Ivory Tower Writing #3: Looking for ideas

This post covers the art of looking for ideas to write about.

In Ivory Tower Writing #2, I covered the general writing process. Now, let’s dive into the details of the parts, starting with the pre-writing part.

Perhaps the single most excruciating thing during the pre-writing part is finding an idea. Without an idea, you simply don’t have a paper.

Maybe you’re pressured to find an original idea; something that nobody has ever thought before. Something like a model for cyber-geopolitics, something that could cement your reputation as the Mackinder of the 21st century. Let me stop you right there. One, your expectations are way too high. Two, very rarely does a single paper make a significant impact in academia. Three, you’ll probably exceed the word limit your professor has assigned you.

Do not let the search for novel ideas make you forget the basics: that academic writing is basically like being involved in an endless discussion in an internet forum. It is a process of observation and arguing within a given field. You read the ideas of people before you and try to understand the general rules of the discussion. Once you’re caught up, you start observing the sub-discussions (“threads”) that interest you. Here, you may start to notice that some topics are underdeveloped or there are potentially new methods you can bring into the discussion. Then, you contribute to the discussion.

Within IR, there are several “great debates” that have occurred. One of them was the “Neo-Neo” debate, between Neorealism and Neoliberalism. What was being debated? Many things. The utility of these paradigms in predicting state behaviour, the method of conceptualizing state behavior, and many others.

Let’s take Neorealism for example. It is generally accepted that states are rational, unitary actors. Right here, you may want to object, “Is that really true? What if the state is led by a madman?” There you go, there’s a topic for you write. Heck, I’ll even give you a free working title:

“What if Madmen Ran the State? A Psychological Rebuttal of Neorealist Theory”

Instant PhD! Provided you actually move beyond this part and start writing.

You don’t always have to seek original ideas. Sometimes, it’s easier to test existing theories or frameworks. This is what most of IR scholarship is, especially at the undergraduate and early postgraduate level.

Here’s an example, based on what I’m trying to do now.

I’ve been reading a lot about neoclassical realism, which is supposed to be a framework that combines the best of both worlds of Classical Realism and Neorealism. Its main argument is that domestic factors act as intervening variables in the creation of foreign policy. One of these domestic factors includes the perception of state actors of foreign states. So, your research now could be along the lines of examining these differences in perception and see if everything works out as Neoclassical theory expects. One nice example is Kai He’s analysis of Indonesian foreign policy using a modified neoclassical framework [paywall].

Here are some general tips to help you in the search for ideas:

Read a lot! Usually, ideas come when you’re reading the literature. There’s bound to be “gaps”, such as if a proposed theory turns out not to be applicable within a specific geographic domain or a certain method hasn’t been tried yet… and so much more! It actually pays to read slowly and digest the ideas of people who have been writing before you. Additionally, if you feel stuck, you may want to try reading outside your field. You may be able to find a new angle, like applying behavioural psychology to international relations. Reading fiction also helps.

Don’t be afraid to get creative. Of course, proceed with caution with this advice. Start asking crazy questions and you may be on to something. Like what I did earlier with the “mad statesmen” thing.

Converse with your peers/fellow academics. If reading isn’t your thing (it should be!) or if you have already exhausted the literature, you may want to try talking with other academics. Perhaps they’ve heard of something you haven’t or provide feedback on your work, which is always helpful… well, depending on the quality of your friends. If you’re a student, then talking with your professor will almost always be fruitful because they may be able to point out a different way of looking at a problem.

If all else fails, a long shower or walk usually helps.

Hopefully, you now have an idea on how to get an idea. If you have additional tips, please put them in the comments and the best ones will be added to this list!

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