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Stephen M. Walt | Why I Use Qualitative Methods

December 9, 2019

Dr. Stephen Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, where he served as Master of the Social Science Collegiate Division and Deputy Dean of Social Sciences. He has been a Resident Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution, and he has also served as a consultant for the Institute of Defense Analyses, the Center for Naval Analyses, and the National Defense University. He presently serves on the editorial boards of Foreign PolicySecurity StudiesInternational Relations, and Journal of Cold War Studies, and he also serves as Co-Editor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, published by Cornell University Press. Additionally, he was elected as a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in May 2005.

Dr. Walt spoke about the relationship between theory and empirical testing in International Relations, focusing in particular on the virtues (and vices) of qualitative research.  Dr. Walt explained why he has chosen to use qualitative methods throughout his career and discussed how his views about social science methods have evolved over the past three decades. He drew on his piece “Leaving Theory Behind: Why Simplistic Hypothesis Testing is Bad for International Relations.”

Remembering the Goals of Research

Dr. Walt spoke about the relationship between theory and empirical testing in International Relations, focusing in particular on the virtues (and vices) of qualitative research.

Dr. Walt began his QUAL talk explaining how he thinks about social science in general, which is that research is meant “to understand the human condition in order to make the world a better place.” He discussed the importance of theory in social science, explaining that theory is some set of general frameworks to try to make sense of the infinitely complex world. Dr. Walt also talked about the importance of empirical work, that these facts can spark theory or test theory, but that empirical work and data need to be guided by theory. He said that without this, the models we test might be misspecified. Dr. Walt explained that despite all of the claims made,  simplistic hypothesis testing was not producing the cumulative knowledge it promised.

Dr. Walt talked about his background, personal interests, and his research, using his experiences to launch a discussion on the role of qualitative research in social science today. Even though Dr. Walt was trained in quantitative methods, like most political scientists, he has relied on qualitative methods throughout his career. He explained that he has relied on qualitative methods because these methods were the most relevant to the nature of the question.

Quantitative Research in Political Science

Dr. Walt explained that there is a growing tendency to privilege methods over theory in political science today, focusing on quantitative methods. He said that political science is now focused on demonstrating the capacity to use certain methods that the field has decided are appropriate, and because of this, graduate programs in the field are virtually identical everywhere now. He explained that there has been a “parade of methodical fads” including quantification, rational choice, then large N inference, now experiments, and soon to be big data. Because of this training, dissertations follow a very standard model today. Dr. Walt shared that these approaches are good and valuable approaches, but that academia is in danger of creating an academic monoculture.

Call to Big Ideas

Dr. Walt explained that the field and the outcomes of research will be better off with a diverse academic ecosystem with people using different ideas and different approaches. In focusing on the standard quantitative model used today, scholars are not asking big and fundamental questions or developing bold ideas. He said that this is especially worrisome in this moment of history with big questions on the future of democracy, humanitarian issues, and the role of power.

To close out his remarks, Dr. Walt shared that that theory and social science are a collective enterprise, but that it also has an individual component to it. Scholars have different preferences on what they enjoy studying and at what level of analysis they like to pursue, from grand theory to work closer to the ground. He affirmed that it is okay to strive to be happy and to enjoy the research you are doing.

Robust Discussion

Over fifty undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty and visitors, engaged in a robust discussion about trends in research.

After Dr. Walt’s remarks, over fifty undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty and visitors engaged in a robust discussion covering a variety of topics. These included discussing the evolution of the field of political science, how to be aware of our biases and expose them through the collective enterprise, and the benefits of more young scholars being interested in informing policy debates and publishing in non-academic spaces.