certainly there are some who, like you, preach them (or at least some of them) and many still who, unlike you, would never admit to violating them.