51st Annual ISA Convention - New Orleans, LA: 2010

Theory vs. Policy? Connecting Scholars and Practitioners

February 17th - 20th, 2010
New Orleans, LA, USA
Program Chair: Elizabeth R. DeSombre, Wellesley College

Paper Archive

Call for Proposals

In world politics, the supposed division between two groups – those who observe and analyze a subject and those who practice it – is something of a shibboleth. To most scholars, the development of theory, regardless of its relevance outside academia, is highly valued. Simplification and generalization are of the essence. Social scientists ask the “so what” question, but they do so often in the context of theory-building; some scholars might even go so far to deny that theories and methodologies need be applied outside of the academy. The inappropriate use or misuse of scientific knowledge for the pursuit of political agendas is cited as one reason to assume the role of the detached critic who remains on the sidelines and away from the policy fray.

At the same time, for most policy makers and activists, the word “theory” is associated with abstraction and irrelevance for day-to-day activities. Every situation seems sui generis, and thus generalizations can cause more problems than they solve. Even if theories offer explanations for practitioners, the “unreal” assumptions and simplicity of many theories are not useful when events are unpredictable and do not follow the neat patterns that are thought to be necessary to qualify as “parsimonious.” Often practitioners worry about the sources that form the basis for some theoretical propositions; if these sources are unreliable, flawed conclusions follow. The seemingly ever unresolved character of academic debates and knowledge – about, among other things, the democratic peace, climate change, the use of force, social capital, terrorism, gender equity, economic development – makes theoretical findings difficult to apply in practice.

Despite these stereotypes, visible scholars of international studies (from Henry Kissinger to Condoleezza Rice) have changed academic robes for prominent policy-making or decision-making positions. Moreover, scholars sometimes take on occasional consultancies, and most certainly, they have strong views about the conduct of their own local and national governments. Those who leave practitioner jobs may retire to positions in universities and think-tanks, increasing the connection between the two worlds.

The 2010 ISA Annual Convention aims to assess the current state of the divide between scholars and practitioners. Do the prevailing stereotypes make sense, or are they simply wrong? Given different professional incentives and priorities, how much is involvement in practice possible or even desirable for academics? To the extent that ISA members have participated in both worlds, has exposure to practice improved research? Has the influence of scholars in the policy world increased or decreased in the last decade? Do decision-makers routinely make use of academic research? Are there innovative teaching methods and strategies to emphasize case study components in international studies without sacrificing theoretical rigor?

We will explore the theory-vs.-practice division across the various issues taken up by sections within ISA. To what extent do academic ideas lead to policy changes in UN global developmental and environmental institutions? To what extent do human rights, human development, and human security norms matter? Does social science have a role in humanitarian action and intervention? What role do academics have in combating global terrorism? In peacekeeping, peace-building, and peace-enforcement? In foreign-policy decision making? In regulating international trade, investment, and finance? How useful are extant theories of revolution and contentious politics in understanding contemporary local and transnational resistances to the neoliberal order? What are the practical and normative implications of research that suggests democracies do not go to war with one another? Are existing theories of democracy relevant to constitutional design and state-building in democratizing and post-conflict societies? Are there theoretical and practical lessons that regional groupings in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East can learn from the regional integration experience of Europe? What are the implications for the study and practice of international politics from the rises in economic power and international influence of China and India? Can alternative theories of international affairs be developed out of non-Western trends and practices?

In connecting scholars and practitioners, we should also think about connections between the theory and empirics across different subfields. Do international security experts, geographers, and environmental activists have useful things to say to one another about climate change and conflict? How can scholars, military leaders, defense strategists, and aid workers, and journalists in conflict zones learn from one another about the changing nature of warfare? Are the notions of global governance and even world government palatable to sovereignty-minded national politicians? What can we learn from an intellectual history of prominent scholar-practitioners or practitioner-scholars?

We invite panels and papers that not only bring different theoretical perspectives to these questions but also that bridge different substantive and policy experiences. We encourage joint authorship of papers from individuals of different communities – academic and policy. We invite participants from institutions of both North and South – universities, colleges, research institutes, governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and the media.

The theory and practice of international studies today encompass more kinds of people from a wider variety of backgrounds than in the past, and a richer range of activities bring scholars and practitioners together in structured and informal ways. We are thus interested in exploring achievements in bridging theory and policy, and in concrete and substantive examples where the connection of theory and policy has been especially fruitful as well as where it has not.

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