How one professor is building on a UChicago legacy to connect data to the study of international relations.

By Anjali Anand

A University of Chicago political scientist has released a new data management tool for social scientists born from a century-old effort to apply quantitative methods to the study of international relations.

Speaking at an October 23 event sponsored by the Center for International Social Science Research (CISSR), Paul Poast offered a brief history of international relations at the University as a prelude to demonstrating his new multi-platform software, NewGene, to UChicago students and faculty interested in quantitative research methods. 

While the work of many of UChicago’s prominent political scientists has been primarily qualitative, relying on case study and comparative analysis rather than statistical analysis of large datasets, the intellectual history of the quantitative study of conflict in IR began at Chicago nearly a century ago.

Researchers had previously tried to understand the causes of war through journalistic or historical approaches, but they sought to think about war more systematically after the horrors of World War I, said Poast, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and member of CISSR’s advisory board.

Charles E. Merriam (left) and Quincy Wright helped launch the quantitative study of international relations in the aftermath of World War I.

Professors Charles E. Merriam (left) and Quincy Wright helped launch the quantitative study of international relations in the aftermath of World War I. Merriam became the first faculty member of the Political Science department in 1900. Wright joined him from 1923-1956.

“Some scholars said that…rather than think about this war specifically, we need to see what we can understand about wars in general,” Poast said. This motivated the first efforts to collect extensive data on war. In the spring of 1926, political scientist Charles Merriam organized a conference that spanned the Social Sciences Division and sought to establish a new approach to the analysis of war. Another famous UChicago political scientist, Quincy Wright, took notes at the conference.

Poast said these early quantitative scholars hoped that by bringing data to bear on the study of war,  the Great War would truly become the war to end all wars. “They set out to be comprehensive,” he said. “They actually wanted to have lists of how many wars there were, who fought in them, how many people died in them, how long they were, etc. They thought, if we’re going to talk about this stuff, wouldn’t it be useful to have the universe of cases?” 

Merriam and Wright’s conference led to the establishment in 1928 of the now storied Committee on International Relations (CIR) graduate program, the oldest of its kind in the nation. The Committee’s early reports on the causes of war became the first MA theses written through CIR, and eventually led to the publication of Wright’s seminal A Study of War in 1942. That two-volume, 1500-page meditation on the research directions suggested by the conference included many detailed appendices, and formed the first systematic collection and analysis of data for the study of international relations. 

Paul Poast spoke about "Quantitative Analysis of International Relations" at the CISSR sponsored lecture and tutorial on October 23, 2017.

Seventy-five years after the publication of Wright’s pioneering work, Poast’s new software represents a new step in quantitative IR. Supported by a National Science Foundation grant, NewGene’s development is an expansion of a popular data management program called EUGene that was released in 2000 by political scientists Scott Bennett and Allan Stam to ease calculation of a specific political/economic measure known as Expected Utility.

But, Poast said, EUGene quickly became increasingly popular among political scientists for data management unrelated to expected utility. The software’s graphic interface simplifies the process of merging disparate data sources into one dataset, which can then be exported into the researcher’s preferred statistical software and used to make generalizable arguments about the causes and outcomes of conflict – one of the aims of Merriam and Wright’s original work. 

For example, a popular theory in IR, called the “democratic peace,” argues that democracies rarely or never go to war with each other. Using data from a large set of samples can isolate all incidences of conflict between democracies and help pinpoint more precisely the factors that make such conflict less likely – whether it is the strength of certain democratic institutions or specific features of electoral systems.

NewGene is a multi-platform software program that integrates collections of data from multiple sources into combined datasets for statistical analysis.

The upgrading of EUGene to NewGene is an extension of Poast’s conceptual contributions to the quantitative study of IR. In 2010, he published a paper on what he calls "k-adic" data – data that accounts for multilateral international conditions. Poast’s paper demonstrated the analytical and methodological problems with the prevailing practice in IR of analyzing international events in terms of dyadic, or binary, data. International events like wars and alliance are generally composed of multiple actors and studying them in terms of single pairs of participants can introduce bias into the analysis by, for example, emphasizing unimportant pairings or overstating the effects of certain causal variables.

NewGene incorporates Poast’s k-adic concept by allowing users to construct observations of multiple-country interactions, as in wars or alliances, for a single year observation. The software also comes pre-loaded with various popular datasets, such as the Correlates of War or Polity, and allows researchers to specify units of analysis that are not states but might be international organizations or regime leaders instead, highlighting recent trends in IR research. Researchers can also import their own datasets into the software, making it an appealing choice for scholars outside of IR as well. 

The reason they started collecting data wasn’t for the sake of collecting data — it was because they thought that was what was appropriate given the question being asked.

Poast noted that other political scientists and campus organizations like the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST) have kept up the tradition of data collection and analysis in the study of international conflict established by Merriam and Wright. “We’re all unified in the idea that it’s first and foremost about the research question and the argument,” Poast said. “To me, that’s what Chicago IR really is. Even if you go back to Quincy Wright, the reason they started collecting data wasn’t for the sake of collecting data — it was because they thought that was what was appropriate given the question being asked.”

Poast hopes the development of software like NewGene will further interest in quantitative research in IR at UChicago, and extend the legacy of those early scholars who pioneered that kind of analysis into the 21st century. “If I can help carry on Quincy Wright’s legacy, and do so at the University of Chicago…then it’s all the more special to me,” Poast said.