CMSS is a truly remarkable and wonderful place. However, I have noticed from the very start that the student body here suffers from one catastrophic malady. Theoryphobia. Clearly, I am painting in wide brush strokes here and there are a few brave souls who actually enjoy theory at the centre. But these poor people have to nod and smile as they hear others refer to theory as “bullshit”, “irrelevant drivel”, and my personal favorite “an academic circlejerk.”
While the vast majority of students have had to deal with theory in their research, this is usually imposed by the advisor. Often it seems as if the beleaguered student is forced to swallow his theory remorsefully, as if he were reliving the horror of partaking particularly noxious medicine as a child.
The major claim against theory, as a concept, seems to be that it is disconnected from reality. The main thrust of most graduate work at CMSS seems to be to dissect policy. In this manner of thinking, theory as seen as irrelevant to the actual policy on the ground and a needless distraction. While the vast majority of students have had to deal with theory in their research
Needless to say, I seriously disagree.
First of all, policy analysis is not an academic pursuit. It is a completely professional pursuit. The academic enterprise is based on the concept of advancing and building
knowledge. It is designed to seek answers which can be examined and debated, falsified and argued and hopefully: improved and assimilated. Policy analysis is disposable. Once the circumstances change, it becomes irrelevant. It is sort of like the difference between Led Zeppelin and Justin Bieber.
Furthermore, the field we are in is strategic studies. Strategic studies is simply a subfield of international relations. The field is intimately tied to those nasty “ism’s” we have all come to hate. Strategic studies champions the application of theories in a manner which is intimately related to the issues of the day. Ultimately, the idea is to tie the burning security issues of our time with the tremendous body of knowledge which the relevant academic disciplines have amassed over the years.
When we approach a political question without theory, we stumble around blind, looking at facts without context. What often tends to happen is that the analysis and policy
prescribed unknowingly use the same approach as an existing theory but apply it badly due to a lack of understanding of the nuances and elements that were put into it, and without any comprehension of its pitfalls. The weakness of every important theory is ruthlessly exposed by peer review and the counterarguments of the proponents of other theories. This causes an almost Darwinian process whereby the weak-points are abandoned and new and more tested structures are built on the strong points. But none of the benefits of this process are bestowed on the knowingly ignorant.
Clausewitz, the undisputed high priest of CMSS (who I am contractually obligated to mention in this blog) told us: “theory exists so that one need not start afresh each time sorting out the material…” He also tells us that it serves a higher purpose, not as a simple call to specific action, but in order to “provide a thinking man with a frame of reference for the movement he has been trained to carry out, rather than to serve as a guide which at the moment of action lays down precisely the path he must take.”
Just as importantly, theory gives us an important measure of humility. Other people, just as smart as we are, have thought about these same problems before we have. Chances are, whatever our intuitive approach is, someone has spent years elucidating and refining similar ideas. We must acknowledge the previous work and find the holes, gaps and weaknesses in existing bodies of work, rather than pretending that it is all worthless and irrelevant.
Finally, theory and academic speculation have shaped the world around us. For good or for ill. We live in a liberal nation built on the work of Locke and Hume. We have a capitalist system built on the work of Smith and Ricardo. The United States came out of a cold war opposing the results of the socio-economic analysis of Marx, which it managed to control using ideas of deterrence based on Brodie and Schelling. Its policy in the world for twenty years was based on the Democratic Peace Theory, developed by Doyle and Rummel.
There is no escaping the importance of theory in shaping our lives and its importance in our discipline. Belittle it at your peril.