The IR/IDS Divide

I recently had a friend ask me for some advice about graduate schooling and the International Development Studies (IDS) field.  

I’ve done quite a bit of international development over the years (mostly on Africa, and a lot of work on economics more generally).  But most schools offer a distinct IDS stream, one that looks at the issue of development much more intensely than the broad, wide-ranging economics and security elements of the international relations (IR) stream that I took. 

Needless to say, I'm not really one to be asking IDS questions about.  But it did get me thinking about the clear and obvious divide between the IR and IDS camps.

(A lot of classes were cross-listed at Dal, so you’d have members of both streams studying the same material.  But you could tell right away which program one or the other belonged to.  Like there was some sort of self-selection in the seating arrangement.)

I find this gulf a bit strange, because both are certainly coming from the same place: seeking to raise the incomes of the world’s less fortunate.  My hunch is that this split has two, mutually reinforcing drivers.

First is epistemological. Inside IR there is a strong positivist-post-positivist divide, but the former is a clearly ascendant majority.  

(There was some pretty good movement toward post-positivism in the late 1980s and early 1990s—think of Kratochwil, Onuf, Wendt, and the like.  But by the time I hit grad school it's tough not to conclude it ran out of steam.  All the grand talk had been replaced with much more modest aims.  You’re now far more likely to hear about the Adler-Haas and Fearon-Wendt rationalist-constructivist rapprochement than the original full-blown post-positivist objectives of Der Derian and the ‘let a thousand flowers bloom' crowd).

My sense of IDS, on the other hand, is just the opposite: post-positivism dominates from head to toe.  This is just a gut feeling, but if a prof demanded every student in an IDS class include a graph with their paper I'm pretty sure a rebellion would ensue.    

Second is ontological.  Just as the idea of scientific knowledge accumulation rules over modern-day IR theory, so too does the conception of the international system as a series of rational, wealth- and security-maximizing actors.  Here Neo-realists and Neo-liberals, by far the two most dominant streams within IR today, share roughly the same idea of how the world is constructed.  The third, ‘Critical’, school was clearly dealt a traumatic blow with the fall of the Soviet Union.  It tried to stage a globalization-themed comeback when I started undergrad around the time of the WTO ministerial in Seattle.  But, well, that didn’t go anywhere either.  So what you have now is the potential for a natural alliance with IDS and at least part of the IR ruthlessly undercut by recent events and a fallow period for the chief challenger to the Realist/Liberal duopoly.  

In any case, that’s just my sense of it.  And while we're at it, I'll throw in my own take on international development and the two main questions it confronts today:

1. The utility of cash transfers.  The idea is absolutely rife with moral hazard.  And yet, the early evidence seems to suggest that it works (or at least does no worse than all the other aid programs we’ve tried).  Chris Blattman is a good one to follow on this front.  I look forward to all the work that has been directed here in the past few years bearing fruit.  

2. Will the elixir of East Asia’s stunning growth—rapid, successful, and innovative industrialization—be undone by the speed with which technology is doing away with low-skill jobs?  Dani Rodrik has written quite persuasively that the good run we’ve had over the last few decades may not be easily repeated.  I happen to think there’s plenty of reason to believe Southern innovation will keep them in the game, and that there's also the potential for a faster rate of service adoption than observed in the West.  But of course, we shall see.  It’s been an incredible ride so far.

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