Why Political Scientists Should Stop Worrying about Policy Relevance

The sixth annual meeting of the Southeast Asia Research Group featured a fascinating roundtable on political science, Southeast Asia research, and the policy world. Taking advantage of the meeting’s location at Georgetown, our local hosts Diana Kim and Yuhki Tajima invited four speakers whose expertise ran from gender and violence to community driven development to U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific.*

The discussion ranged widely across a number of interesting topics, but for our audience, the most engaging questions were these: what should we be teaching our students if we want to help them to get policy careers? And what should I be doing in grad school if I want a policy career?

There is a view among many political scientists that academic political science—like other academic fields—is just too abstract and theoretical to be relevant. We heard something of that view from some speakers: your Assistant Secretary of State does not want to know the theory or the history of a problem such as China’s Belt-and-Road, s/he needs actionable advice on what to do going forward now that Mahathir is questioning Najib’s deals. And that advice needs to be in the form of a short memo, two pages max.

But we also heard another view, that for many positions in the policy world, methodological expertise, area experience, and historical knowledge are essential. That is, you better know how to produce and consume quantitative evidence, how to make sense of the historical antecedents of contemporary political events, and how to appreciate the nuances of society, culture, and religion in parts of the world that are far from the U.S. These are not just (most of) the values of SEAREG, they are also generally the values that pointy-headed academic political scientists prioritize in their own work.

I asked about this divergence between these two positions, and I found the answer to be clarifying. Our speakers distinguished between operations and strategy. I think this distinction can help us to make sense of the debates in political science about policy relevance.

Strategy is about making big picture decisions about, say, U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia. It is about mapping national interests to short- and medium-term strategic choices.* This is policymaking that happens at fairly high levels of the U.S. government. It is also what the standard critiques of contemporary political science implicitly hold as the ideal for policy relevant. Research is relevant if and only if it crosses the desk or shapes the thinking of one of several dozen strategic decisionmakers. And it is true that these people are not responsible for caring about methods, history, grand theory, or the details. Their job is to make decisions.

Operations, though, is just as much part of the policy world as is strategy. It certainly employs more people and directly affects more people’s lives around the world. This is research about how to make development programs work, how to game out scenarios such as the unexpected election outcome, how to gather information about social problems or political views, and so forth. Our presenters confirmed what I have learned from my own experience with this community, which is that it values precise quantitative analysis, historical context, and nuance. At the level of operations, the details matter.

The skill set for operations is, to a first approximation, the skill set of a well-trained comparative politics or international relations PhD student.

Where operations and strategy converge, interestingly, is on the question of written communication. The currency of the policymaker is the two-page memo, and this is equally true at the operations and at the strategy end of the spectrum. The two-page memo is generally not something that PhD students learn to write. And yet, every single social scientist I’ve ever met who works in the policy world reports that this is a skill that they had to develop early on in order to succeed.**

I have long held that critics of academic political science may greatly underestimate just how relevant political science is because the implicit model is something like Henry Kissinger. This is, in essence, a fixation on strategy at the expense of operations, based on a very limited idea of what policy engagement might mean. And lest my point be misunderstood, this is not an argument in favor of qualitative research or traditional-style IR theory and against quantitative analysis or formal theory. Indeed, the following sentence was also uttered by someone speaking from the “strategy” perspective: “Nobody reads International Security.”***

The primary takeaway message is this: the skill sets that political science PhD programs provide have real value in the policy world. Area, quantitative, and other “academic” kinds of expertise matter, just not in the way that earns you a profile in the Sunday New York Times. The trick is to also develop strong written communication skills, which in this case means clear and direct arguments focused on the big picture even if the details do matter.

A secondary takeaway message, though, is that there are very few positions at the strategy level, and there is probably no academic training that specializes in putting people in them anyway. So maybe political scientists can stop worrying and learn to love their discipline.


* It is not directly relevant, but it is nevertheless interesting to observe that, currently, the United States literally does not have a strategy for Southeast Asia.

** One might think that we should ask students to write two-page memos instead of research papers. But this is a recipe for lousy, hurried, and undersourced memos. The better plan would be for students to submit two-page memos after they have submitted their thirty-page research papers. The other way to nurture this skill is to blog—yes, even this dying medium still has its uses.

*** This is of course an exaggeration, but the fact that it even makes sense to joke about it speaks volumes. The joke is that even the journal most designed to contribute to the policy world doesn’t.

Comments 2

  1. Fr. June 4, 2018

    About the two-page memos — do you teach it, and if so, with what method? I’m curious because we have to courses where I work (one on Public Policy, another one on Political Sociology) in which we use memos as the main assessment, and I’m always on the hunt for good examples of such memos, or teaching tips.

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