Relevance and Academic Rigour: Why Business Historians Ought to Read Dan Drezner’s Recent WaPo Piece

3 09 2015

Dan Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His scholarly works will be familiar to those of us who research international political economy or international business history.  Non-academics will know of Drezner through his Washington Post punditry: Drezner has a knack for presenting academic research in an accessible fashion that allows the average reader of a quality newspaper to make sense of the world. Yesterday, he published a great piece on how political scientists can be academically rigorous and policy-relevant at the same time.

Addressing his remarks at younger political scientists considering their career strategies, he writes:

My own piece of advice on this question is simple.  The best way for academics to maximize their rigor and their relevance is to focus on those areas where the Beltway consensus is at variance with the academic consensus… If there is a gap, that’s fantastic for political scientists. Because that creates a pretty easy-to-write paper that demonstrates the policy consensus, then discusses the academic consensus, and ideally provides data to explain why the gap persists. Often it’s because the policymakers retain untested assumptions, like China’s holdings of U.S. debt giving China foreign policy leverage. But sometimes it might be because policymakers think about the question differently, which in turn can provoke academic reconsideration of the question.  Take, for example, the ongoing debate about the role of reputation in international crises.  The overwhelming consensus in international relations theory used to be that it didn’t matter much at all. Now, there’s a reevaluation going on.

With the possible exception of economics, every social-scientific discipline has its own debates about whether there are trade-offs between academic rigour and accessibility. Accessibility in this context means ensuring that academics are being heard by the group of real-world practitioners served by each discipline. The ultimate consumers of academic knowledge vary, but generally speaking they are policy-makers in the case of political science, working lawyers in the case of legal academics, and businesspeople in the case of management academics.  (Cass Sunstein, the great US law school professor, recently published a paper on this issue as it pertains to legal journals).

Business historians are currently engaged in a debate about the future research trajectory of our scholarly community (see here and here).  Since most business historians work in management schools, we need to give some thought as to the relevance of our research to the ultimate consumers of our academic knowledge. It seems to me that Drezner’s advice about identify gaps between the scholarly consensus and the prevailing ideas among practitioners could be adapted to the needs of the business history community.

I’m currently working with some colleagues on an book about the impact of the First World War on international business. Although the book is aimed primarily at academics, we are striving to ensuring that the manuscript we produce will be readable by and relevant to interested non-academics. I’m working on that book project today and Dan’s piece in the WaPo has intensified my belief that it is really important that we business historians reach out to businesspeople and others who live outside of our ivory towers.

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