Keeping It Professional: Language and Bureaucracy in the Cold War


Virtual to Public. Only those with an active Stanford ID with access to William J Perry Conference Room in Encina Hall may attend in person. 

For winter quarter 2022, CISAC will be hosting hybrid events. Many events will offer limited-capacity in-person attendance for Stanford faculty, staff, fellows, visiting scholars, and students in accordance with Stanford’s health and safety guidelines, and be open to the public online via Zoom. All CISAC events are scheduled using the Pacific Time Zone. 




About the Event: How do states communicate internally about foreign policy and how does this change over time? Applying concepts from linguistics to a novel corpus of all President’s Daily Briefs from 1961 to 1977, we analyze change over time in the variety of terms used in national security writing (“lexical diversity”). We find a consistently declining level of lexical diversity across presidential administrations and despite variation in exogenous changes in foreign affairs. We argue that this increasingly homogenized language reflects a larger process of bureaucratization in American national security institutions in the 1960s and 1970s. We build on the concept of “organizational sensemaking” and argue that bureaucratization directly and indirectly compresses the terminological range used by individual bureaucrats and homogenizes the language of its outputs. One key payoff is shedding light on what is “lost in translation” when bureaucratic experts communicate with leaders and the foreign policy mistakes and misperceptions that may follow. Our research contributes to work on bureaucracy and perceptions in IR by identifying a subtle shift in the spectrum of terms with which the state interprets the world – a finding that is only tractable by combining computational and linguistic techniques with a large corpus of formerly classified intelligence materials.


About the Speaker: Eric Min is Assistant Professor of Political Science at UCLA. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford University, where he was the Zukerman Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation for the 2017-2018 academic year. He is a 2020 Henry Frank Guggenheim Foundation Distinguished Scholar. His research interests focus on the application of machine learning, text, and statistical methods to the analysis of interstate war, diplomacy, decision-making, and conflict management. His research has been published or is forthcoming in American Political Science Review, International Organization, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Journal of Peace Research, and Journal of Strategic Studies.