Changing Borders of Political Science

September 4, 2007

The question from a professor in the audience suggested some worry about whether there was a good answer. A group of leading scholars at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association were talking about the state of the discipline. The panelists had various responses, but what the political scientist in the audience wanted to know was this:

If your provost came to you and asked whether the discussion of normative, contemporary political issues had "a home" in the university, what would you say?

Wendy Brown, a panelist who is a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley, didn't reassure with her answer to what she called "a very important question." It's actually "more and more difficult" to find such discussion in undergraduate political science programs, she said. Students who want that kind of education "don't come near political science," she said, and they get it "in the humanities" -- a development that she said political scientists find annoying because the humanists don't understand political science.

What is and isn't part of political science was the topic of much discussion at the APSA meeting, which concluded Sunday, in Chicago. Among the topics of debate: how U.S.-focused the discipline is and should be, the impact of the hard sciences -- especially genetics -- on political science, and the ability of political scientists to teach with professors from other disciplines.

Too Parochial?

The session at which the question about the hypothetical provost was asked was actually about the issue of whether political science is too parochial -- and most of the panelists focused on the question of the emphasis on American government within the field. Several said that American government's place as a subfield inevitably skews the discipline, both in terms of what scholars study and teach, and how they do so. Some went so far as to call for the elimination of American government as a subfield, despite its popularity. (While not all political science departments use the same subfields, a standard division would be American government, political theory, comparative politics, international relations, and methodologies.)

David Laitin, a professor at Stanford University, said that American government is the "premier field" within political science -- and a field that shouldn't exist. He asked by way of comparison if the scholars could imagine psychology or economics departments having as their top subfield American psychology or American economics.

Anne Norton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said that while she believed the discipline would never abandon the American government subfield, she thinks its existence should be seriously debated. The lack of perspective of American political scientists makes them less effective, she said. "It makes us more stupid than we need to be."

One major problem, Norton said, is that political scientists are not nearly as proficient as they should be in foreign languages. Not only are many departments minimalist about language requirements for graduate students ("we are substituting math for foreign languages," she joked), but they discourage graduate students who want to take language study seriously. Departmental expectations on how many years it will take for a graduate student to finish "impose costs on our graduate students."

When American political scientists read the works of theorists from other cultures, Norton added, they are more likely to view what they are reading as "raw material" to, for example, "find out what those Islamists think," rather than viewing such writing as potentially offering important points of view worth considering in their own right.

Non-American political scientists are better connected than their U.S. counterparts are to politicians, civil servants, and the press, Norton said, and so have a more inclusive perspective from which Americans are isolated. Norton stressed that she wasn't suggesting the abandonment of research on American government, but a change in how it is explored. "We understand America in isolation, and so we study it badly," she said.

Stanford's Laitin said he too did not mean to denigrate the study of the United States. In fact, he said that many of the most significant advances in the discipline -- especially in the study of elections -- are coming out of the American government subfield. His solution to this problem is to change the American government subfield to one focused on "the mechanics of democratic institutions." Many of those institutions would be American, but not all of them, and the American institutions would be studied in a more sophisticated way, he said.

Others at the meeting gave a "yes, but" answer to the question of whether political science is too focused on the United States. Stathis Kalyvas, director of Yale University's Program on Order, Conflict and Violence, said that it's hard not to think about questions of parochialism when attending the APSA meeting, and hearing people on panels use "the plural we" to talk about the United States, or to hear professors offer views on "a good solution for Iraq" when they are really talking about good solutions for the United States in Iraq.

But he said he was also struck by the increasing influence of the hard sciences in political science as a countervailing force, given that its influence is not nation-specific. While it may be true that too many American scholars are effectively monolingual, Kalyvas also noted that many top departments are hiring more talent from abroad and English is the lingua franca for educated discussion worldwide. So some of the problems raised by others, he said, are increasingly mitigated.

Jack L. Snyder, a professor of international relations at Columbia University, said he too saw some causes for concern. Since the end of the Cold War, he said, area studies programs have had "leakage" of positions and he sees the leadership of many such programs passing from political scientists to humanities scholars.

But he rejected the idea that American scholars -- at least in international relations -- are teaching in a way that is too inwardly focused. He cited a survey conducted by researchers at the College of William & Mary that asked international relations professors in the United States and Canada about areas of the world to which they devote "substantial" attention in introductory courses. Americans were significantly more likely than Canadians to cover Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, South Asia, East Asia and the Middle East. This suggests that American professors are more engaged with the rest of the world than critics believe, Snyder said.

Impact of Genetics

One disciplinary crossover visible at the conference was from the biological sciences. A number of papers explored the impact of neurology, biology and especially of genetics on political science. Several major research projects described at the meeting involved collaborations with medical researchers. At one session, one scholar noted that he had a Ph.D. in political science, but works in a genetics department. Another panelist interjected that the discipline is in danger if it loses such scholars to other fields.

James Fowler, a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego, described a major project in which he is involved and that runs counter to much of the political analysis about voter turnout. While the questions of why people vote or don't are crucial to so much political work, research on the topic is of the "everything but the kitchen sink" variety, in which so many factors have been identified that there is little certainty about what really makes a difference.

The project Fowler described looked at the voting records of twins in Los Angeles. Because there is a large database of twins, which was cross-analyzed with voting records, the twins did not have to report their voting records, which eliminates the major problem of voting surveys in that many people don't like to admit that they don't vote.

The project found statistically significant differences in the voting patterns of identical and non-identical twins (identical twins being much more likely to have similar patterns on voting). And the differences continue when factoring in whether the twins were raised together. For years, many social scientists have assumed that similar voting participation patterns of parents suggested that voting was a learned behavior, but Fowler said that the twins study rebuts that.

The California researchers estimate that genetics makes up 60 percent of whether or not a person votes.

Many social scientists have been "reluctant to admit" the role of genetics in political decision making, Fowler said. But growing evidence makes that position harder to defend, he added. Behavioral sciences and genetics have left political science "on the verge of a new frontier," he said.

Shakespeare, Child Development and Geography in the Poli Sci Classroom

Disciplinary boundaries were also hot topics in sessions on teaching, several of which focused on how to apply content from other fields to political science with the goal of helping students understand concepts that might otherwise be difficult.

William J. Ball, a political scientist at the College of New Jersey, discussed using geographic information systems in his courses on local politics. Ball typically has students do research about their hometowns, and finds that while the students know plenty, they also are incorrect about the geography, and the way geography intersects with policy.

Ellen Grigsby, who teaches political theory at the University of New Mexico, spoke about how she uses King Lear to change the way undergraduates understand some key texts. Grigsby uses Lear to draw out issues of movement and voice, the former being the way a perspective may change over time and the latter being the different perspectives that characters bring to a story.

When her undergraduates used to read Hobbes' Leviathan or Locke's Second Treatise on Government, they would tend to focus on a single concept that, to them, represented what they were supposed to get out of the text. They were uncomfortable with the idea that there were contradictions or nuances. But when Lear is taught first, the students are much more open to applying literary tools "to read against the superficial readings" of those works.

Scott Erb, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington, discussed a course on children and war that he developed with Mellisa Clawson, who teaches early childhood education. They begin the course with basic theories about war and conflict, as well as on child development. Then they do case studies on the impact of war on children in places like Rwanda and Iraq. Gang violence in the United States and its impact is also considered.

Erb said that one of the things that has been most striking about the course is the backlash he receives from the education students in the class. "They really rebelled against political science," he said, and they told him that his discipline "doesn't really apply" to children. Generally, he said, his political science students in the class approach the issues "in a theoretical and abstract" way, while the education students are "very practical," and want to know how what they are learning could help children.

While the students challenged him, Erb said the experience led him to change the way he teaches international relations, looking more at non-governmental organizations and their role and also considering issues of sentiment. "I think sentiment matters," he said.

One of the greatest rewards of the joint course, Erb said, was watching how it inspired students to get involved. After taking the course, some students created a campus chapter of Amnesty International.

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