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Professional Networks Solve Long-Term Problems: Professor Len Seabrooke

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Professor Len Seabrooke leads the Professions in International Political Economies (PIPES) project at Copenhagen Business School, a project funded by the European Research Council. The key objective of PIPES is to investigate how professional actors coordinate with each other in public and private international arenas to provide solutions to socio-economic problems that extend beyond political and business cycles. We asked Professor Seabrooke about the PIPES project and how professional coordination and knowledge sharing will help society solve some of the world’s major challenges. 

What do you identify as some of the major challenges facing global society in the 21st century?

We have some short-term problems and some long-term problems.

In the PIPES project we think about these as fast and slow burning crises. A fast burning crisis, like designing new financial regulations in the wake of the recent crisis, leads to a rush of lobbying and policy production to provide solutions and plug the gaps for different interest groups. These crises have a lot of political attention, involve both domestic and transnational constituencies, and the management of fast burning crises is Political with a capital P. We can see this in Europe with the domestic and transnational politics of working a way out of the Eurozone crisis.

With slow burning crises, such as demographic change and climate change, there are occasional bursts of professional activity in the spotlight, but the emphasis is on improving scientific knowledge about what is happening rather than developing policy proposals. For us these long-term problems, such as the maintenance of tax and welfare regimes given low birth rates – just look at Japan’s demographics – are crucial to address. Political scientists tend to ignore them because they do not conform to electoral and business cycles, and cannot be solved within them; it is more straightforward to follow the fast burning crisis and interest group battles over who gets the spoils.

For those on the PIPES project the fostering of professional coordination on long-term transnational problems is essential to deal with the slow burning crises. We will have more financial crises this century, there is no doubt about that, it’s the nature of the beast. What we really need to prepare for are the long-term problems, since it changes on issues like fertility that play into how the broader population changes it expectations about how they should live, how their society is composed, and their collective aims.

Where do you think we’ll find good ideas for overcoming these challenges?

Ideas are easy to find. It is a matter of who has vision beyond their specific training plus the organizing capacity and social skills to bring people together. We find a lot of people like this in our research – transnational professionals who are looking beyond their specific field to link across issues and try and get some momentum on important issues. And there are also those who exploit differences in professional knowledge pools for strategic advantage and greater prestige. The key issue with transnational professionals bringing forward new ideas is that they often have weak support systems and a lack of funding. This is, in part, because the funding institutions, want clarity of signal rather than mixed messages, and often complex problems involve muddying the waters.

For example, it is difficult to coordinate professionals and acquire funding to support male circumcision as a means of reducing HIV infection rates after a long – and justified – campaign on why female circumcision is a form of sexual violence. The PIPES research team finds these kinds of problems across a range of cases. My view is that those carrying new ideas often combine professional skills and also styles, and those doing so successfully are carving out some new territory, be it on creating new forms of diplomacy, the development of common knowledge and resource pools, and dealing with the demographic change issues mentioned earlier.

 Why is the study of professions important in international political economy?

It is important because it is professions and professionals that manage the work content, actually putting the ideas into practice. At the start of the project we had the hunch that people working for an institution would affiliate themselves more closely with their profession and professional networks than with their employer. This is certainly the case. Locating the career paths and incentives, the prestige networks, the policy coordination and scientific production networks, and where the knowledge, skills, and ideas are held is crucial for understanding how transnational coordination on long-term problems is possible. NGOs, International Organizations, research institutes, and firms are often arenas where professional work is conducted, rather than the organization behaving as an actor. This varies according to the mandate and homogeneity of professionals in an organization, but being a professional is often much more important for the long-term thinking from those in policy, science and business than who pays their salary. In this sense it is of little value to talk about public or private authority being held by organizations, when most of the work is being conducted through professional networks, including what policy choices are being made.

How important are ideas for explaining change in international politics?

Ideas are important, no question. Ideas also reflect interests, an interest is an idea of what is appropriate and who should get what. Our view on the PIPES project is that we don’t need to separate ideas away from interests, since in practice they are combined.

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