The state of international relations studies in Canada

From the diversity of its scholars to the most desirable schools, the field has not changed much in recent years, writes Steve Saideman, as he looks at the results of a recent survey.

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January 16, 2019
The University of Toronto campus. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Four years ago, I took stock of Canada’s international relations field, examining the demographics of the professors who study international relations as well as what they think of Canadian IR institutions. My analysis was based on a 2014 survey done by the Teaching, Research and International Policy [TRIP] project. TRIP surveys academics around the world on a whole suite of questions about every four years and surveys American IR scholars more frequently on public policy issues.

TRIP re-ran the worldwide survey in the spring of 2018, releasing the results to its research teams a few months ago (the results are not yet publicly available online). For the Canadian sub-survey, of the approximately 600 scholars contacted by the project, more than 200 answered, producing a response rate of nearly 33 percent — the best response rate of any country. As I am part of the team of academics who assist with the project, I would like to update Canadians on the state of international relations in this country.

To be clear, only so much can change in a short period. Still, as we can see below, when it comes to the field’s demographics, there have been some modest changes, even progress, in the last few years. In my previous report for OpenCanada, I compared Canada to the United Kingdom and the United States. In this report, I will compare the new results to the 2014 survey.

First, the latest results show that Canadian IR scholarship is still a male-dominated field. (All the results are based on those who filled out the survey — and my analysis here is based on the assumption the respondents are a reflection of those in the field as a whole.)

IR graph 1

The percentages have changed modestly, with female respondents increasing to 34 percent from 29 percent. While this might be an artifact of who responded last time versus this time, movement does seem to be in a more diverse direction.

Similarly, the field is mostly white (81 percent):

IR graph 2

In 2014, the respondents were 83 percent white, so it is hard to say that the field is becoming much more diverse along race or ethnicity.

The most striking change is the aging of the professoriate:

IR graph 3

It may be that response rates favoured older scholars, but this figure suggests the field is getting older. It perhaps may be the case that the past several years have seen less hiring of junior faculty. There has been much written about the aging professoriate, so we should not be too surprised by this finding. The end of mandatory retirement in Canada in 2007 has made it possible for older professors to stick around longer. Because much of the inequality is baked into the decisions of the past, if the field continues to age, it will be difficult to make much more progress on diversifying.

As for the results of rankings of schools and think tanks, again, since not much time has passed, and reputations are sticky, we should not expect to see significant changes.

Canada’s IR scholars were asked which three doctoral programs in Canada they would recommend for an academic career either in political science or international relations:

IR graph 4

The big three remain quite dominant, each listed at a far greater rate than the others. These three programs are generally the most “American” in terms of outlooks, methodology and past hiring practices — more quantitative, less focused on “critical” security studies, and more willing to hire Americans. The rest were mentioned by four percent of the respondents or less in 2018.

(To be clear, some of the institutions, such as the Carleton and Ottawa entries, like last time, may refer to multiple programs, as respondents usually did not distinguish between political science, international affairs and other programs. For the rankings, the survey did not prompt respondents about names of programs — they filled in whatever answers they chose. I then combined the answers for those places where there is more than one program. For PhDs, some schools in Canada have multiple programs, so we listed by school. For MA programs, most programs have distinctive names that respondents listed.)

We did ask new questions about what IR scholars are telling students who are thinking of applying for PhD programs. Fifty-four percent would encourage only the “very best students” to pursue a PhD, 13 percent would encourage students not to pursue a PhD, and 29 percent would neither encourage nor discourage. Four percent would choose otherwise. Definitely not a very encouraging environment, which shows that professors are well aware that the pursuit of an academic position in IR these days is quite difficult. When asked if they would recommend students pursue a PhD in the United States rather than in Canada, 39 percent said yes, 25 percent said no, and the rest were uncertain. This is interesting given the somewhat widely held belief that having an American PhD makes one more competitive.

Like last time, the survey also asked Canada’s IR scholars which MA programs they would recommend for those seeking a career in policy. Again, the results did not change much:

IR graph 5

Location, money and history continue to matter. Carleton’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) remains the top ranked program, but the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy is closing the gap. The University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) program was mentioned a few more times than in 2014. Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs received the same amount of recommendations as last time, while the University of British Columbia got a bit more notice. Université Laval in Quebec City was recommended a few more times, with York University’s Glendon School of Public and International Affairs supplanting Dalhousie in Halifax.

Finally, the survey asked Canada’s IR scholars to rank the top three think tanks in Canada. They were not prompted by definitions or specifications of think tanks.

IR chart 6

The Frasier Institute was mentioned more than twice as much in 2018 as it was in 2014, as was the C.D. Howe Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute was mentioned about as frequently as last time (despite changing its name from the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute). The Centre for International Governance Innovation (the publisher of this site) is now ranked second but was mentioned much less frequently. The Canadian International Council was mentioned far less, about as third as often as last time. As a result, there is more consensus about which think tanks are in the top five, but no single think tank stands out that much among the top five. The North-South Institute dropped off, of course, as its funding was killed as the first survey was out in the field.

As I mentioned above, reputations are sticky, so it is not surprising that we have not seen that much change in four years. There have been some significant changes to IR in Canada — the patterns of funding, the expectations about public engagement, and the like — that are worth exploring further.

IR scholars were also asked about their perspectives on parties, world leaders and significant threats, and their answers — as well as more academically-inclined questions about the profession itself, such as expectations about hiring, tenure, publications, languages and more — will likely prompt/require further analysis in future.

What does all of this say for the state of Canadian IR? That the field is rather stable — there have been some modest changes, making the field slightly more diverse, but the fundamentals (which programs excel, for instance) are largely consistent with past perceptions. It would take a significant wave of retirements and new hiring to significantly alter the landscape of Canadian IR scholarship, and there is nothing on the horizon to suggest such sea-change is likely soon.