On Beauty Pageants, Gender and the Living Dead

Last week, Jessica Trisko Darden wrote a guest blog post about the international politics of the Miss Universe pageant.  Yesterday, over at Duck of Minerva, Megan MacKenzie took me to task for this post on a number of fronts.  Problem #1:

Like my professors over a decade ago, Drezner doesn’t come back in at the end of the lecture to engage with the content and he certainly doesn’t address the half-naked ladies elephant in the room: that pageants are different from other entertainment/political events in that they involve (largely men) judging the esthetics of one WOMAN who is meant to embody each country. Good lord, if you can’t find and name the gender and race politics of Miss Universe where will you ever be able to find them? Skinny, straight, long-haired women parading in romantic, caricature costumes of their nation….and you don’t think to write about gender and race? You missed the politics completely Drezner (and I’m holding you accountable, not your guest lecturer).

I'd encourage you to read the rest of MacKenzie's post to get a taste of the (pretty odious) race and gender politics that she references.  And I agree that, while Trisko Darden's guest post certainly did reference these issues, I did not.  

But I'm not sure MacKenzie's teaching analogy is appropriate.  This wasn't a guest lecture -- it was a guest blog post. I don't have them very often, but when I do, I tend to let the post speak for itself.   In the classroom, or perhaps in a journal article, MacKenzie would be absolutely correct to push me to be as comprehensive on a topic.  I'm not sure the same rules should apply to a blog post -- though this is a far-from-settled question, and I'm curious what others think. 

MacKenzie's other criticism runs quite a bit deeper -- namely, that I shouldn't have outsourced the topic to Trisko Darden at all: 

I felt like I was back at uni and my male professor had brought in a female body (any female body) to teach the week on gender. Sure she has a PhD and was Miss Earth- and she does have a unique perspective on pageants; however, since when do we need an insider to write about the politics of an issue....

Do we still need ladies to comment on lady issues Drezner?

Hmm.... Trisko Darden's unique perspective was exactly what made it a useful and informative guest post.  But let's step back from these particulars, and get to the deeper question.  If MacKenzie really wants to go there, then I'd observe that, yeah, responses like hers do an excellent job of raising the barriers for male political scientists to comment on gender politics when it's not their area of expertise.  Why on God's green earth would I want to venture out from my professional comfort zone of American foreign policy and global political economy to blog about the politics of gender -- just so I can be told by experts on gender politics that I'm doing it wrong?  To be clear, there is some upside to such engagement -- see the next paragraph.  But the thing is, the downside risks of poorly articulated arguments on this subject are pretty massive.  Indeed, I suspect Duck of Minerva bloggers are fully cognizant of those risks

Now, all that said, MacKenzie makes a good point -- I've talked about lady issues in the past, I shouldn't be too scared talking about them in the future.  And it is altogether good and appropriate for scholars to venture beyond their intellectual comfort zone -- it's the best way to learn.  And as it happens, an opportunity presents itself on this front. 

I'm about to start work on the revised revived edition of Theories of International Politics and Zombies.  There's gonna be some updating of the zombie material -- a lot has happened in recent years.  But one of the things that's gnawed at me since the first edition of the book came out was that I didn't talk a lot about more critical perspectives of international relations theory.  So I'm throwing caution into the wind and adding a chapter on feminist international relations theory and zombies.  [Because of this?--ed.  No, I decided to do this quite some time ago.]

This means I'm gonna have to read up on feminist IR theory.  A lot.  As I've noted, feminist approaches to international relations are not my strong suit, and it's going to be rather important to get the tone right.  So I'd ask MacKenzie, as well as readers on this subject, to suggest in the comments the pertinent feminist literature (beyond the obvious canonical citations) that would speak to "post-human" politics.  And vice versa -- which parts of the zombie canon clearly have things to say about the politics of gender? 

Daniel W. Drezner

Why Foreign Affairs Policymakers are More Prejudiced than Economic Policymakers

Yesterday I was intermittently watching Janet Yellen's testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, and I was struck by how often she relied on the guidance of "studies" to explain her worldview on monetary policy.  By "studies," Yellen was referring to the policy-relevant academic literature. 

This, in and of itself, is not extraordinary -- you'd find the same trope when Ben Bernanke testified.  But it got me to thinking,. and then to tweeting


My point is that no foreign policy principal, in testifying before Congress, would ever think of saying that the academic literature guides their thinking on a particular policy issue. 

In response to that tweet, Chris Blattman -- a strange economist in the stranger land of political science -- offered a response

[An] immense amount of what the best political scientists are doing is irrelevant to what State or the NSC does, and what is relevant is often of mediocre quality. I think this is improving but I’m not very sure. (emphasis added)

Now it's possible that Blattman is correct -- but I don't think so.  First, I'm unconvinced that political scientists are doing as much irrelevant scholarship as he suggests.  More importantly, I'm extremely dubious of the implicit contention that a greater fraction of political scientists are doing policy irrelevant work than, say, economists. 

I'd offer an alternative hypothesis -- prejudice.  The issue isn't the poverty of political science research, but rather that foreign affairs policymakers view their relevant academic literature very differently from the way economic policymakers view their relevant academic literature.  To repeat myself

[T[he fundamental difference between economic policy and foreign policy is that the former community accepts the idea that economic methodologies and theory-building enterprises have value, and are worth using as a guide to policymaking.  This doesn't mean economists agree on everything, but it does mean they are all speaking a common language and accept the notion of external validity checks on their arguments. 

That consensus simply does not exist within the foreign policy community....  Many members of the foreign policy community explicitly reject the notion that social science methodologies and techniques can explain much in world politics.  They therefore are predisposed to reject the kind of scholarship that political scientists of all stripes generate.   This might be for well-founded reasons, it might be simple innumeracy hostility to the academy, or it might be a combination of the two.  I'd love to have a debate about whether that's a good or bad thing, but my point is that's the reality we face. 

For evidence to back up my assertion, see this forthcoming International Studies Quarterly paper by Michael Desch and Paul Avey entitled "What Do Policymakers Want From Us?"  They find that senior foreign affairs policymakers are extremely dubious about the utility of political science scholarship.  The interesting finding is why: 

[T]he more sophisticated social science methods such as formal models, operations research, theoretical analysis, and quantitative analysis tended to be categorized more often as “not very useful” or “not useful at all,” calling into question the direct influence of these approaches to international relations. Indeed, the only methodology that more than half the respondents characterized as “not very useful” or “not useful at all” was formal models. As Table 4 shows, the higher the rank of the government official, the less likely he or she was to think that formal models were useful for policymaking (p. 11).

Now here's the thing -- as Desch and Avey note, these very same policymakers have a very different attitude about economics:  "Respondents were more tolerant of 'highly theoretical writings [and] complex statistical analysis of social science topics' in the realm of Economics (p. 9)."  Indeed, they note at the end of their paper that an outstanding question remains:  "why is it that policymakers are relatively tolerant of complex modeling and statistical work in Economics and survey research but not in other areas of political science and international relations? (p. 35)"

Maybe this is because economists are really just far more sophisticated in their research than political scientists -- but I don't think so.  Maybe, as Desch and Avey postulate, it's because foreign affairs policymakers exaggerate how important these methodologies are to economic policymakers.  Or maybe it's something different:  it's that economic policymakers have imbibed the methodology and jargon of economists in a way that foreign policymakers have not with international relations.  They don't reflexively pre-judge such scholarship in a negative light. 

What do you think?