Ty Solomon: Prospects of critical scholarship in IR, differences between U.S. and EU academia, how to succeed as a young scholar (Part 2)
Read also the first part of the interview with Ty Solomon, which discusses emotions in politics, the affective turn in International Relations, Trump and Brexit.
Ty Solomon, new member of New Perspectives’ Editorial Board, speaks to NP’s deputy editor-in-chief Jakub Eberle. The interview was conducted on the occasion of Ty’s lecture on ‘Affect and the Arab Spring’ at the Institute of International Relations, Prague.
Jakub Eberle: Agendas around issues such as affect and emotions, space, time and so on, which you are working on, are on the one hand, still radical. On the other hand, there seems to be growing place for them in International Relations. Your work is one of the best examples, because you have published in some of the mainstream journals like International Studies Quarterly (ISQ) or European Journal of International Relations. Still, as a provocation I would argue that critical IR has not had much of an effect on the mainstream. True, there are these spaces where we talk Lacan, Deleuze or Latour, let alone the slightly more established work building on Foucault, Derrida or Bourdieu, but mainstream IR goes down a very different path and, perhaps unlike in the 1990s, it tends to completely ignore these things. What is your take on that?
Ty Solomon: I would largely agree with that perspective. In the eighties, late eighties, and early nineties was really the time in IR where things seemed to be opening up. People like Walker, Ashley, Shapiro, Tickner, and Campbell really did a lot of work to open up the field and develop new ways, different ways, of looking at the world. There does seem to be different spheres of conversation nowadays on what we might call the mainstream International Relations and more critical circles. The positive thing is that there is more space for people like us to have these conversations and a lot more journals in which to publish critical work.
At the same time, if you go to the American Political Science Association’s conference and try to talk critical theory, you are not going to get much traction. If you try to publish in American Political Science Review or the mainstream American journals, it is not going to get much traction. On the one hand, that part of the field is still closed to more critical work. On the other hand, I am not sure if we need those spaces anymore. We have the Millenniums now, we have journals that publish good, critical work, so there are those spaces now for us to have those conversations. Part of me wants to speak more towards the mainstream. On the other hand, I can have just as productive conversations without doing so. Thinking about the ISQ piece I wrote a couple of years ago, the title was ‘Time and Subjectivity in World Politics’. ISQ is the flagship journal of its field, so it did try to speak to mainstream concerns in the sense that I tried to address the piece to how International Relations is meaningful. I spoke to issues like the structures of meaning and how that relates to how we understand the power of a narrative like the War on Terror. So I tried, but I am not sure how successful it was and how many different kinds of people read that piece.
We could ask what we want to gain by speaking to the mainstream, if that is what we want to do. So do you want to convince those folks that what we are doing is worthwhile even though we are not measuring things or using large-N statistical analysis or separating out variables? Do we just want to continue making the case to them that that is what we are doing, and that it is worthwhile in itself? Or do we want to tell them that their accounts really are not complete without bringing in this other side of social life? Do we keep knocking on the door in that sense? Or do we try to say that we really have something to add to these things and you cannot paint the full picture without what we are saying. I guess it comes down to our goals, and what we want to do when speaking to the mainstream.
Jakub Eberle: This difference between scientistic and critical approaches is often being narrated also as a difference between US and the European IR, which is obviously a very crude way of putting it. We have manifestos such as Critical Approaches to Security in Europe (CASE), basically saying we do things differently in Europe. You spent a lot of time in the American academia and formulated your basic ideas in that context. But for more than three years you have been already working in the UK. Could you compare these two contexts?
Ty Solomon: I got my PhD in a US political science department and went to American political science conferences. But I was lucky that I went to a department where there was a core contingent of critical people. The University of Florida was a great place to do critical IR and there was and still is a core group of scholars who wanted to nurture junior folks wanting to do this kind of work. So I was lucky in that sense to go to one of the handful of departments in the United States which do have a core group of critical IR scholars as opposed to the one token critical IR scholar that a lot of the departments may have. However, when I applied for jobs in the United States and had to speak to mainstream political science scholars about what I do and the issues I am interested in, I learned very quickly that the way you and I talk about critical theories and critical security studies is not going to gain much traction from our mainstream political science colleagues. I eventually tried to articulate the issues I was interested in terms of culture and identity. I would say that I am interested in power, culture, and identity just as other political science scholars. But I am coming at it from a slightly different perspective; I like to look at language and the power of language and rhetoric and these things.
This might be a shortcoming on my part, but it was difficult, talking to scholars who have just been trained in mainstream political science, to express myself in a way that would make my work palatable to what they were looking for in their department. I have heard enough anecdotes from other friends who do similar types of work of their difficulties in finding a job that makes me think there is something more structural going on here than whatever shortcomings I probably have. And, of course, there have been lots of discussions about the particular context and culture of American IR and political science in that sense. I think that my work is probably easier to relate to in the UK and the UK context than it is in the US context and I have had a lot of good collaborations in the UK. Britain has been really good for my work the last couple of years. It is very pluralistic in terms of IR and politics. There are no ‘political science’ departments there which I think speaks to how they view the study of politics. I really enjoyed the plurality and I think it is something the US political science could learn from.
Jakub Eberle: In light of this experience and your notable success in getting your work published in top-ranking journals, what is your advice for young scholars working with critical, radical, or unusual approaches in terms of getting publications, jobs, careers?
Ty Solomon: I have sometimes struggled this with myself as I have tried to build up whatever career I have. A couple of things come to mind. I have seen enough job talks and conference presentations to see that often critical folks don’t always make clear the value added beyond just introducing this social theorist or that social theorist. My piece of advice is to make the relevance of the question clear to whoever your audience is, whether it’s a conference audience, a viva examiner, or a job interview panel. Make the relevance of the question clear and also be clear on what your critical theory brings to the table. Don’t introduce it just as a “different” way of doing things, try to make it clear what new insights your theory brings and try to really clearly carve out how you are bringing a novel perspective or something genuinely interesting to the issue at hand. In Patrick Jackson’s terms, how does your approach “cash out” in telling us novel theoretical insights and probably more importantly, new empirical insights? Tell us how it matters and be clear about it.
That is one piece of advice; the other piece would be to read widely while you can, while you are a graduate student or even an early career researcher. A lot of the insights you will find are not going to come from International Relations, politics, or political science. So you might find that anthropologists or sociologists, or engineers, artists, folks in the humanities, philosophy, are all looking at problems from very different perspectives that might have something really interesting and novel and useful to say about the problems that we are interested in.
Jakub Eberle: Thank you for the interview, Ty, and thank you very much for joining the New Perspectives Editorial Board.
Ty Solomon is Lecturer in International Relations in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow. His research is concerned with the overlapping influences of language and identity in the politics of security and foreign policy. His recent book, The Politics of Subjectivity in American Foreign Policy Discourses (University of Michigan Press, 2015), analyses how foreign policy narratives emotionally appeal to audiences. He has published in journals such as International Studies Quarterly, European Journal of International Relations, Review of International Studies, Cooperation and Conflict, Millennium, and New Political Science.