global politics, relationally

The Unwritten Rules of IR

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The other day, Brandon Valeriano pointed out to me an ESPN article on the unwritten rules of baseball. Though I am a lifelong football and basketball fan, I’ve never been a huge fan of baseball. Several times over the course of my life, I’ve found myself at baseball games, however – including one that was apparently a pretty special game. Each time I’ve been at a baseball game, though, I’ve found myself having a lot of questions. While the rules of the game seem pretty simple on face, it seemed like there was always something going on that I didn’t understand. From keeping track of statistics I didn’t even know existed to what seemed to be a complex formula for when it is okay to throw a ball at a person going 100mph, I always felt like there was something going over my head. Something real baseball fans knew. This is what Tim Kurkjian is writing about – the shorthand to what all the guys on the field know, and I don’t.

Certainly, no one in IR is throwing anything at your ribs at 90 mph. Or, at least, I hope not. But there are still a number of unwritten rules of the discipline punishable by exclusion, gossip, and lost opportunity, and I want to talk about a few of them:

  1.  Pedigree matters. To everything. Scholars use the opinions of those they value as shortcuts to understand what else (and who else) they should value, given the enormity of the discipline and the impossibility of knowing the work of all of its (especially junior) people. Scholars rely on cues; those cues come from pedigree. Pedigree is the institution one got one’s degrees from, the advisor that one had at that institution, and the number of prominent people in the field willing to ‘back up’ one’s work when asked about it. I use a word most frequently associated with breeding because that is, fundamentally, what happens in the field. Its eminent scholars signal their heirs, who repeat the process. Broad opinions of scholars and scholarship in the field are as often based on pedigree as they are based on a careful reading of the work of the person and/or research program involved. Often, we claim to have a ‘best athlete’ standard rather than paying attention to pedigree, but pedigree is an unwritten character trait for IR athleticism, and often those without it are left wondering why they were excluded.
  2.  As Kurkjian ungracefully instructs, “Don’t cross the HR pimp line.” In English, I think what he’s saying is that it is okay to be proud of yourself, but there is a level of pride in yourself that just gets fucking annoying – and it doesn’t matter how good your work is. There’s no one who fully gets away with “crossing the HR pimp line.” Some people are good enough and their work well respected enough that they never hear the complaints about how full of themselves they are – but that doesn’t mean that the complaints do not exist. While IR academics are sometimes an odd and socially awkward bunch (yours truly certainly included), we do tolerate a fair amount of, in Kurkjian’s words, celebration. Still, self-celebration, in IR like in baseball, both is a liberty earned with time served, and still annoys the crap out of people. Doing good work and being proud of it is fine. Walking around like a peacock in mating season at a conference, well, violates the unwritten rules of IR. While it won’t get you a fastball to the ribs, it is likely to get you talked about unflatteringly behind your back.
  3.  Taking another line from Kurkjian, “There will be blood … in retaliation.” As I said above, I don’t think anyone in IR is hitting anyone else with a 90 mph pitch – if for no other reason, for lack of physical ability to do so. At the same time, perhaps in more IR terms, disciplinary IR can be a tit-for-tat sort of world. The number of disciplinary dynamics (intellectual and social) built off of pre-existing grudges or affinities is pretty impressive, and would look pretty strange to an outsider. Beyond that, when someone writes an IR scholar a bad review, a bad tenure letter, or a bad recommendation, s/he is likely to retaliate in some way that (attempts to) charge the offender a reputation cost if not an actual cost in disciplinary standing, scholarly publication, or the like. Reputation matters, and there’s enough negative gossip about people who never actually did anything bad. So for people who broke an unwritten rule somewhere along the line, there’s often retaliation coming. This unwritten rule is often paired with an addendum “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” – wherein positive reviews, positive tenure letters, positive recommendations, and the creation of professional opportunities are often expected to be ‘paid back.’ Often this ‘paying back’ happens to students or other people perceived to be related to the unwritten-rule-offender rather than to the offender themselves.
  4. Here’s a list of party fouls, the baseball equivalent of bunting in the 8th inning of an 8-0 no-hitter: a) criticizing someone else’s dataset because they didn’t construct it exactly they way it would be most useful for you to pilfer … er … replicate; b) writing a review that tells the author what article you would have written if you were them rather than what article they ought to have written; c) putting together a compilation book of your work when you are … like … 35; d) taking over editing a journal and not honoring the old editor’s decisions; e) being the most-drunk one at the hotel bar at [insert conference here] and not realizing it; f) filtering who you talk to at conferences based on the institutional affiliation listed on their tag; g) trolling on PSR (even if it is not traceable, karma is going to get you); h) goofing off in the back of the room when a graduate student is giving their first conference presentation; i) dressing up for a conference like you were going to a nightclub; j) dressing down for a conference like you are going to bed [note: exceptions based on age and seniority seem to be made for this one]; k) being ‘that guy’ who asks the obnoxious questions at every job talk your department has; l) obtaining the sought-after spousal hire, and then divorcing the spouse then making the department an uncomfortable working environment; m) crediting any success in your career to anything other than the quality of your work and the quality of the mentorship you received … the list could go on. While you won’t get hit with a pitch for any of these, they are unwritten rules of the way that the discipline functions.
  5. Getting serious now: the discipline has boundaries. They are, for the most part, unwritten – they are something you learn by crossing them. As I can imagine Steve Bartman learned, you can perfectly innocently wander across the line from behavior that is okay in baseball to behavior that literally puts your life at risk. While the stakes might not be so high among academic political scientists, as the recipient of more than two dozen reviews over my (relatively short, though relatively productive) career that characterize my work as “not political science” – I see the discipline’s boundaries as unwritten rules – the equivalent of an electric fence around a yard. The dog can’t see the electric fence, but s/he sure can feel it when s/he crosses it. And so can the scholar.
  6. There are boys’ clubs. Kurkjian’s article is all about the ways of honor and vengeance among the men of baseball. In IR, no one talks like that (in public) anymore. Some people don’t even behave like it. But if you look very closely, there’s a lot about IR that remains a man’s game in a man’s world. IR doesn’t have a separate league – indeed, a separate sport – for women, but that doesn’t mean that many of the practices of the discipline aren’t masculinist, and women aren’t still, in a variety of ways, disadvantaged in competition for full citizenship in the field.

And these unwritten rules say nothing of our funny customs that would look ridiculous to anyone outside of academia – conference name badges worn miles from conferences, writing and publishing books that only our mothers will read, the ‘book room’ and ‘conference hotel bar’ phenomena, APSA-reception-throwing as a communication of institutional status, … the list goes on. Perhaps it is good to end with this idea: for years, constructivists and critical theorists in IR have been talking about the need to recognize unwritten rules, expected behaviors, and norms. Looking inward towards our own unwritten rules reveals a very structured, and disciplining, discipline of IR. I, for one, would like to un-write many of these unwritten rules in IR. And in global politics. But that’s another post.