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Does Political Science Research Inform Policy Opinions of Scholars?

- January 18, 2012

We are delighted to welcome a guest post by Ryan Powers and Michael Tierney, who provide further analysis from a survey among scholars of international relations (see here for an earlier post). This post looks at whether the topics political scientists study and the approaches we take influence our policy preferences. Most notably, and contrary to some recent claims, it is the realists who are most likely to favor military intervention in Iran (though not elsewhere).


In the most recent version of the Teaching Research and International Policy (TRIP) Project survey of IR scholars in U.S. colleges and universities, we asked respondents a variety of questions about current events, including the Arab Spring, the use of force in Libya, the potential use of force against Iran and Syria, and the future of the Eurozone.

As in years past, we also asked respondents to report the methods they use in their research, their ideological tendencies, and the primary paradigm they employ in their research. For the paradigm variable we allowed respondents to report one of the following: I do not use paradigmatic analysis, Constructivism, Liberalism, Realism, Feminism, the English School, Marxism, or Other.

As in the 2008 survey, the single largest group of respondents (25.7 percent) say, “I do not use paradigmatic analysis.” Still, a majority of respondents report that they primarily employ one of the six theoretical paradigms listed in the 2011 survey in their research. 20.4 percent call themselves Constructivist, 19.9 percent call themselves Liberal, 16.2 percent answer Realist, and the remainder of individuals sorted themselves into Other, Marxism, English School, and Feminism.

So, how do the topics we study and how we study them influence our policy preferences? Below we discuss some preliminary results related to the use of force abroad and the future of the Eurozone. We present a couple of visualizations in this blog post, but you can view a variety of others here. If you’re interested in the raw cross tabs, you can view them here.

The Use of Force Abroad. It turns out that in the case of using military force against Iran, thirty percent of self-identified realists advocate the use of force in the event that Iran acquires a nuclear weapon. This is substantially higher than the number for liberals (19%), constructivists (18%), or “other” approaches (16%). So, comparing across paradigms, realists are the most enthusiastic about war with Iran. This finding contrasts with recent claims by Sebastian Rosato and John Schuessler that a realist paradigm encourages restraint towards Iran. But, it is worth noting that large majorities of IR scholars from all theoretical camps, including realism, are overwhelmingly opposed to war with Iran, even “if it were certain that Iran had produced a nuclear weapon.”

However, while realists appear far more enthusiastic about war with Iran than their liberal and constructivist counterparts, they are less likely to support the use of force in all the other cases we studied. Whether we are talking about a successful military intervention that has recently occurred (Libya), or hypothetical cases (Syria and Sudan), realists are much less supportive of the use of force.

In the Libyan case, liberals claimed to be the most enthusiastic supporters of the use of military force (71%), followed by constructivists (62%), while just over half of realists (51%) supported the use of force. The relative paucity of realist support is consistent with what the Godfather of Realists, Ken Waltz, recently told Foreign Policy magazine when he was asked whether he supported U.S. participation in the use of force against Libyan government forces. Waltz said, “No. No American national interest was at stake” .

The Syrian case illustrates very little appetite on the part of IR scholars for military intervention by the U.S. no matter what their theoretical disposition; but realists are the least enthusiastic with only 13% supporting the use of force. Roughly 25 percent of both constructivists and liberals support military intervention in Syria.

We wondered if scholars who actually knew something about the Middle East would be more or less enthusiastic about intervention in Syria. It turns out the region of study does not help us distinguish between the views of IR scholars at all. Only about 22 percent of those who study the Middle East or North Africa support use of force in Syria. The same is true of IR scholars who study other regions (22%) and those who study no geographic region at all (21%).

The Future of the Eurozone. Last week’s sovereign debt downgrade of 8 Eurozone nations, including France, prompted us to explore how individuals’ expectations about the future of the Eurozone varies with their sub-field of study. Of particular interest are variations in the responses of scholars who specialize in International Political Economy, International Organizations, and European Studies. 62 percent of IO scholars (who often explain how international institutions can promote and sustain cooperation) expect continued cooperation. European area specialists are even more optimistic about the prospects for the Eurozone with 70 percent expecting its persistence. However, only 43 percent of IPE scholars, who typically focus on economic factors when explaining political outcomes, may see an extremely expensive adjustment process that could be avoided (by some countries) through unilateral withdrawal.

aradigm suggests a story that is consistent with our hunches about area of study. Constructivists, who take national and supranational identity seriously in their analysis, are disproportionately likely to be Euro-area studies experts. IPE is dominated by the liberal paradigm. Therefore, it is not surprising that liberals (52%) and constructivists (48%) are the most optimistic about the Eurozone maintaining its current membership. Realists, who foreground national sovereignty and national interests in their analytic assumptions, are much less likely to expect stability in the Eurozone (31%).

These results are suggestive, but clearly not conclusive. These visualizations above encourage “story time” speculation, as illustrated by our musings here. As we have the opportunity to analyze this data in more detail, we’ll explore the extent to which other factors influence foreign policy preferences including age, gender, individuals’ PhD-granting institution, respondent political ideology, and a host of other factors. And, we will also soon release the data on 19 other countries that we surveyed.

You can read the full TRIP Survey report on U.S. respondents here.