This is a guest post from my friend David C. Kang of the University of Southern California. Dave is a political scientist and runs the Korean Studies Institute there. He is way better at East Asia than I’ll ever be, so stop wasting your time on this blog and get to his author page to start reading his books.
Dave and I were just at the Korea Foundation’s big conference on Korean studies in the 70 years since liberation from Japan. There he made a number of the points below, which I broadly agree with. In short, western IR says Asia is really important – China, North Korea, the pivot, and so on – but still use the same western cases in its writing. Dave has some nice data on this below. I made similar points a few years ago. I think the basic problem is that we still aren’t learning the languages or coming here early in our careers. How many of you studied French and did your junior year abroad in Europe? So when IR actually gets into the casework, its WWI, WWII, and the Cuban Missile Crisis all the time.
Dave’s comments follow the jump.
Thanks to Bob again for letting me use his blog – this post originally appeared on the “Witness to Transformation” blog courtesy of Steph Haggard. I really appreciate Steph letting me post it there, and this post will add a few more links, and also flesh out my arguments slightly:
In a post a few weeks, Steph Haggard reviewed a recent symposium on the policy relevance of IR. His post noted that one problem might be the decline of attention to regional problems in favor of broader cross-national approaches. I was just at a conference in Korea about the role of Korean Studies in the academy, and sociologist Paul Chang pointed out that between 1990 and 2015, the flagship journal in Sociology, American Sociological Review, published exactly three articles about Korea.
As a result of Haggard’s post and Chang’s comment, I decided to look at the flagship international relations journal, International Organization. The results are quite similar:
Articles with the following words in their titles published in International Organization (1990-2015):
Europe/European – 64
(Of which): “European Union” – 20
Asia/Asian – 6
China – 3
Japan – 8
Korea/Korean – 3
How can it be that IO publishes so much more scholarship about Europe than it does about Asia?
The standard explanation for why people who focus on East Asia don’t tend to publish in top disciplinary IR journals is that our work is too empirical, and not generalizable or theoretical enough to deserve publication in first-tier journals. Indeed, the key to publishing is to make broadly theoretical or generalizable claims and use empirical examples as a “case of” those larger theoretical issues. I’d guess the conventional wisdom is that scholars of East Asia tend to be barefoot empiricists who like to gossip with each other about issues of interest only to ourselves, while failing to make broadly generalizable or theoretical claims. In other words, the fault lies with Asianists.
A second reason might be that Europe is just that much more theoretically and empirically interesting and provocative than is East Asia, and insights from Europe challenge, modify, and extend our theories more than do insights from Asia. To be sure, International Organization does study international organizations, and they are more highly developed in Europe than elsewhere in the world.
But would anybody seriously make the argument that Europe is more important for scholarship—and policy–than is Asia? For example, is the rise of China — surely one of the most consequential issues of the 21st century — so easily understood, explained, described, and contextualized by our existing theories that it challenges or changes none of our theories of any type whatsoever? Are the empirics of China’s rise so obviously straightforward that nothing about its domestic or foreign policy behavior has any implications for any of our theories? Scholars of economic growth, power transitions, authoritarian rule and survival, nationalism, great power war, and other issues can learn nothing from the Chinese experience? That is what would be implied by the almost complete absence of articles that use China as a case in top disciplinary journals.
Third, it might be that there are simply fewer scholars focusing on East Asia, so that we would expect the proportion of publications would reflect the proportion of scholars engaged in those topics. As Iain Johnston has pointed out, 72% of American IR scholars believe that “East Asia will be the area of greatest strategic importance to the US in 20 years,” but only 9% of American IR scholars work mainly on East Asia.
This explanation extends beyond those with expertise in Asia to the expertise of those who teach IR more generally. I would submit that the median American IR scholar knows more about Europe than about Asia, and hence is more comfortable debating and theorizing about Europe than about Asia. Indeed, a glance at the majority of IR syllabi for undergraduates would probably reveal that the typical empirical examples are almost always European: let’s read Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War! Causes of World War I! Cuban Missile Crisis! US-Soviet Cold War! International institutions are often taught largely through a global or European lens, including taking the EU as an example. There might be a week or two thrown in about “China’s rise”, but in general my experience is that many undergraduate – and graduate – IR syllabi tend to be organized along lines that privilege the Western and European empirical experience. In fact, 30% of American IR scholars know no language other than English. Isn’t debating the causes of World War I – over and over and over – the perfect example of area specialists concerned about a small area studies issue? To point out the obvious, it’s not the only European war, and it’s not even the most recent European war.
This type of education leads to different requirements for publishing about East Asia in top journals: the relative paucity of deep knowledge about Asia means that there is less conventional wisdom about the region, and indeed often that conventional wisdom is precisely what needs to be subjected to careful scrutiny, and perhaps, discarded. But the lack of general knowledge about East Asia also means the author must often spend much more time providing background or descriptive information to set up the puzzle or the argument. This subsequently means that there is less room for theory building and innovative empirical work.
I write this post not to be churlish, nor out of bitterness – I’m actually responsible for about 10% of the articles published about East Asia in IO, which means I can go to my grave and my life has had meaning.
What would I like to see? First, the demand for jobs dealing with East Asia in the social sciences is unlikely to diminish, nor should it. If it is true that East Asia will be as consequential as most of us believe, departments might consider moving beyond the “one China scholar and perhaps one Japan/other scholar,” and taking seriously the demand for faculty with knowledge about this particular region.
It’s also worth remembering that Europe is a region, just like East Asia. I have been in numerous search committee or other disciplinary meetings where scholars studying East Asia were considered “area specialists” but those studying Europe were viewed as being “broadly theoretical,” even though their empirical knowledge was confined to a particular country or region just like those scholars who focus on East Asia. In fact, both regions can potentially provide the empirical grist for theoretical innovation.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the onus comes back to those of us who study East Asia to produce better and more compelling scholarship. We can complain all we want, but my own experience has been that editors, referees, and colleagues are overwhelmingly fair, and even eager to see a wider variety of scholarship. We need to train better graduate students who are able to study both East Asia and also be sharp enough theoretically to publish in top disciplinary journals. But this does not mean simply trying to replicate the theoretical concepts or findings from the top of the discipline, not at all. Rather, the best move young scholars can make is — and the real theoretical and practical possibilities that arise from studying East Asia – is to be very sensitive to whether and how the East Asian experience may give rise to questions and challenge the universalist aspirations that come so seamlessly with mainstream work. Some claims can be universal, but others are not; different regions of the world might or might not have different patterns of behavior. It’s not about saying all of IR is wrong, but rather about marshaling the evidence necessary to say that “here’s something you all agree is important, and you’re all looking at it in demonstrably misleading ways or carelessly drawing misleading conclusions that really need to be much more qualified than they are.”