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International Relations: In Theory, in Practice and the Gaps In Between


by Kate Hoving

International Relations at W&M promotes the systematic study of political, economic, and historic relations among states and other actors in the international system. Students and faculty explore interactions among states, markets, and nonstate actors (international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, multinational corporations, and terrorist networks).

One of the challenges with long-term research projects is that it may be quite a while before you gain a rmation of success or even that you’re on the right track. In the case of the work of TRIP (Teaching, Research & International Policy), however, being awarded more than $1.3 million in support from the Carnegie Corporation and the MacArthur Foundation is some pretty positive feedback. The cornerstone of TRIP is its Strengthening the Links project, which focuses on three main goals:

  1.  to be the largest repository of data on international relations research;
  2.  to mentor undergraduates through research; and
  3.  to produce scholarship on the discipline.
It Started With a Simple Question

TRIP, a project of the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations (ITPIR), started in 2004 as an e ort to explore and analyze the connections between teaching, research, and policy in international relations by creating new datasets and analyzing these relationships. The TRIP project team consists of Principal Investigators Daniel Maliniak ’06, Assistant Professor of Government & Public Policy; Sue Peterson, Wendy & Emery Reves Professor of Government & International Relations and Director, International Relations Program; Ryan Powers ’08 (now a PhD candidate at the University of Madison, Wisconsin); and Mike Tierney, MA ’88, BA ’87, George C. and Mary C. Hylton Professor of International Relations and Director of the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations (ITPIR). They are supported by three project managers, and 10-20 research assistants any given semester or summer. The involvement of undergrads and the fact that so many alumni continue as Principal Investigators and pursue advanced IR degrees are proof of TRIP’s impact.

It was, after all, James Long ’03, an international relations major and student of Mike Tierney, who started it all.

“I had Long in my Introduction to International Politics course in 2000. I also taught him in Research Methods and a Freshman Seminar on Democracy and War in the fall of 1999,” Tierney recalls. “In my introductory course I teach students about international relations theory — the di erent “isms” (Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism, etc.). My course is built around the question: Why does war recur in international politics?”

Tierney hired Long as a research assistant the summer after his graduation, and it was at the Green Leafe that Long asked the kind of question that comes more easily after graduation and a couple of beers:

“Mike, why do you teach Intro IR with such a focus on war and realism? You don’t study war in your own research and you are certainly not a realist. In fact, you think realism is unrealistic.”

Mike answered, “I teach the Intro course that way because it works well and that is the way my professors taught me.”

That got Tierney thinking about whether other educators do the same thing. “Is there really such a divide between what we research and what we teach?”

Peterson was thinking along the same lines: “I wanted to make sure what I was teaching was refl ective of the discipline and useful to students.”

So Tierney and Peterson launched TRIP to fi nd out how to go about crossing that divide — as the Carnegie Corporation puts it, “Bridging the Gap.” “There were a couple of ways one could try to answer that question,” Tierney remembers, “and they involved surveying IR scholars and analyzing what they actually published in journals.”

Just the Facts

The first survey conducted in 2004 by Tierney and Peterson went to colleagues in the U.S. to learn how they were teaching International Relations. In 2006 they started including Canada, and then kept expanding. The survey today goes to more than 12,000 academics spanning 32 countries and 8 languages.

TRIP plans to expand its survey scope even further by launching a new, multipart survey of policy practitioners at numerous administrative levels (including junior security and defense practitioners) and across several policy areas and fields, such as human rights, finance, foreign aid and development. TRIP researchers are exploring which regions, issues, paradigms, methods, and epistemologies have been featured over time in international relations research by coding more than 6,000 articles published in the top 12 international relations and political science journals from 1980 to 2015. They’re also looking at how approaches may change in di erent historical periods, in reacting to di erent issues, and in addressing di erent audiences.

The TRIP team applies best social science standards, which means two student research assistants do a double blind coding of the articles. Then the PI or senior academic reviews the results to see if and where the two might disagree, and arbitrates. This scrupulous attention to methodology leads to very high data quality.

“W&M now has the largest repository of data in description of International Relations,” Peterson notes proudly. “It’s a gold mine of data — of teaching and opinions — covering 12 leading international journals from 1980 to the present, coded across 20 variables.”

A Voice in the Wilderness

As the TRIP team began surveying professors, one of the strongest trends they found is that most want policymakers to pay more attention to them, but they don’t know how to make that happen. Peterson gives voice to the frustration of many IR scholars: “In talking about tax policy, policy makers listen to economists; but in foreign policy, politicians and the press aren’t as inclined to turn to scholarly opinion.”

So the TRIP research is beginning to focus on all the ways policymakers and academics may be connected. How are policymakers getting their information? Are they reading the scholarly journals or only more general publications?

By the same token, how is IR scholarship disseminated to policymakers, or more importantly, is it disseminated at all? Scholars think in terms of publication in journals, but perhaps policymakers are getting most of their information from personal contacts and conversations rather than articles and white papers. Policymakers are also influenced by and responsive to the general public as well as legislators and politicians.

People get information from multiple sources — friends, celebrities, social media. TRIP is broadening its research to include general public opinion polling. A better understanding of how public opinion is formed will help direct policy relevant research and findings.

Better Communication in a Changing World

A persistent criticism of scholars has been that their works are not accessible to the general public — not just because of where they appear, but in the way they’re presented. TRIP is examining how accurate that assumption is, while also trying out new methods of information gathering and sharing itself.

One unique and effective method launched in 2014 has been the TRIP “Snap Polls,” which solicit opinions quickly and then release the results to policy makers and public in easy-tounderstand formats while the subject is still in the news.

Snap Polls are short surveys (generally 5-10 questions) of international relations scholars conducted in the wake of important international events or crises and during important international policy debates. Subjects include policy preferences, anticipated policy e ectiveness, and expected international outcomes, as well as questions that illustrate the similarities and di erences between scholarly and public opinion. Poll results are published on and are shared via Twitter and Facebook. TRIP has conducted nine polls to date, the most recent addressing which U.S. presidential candidate would be best for foreign policy. TRIP plans to further improve the accessibility and utility of the Snap Poll data to bloggers, journalists, and policy practitioners, as well as to scholars.

The best way to keep up with TRIP’s work is through its new website: The site incorporates an easy-to-use searchable data interface with sharable graphics.