wherefore qualitative blogging?

This being my final semester, I’m currently in the throes of my undergraduate thesis. While I’ve previously described my project, it’s changed enough to merit a revised summary. By my count, one of the central failings of the mass atrocity response literature is its failure to integrate power as a characteristic of qualitative analysis. Tools-based analyses are nearly ubiquitous among both academic and policy studies of mass atrocity response, while power gets the short shrift. Consider, for example, the interpretive framework of Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell, which is widely perceived as the literature’s formative text: Power dismisses the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy’s willful negligence towards postwar atrocities as in keeping with Albert Hirschman’s “futility” thesis, despite the inconclusiveness of Power’s mass atrocity response counterfactual. Tools-based analyses often portray response mechanisms as inherently fungible (see, e.g. Rory Stewart and Gerard Knaus’ Can Intervention Work?), while underemphasizing the context in which mass atrocity response occurs.

For my thesis, I’m re-centering the varied functions of power in select case studies of mass atrocity response. As Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall’s taxonomy of power demonstrates, power operates in different ways, through different actors, and with different consequences. I’ve adopted a “relational” approach to power, which synthesizes Barnett and Duvall’s power taxonomy with Joseph Nye’s three “faces”. I’ve defined relational power as “an actor’s ability to influence organizational preferences, processes, and decision-making through interactive means.” tl;dr: power is a social phenomenon, and operates through relationships between local, national, international, and non-governmental actors.

Using Jay Ulfelder’s 110-n dataset of state-sponsored mass killing between 1945 and 2011, and Kate Cronin-Furman’s 80-n dataset of mass atrocities between 1970 and 2010, I’ve extracted a case population of mass atrocity response events between 1991 and 2011 (at time of writing, forthcoming). Due to time constraints, I’m only writing two case studies: currently, Sudan’s Darfur conflict, and Sri Lanka’s counterinsurgency against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), although these selections are subject to change. With that said, I’m enjoying my interpretive framework, and it appears to bear out as a descriptive mechanism, at least in my initial observations. And, more relevantly, I’m enjoying the process of qualitative case research. To leave Ulfelder and Cronin-Furman’s respective datasets to the perils of logistic regression analysis, therefore, seems unfortunate.

This enjoyment, however, is extracurricular–at this point, it’s difficult to fathom the case studies’ application beyond a blogging platform. To riff on Adam Elkus’ Abu Muqawama piece on policy relevance, it’s not unreasonable to argue that blogging platforms have a diffuse impact, at least in shaping how students, practitioners, and scholars of foreign policy, comparative politics, and international relations understand the world. There’s a “logic of presentation” here, I think, which Stephen Walt implies in his widely-discussed post on “why academics write poorly?”: scholars may “discover” a particular political phenomenon, but the blog’s primary value is its wide distribution capability–it costs five minutes of iPhone data to read this blog post, whereas your run-of-the-mill International Security article might cost fifteen dollars. And, as Jay Ulfelder hinted, academic journals have not adapted well to the creative possibilities of the “information age”.

The past decade has witnessed a broad proliferation of quantitatively-oriented blogs, as well as those by regional experts. The Duck of Minerva, the Disorder of Things, the Monkey Cage, and Political Violence at a Glance each diffuse political-science research in blogosphere discourse, often in idiosyncratic ways. With chance exceptions, however, there appear to be few blogs in the political-science space that embrace qualitative research as a defining methodology, and which apply case-based empirical analysis to cross-regional, transhistorical trends. This is not to construct a Waltian/Mearsheimerian fallacy about the poverty of theory, of course–plenty of bloggers theorize well, and frequently–but to make an empirical observation about the blogosphere’s discrete components.

It’s easy enough to speculate about why this is the case: qualitative methods are, to my understanding, less than “in vogue”; large-n visualizations are sexier than, say, 3,000-word essays; and, as Andrew Moravscik has recently implied (hat-tip: @stratbuzz), qualitative citations are a challenging beast. Harder, of course, is the process of identifying solutions. As I suggested above, I’m interested in expanding my thesis’ emphasis on relational power’s qualitative applications for mass atrocity response, although professional restrictions will continue to limit the scope and frequency of my analysis. Regardless, I’m interested in exploring platforms for engaging, effective qualitative research. In that vein, dear reader, a few questions:

  • What would an accessible qualitative blog look like, aesthetically speaking?
  • Assuming space limitations (<1500 words, as a standard practice), how would a qualitative blog apply theory to its component case studies? Policy applications?
  • What kind of case studies would a qualitative blog include? Theoretical variations on the same event? Event variations on the same theory?

Let me know if you think of any more, and I look forward to your comments.

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