Fall 2019 RA Posts

Bridging the Theory-Practice Divide in International Relations

We are excited to share that Bridging the Theory-Practice Divide in International Relations will be published by Georgetown University Press in Spring of 2020.


In many ways this book traces its origins to a series of conversations between faculty and students at William & Mary more than 15 years ago. The students routinely pushed the faculty to think more deeply about our discipline and our place in it. They asked why political scientists seemed to write exclusively for others in the field and to teach their students to do the same. They repeatedly asked that their coursework (and related research opportunities) be more closely linked to the practice of international relations (IR). They asked good, smart questions: Why do professors spend so much time in class teaching us about structural realism and the various flavors of constructivism? How will this help us to do better work at the State Department, World Bank, or Amnesty International after we graduate? Does any of the research done in the IR field actually shape the thinking and behavior of policymakers? What else should we study, other than political science, to affect outcomes in the real world?

We did not always have good answers to these questions because our answers were rooted in anecdotes and second-hand observations. We had plenty of theory and good evidence about war, trade, human rights, and foreign aid, but we lacked theory and good evidence about our own discipline, which are necessary conditions for social scientific inference. To address any of these questions in a serious way, we would need a more systematic approach to studying the teaching and research practices of IR scholars and we would need data on what practitioners find most useful from their counterparts in the academy.

The central question that motivates this book is whether research produced by scholars of international relations (IR) is relevant to policy and practice. In this first-of-its kind conversation across the academic-policy divide, leading IR scholars and veteran policy practitioners reflect on the nature and size of the gap across eight different issue areas within IR. This comparative study identifies two structural features that shape the academy’s ability and/or willingness to influence policy: 1) the level of uncertainty surrounding a policy problem and its proposed solutions; 2) the level of access that scholars have to policy makers. The book’s contributors also analyze two professional incentives that purportedly affect IR scholars’ research choices: 1) pressure to employ sophisticated empirical methods; and 2) few rewards for communicating research findings to the public or practitioners outside of academia. Individual chapters explore the impact of these factors on the size and nature of the theory-practice divide in trade, finance, human rights, development, environment, nuclear weapons and strategy, inter-state war, and intra-state conflict.

Pre-order the book from Georgetown University Press today!