from Net Politics and Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

Why Cyber Conflict as an Academic Discipline Struggles to Make Its Mark in Political Science

The Boston Public Library's reading room. Tony Webster/Flickr/Creative Commons

It is easy to draw analogies between early nuclear scholarship and its cyber counterpart. However, three factors make scholarly research about cyber conflict a significantly more challenging task.

September 6, 2018

The Boston Public Library's reading room. Tony Webster/Flickr/Creative Commons
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Melissa K. Griffith is a PhD candidate at the University of California Berkley. You can follow her @melkgriffith.

In August 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. In spring 1946, Bernard Brodie published The Absolute Weapon, which comprehensively captured the fundamental dynamics of how warfare had changed in the nuclear era. That same year, William Borden published There Will Be No Time and taken alongside The Absolute Weapon two contrasting positions on the strategic dynamics of nuclear warfare had now been clearly articulated. Within a year of first use, the salient features of the threat space had been captured and the two major schools of thought which would dominate political science research in this space had been formed.

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In contrast, the era of cyber conflict has been around for about thirty-five years, and there is no similar theoretical construct as effective as The Absolute Weapon. There is no clearly articulated schools of thought equivalent to those emerging from Brodie and Borden’s 1946 publications. Why, then, has political science scholarship on cyber conflict struggled to accomplish the same feat?

There are three categories of factors that make scholarly cyber conflict research a significantly more challenging task than its nuclear era counterparts: (1) the characteristics of the threat space, (2) data availability constraints, and (3) the state of political science as a discipline.

First, there are significant start-up costs for an academic looking to study cyber conflict. Cyber conflict research lies at the intersection of technology, security, and policy, and the dynamics of conflict are intimately tied to the technical realities of the domain. As a result, scholars require both technical and policy knowledge to be effective. In contrast, scholars of nuclear conflict did not need to have technological expertise and many did not. The outcomes of interest were more readily observable to a layperson and could be understood without more than a cursory understanding nuclear technology. 

Second, the scarce availability of data has hampered the field. Much of the important data about incidents and how private or government actors reacted remains outside the public sphere for a variety of reasons (e.g. classification, reputation, etc.). Furthermore, there is limited research occurring in companion fields that political scientists often leverage as data in their own work. History and intelligence studies are two examples. Both have a handful of scholars working on cyber issues and they face many discipline-specific barriers of their own.

Third, the discipline of political science has hampered the emergence of cyber conflict studies in a number of ways. The first barrier is methodological. The slow progression of research on cyber conflict is not the result of some inherent characteristic of the political science discipline, but rather it is a product of our training. Our training has emphasized specific ways of doing research, many of which are ill-suited to cyber conflict. Unlike Brodie and Borden’s time, the field has heavily moved toward formal models and large n data analysis. The utility of the former is debatable in regards to cyberspace and the latter is largely not feasible. In contrast to these dominant methods, cyber conflict research largely relies on qualitative methods such as archival research and interviewing. Fewer junior scholars have expertise in the methodological toolbox that would provide the greatest analytic leverage.

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For the fortunate few who are trained in qualitative methods, the absence of good publication opportunities hampers their advancement. Top political science journals favor specific methods, making it harder to publish qualitative, limited n work. These journals also favor specific forms of data within their favored methodologies. Highly technical data such as incident reports are not readily accepted forms of evidence. Finally, the publication process relies on peer review, and many reviewers with political science knowledge lack the technical foundations necessary to effectively review cybersecurity papers.

What should universities and grant-making organizations do to address these barriers?

First, create opportunities for interested researchers to gain the necessary technological foundations. For example, funding technology-focused boot camps for political scientists interested in cyber issues would tear down some of the barriers to entry. Depending on the scope of the target audience, it could also serve to create acceptance of different types of evidence and create competency for understanding these forms of evidence in the broader academic community. 

Second, create opportunities for up-and-coming political science researchers in this field. This takes two forms: (a) fostering and creating spaces for research and (b) creating better publication opportunities for scholarship in the field. The former would involve creating more pre- and post-docs that focus explicitly on cyber conflict or are amenable to cyber conflict work in political science. For the latter, cyber-focused scholars should organize partnerships with specific journal for special issues, compile lists of qualified reviewers to supply top tier journals for reviewing submissions, or potentially create new journals.

Cyber-focused scholars are doing important work examining deterrence, escalation, and security dilemmas in cyberspace. However, more could be done to address the barriers to entry, hurdles to publication, and methodological problems. Boot camps and new publication opportunities are by no means the only solutions, but they would make for a good first start.

This post is part of a series examining the state of academic research on state and non-state conflict in cyberspace, in cooperation with the Cyber Conflict Studies Association

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