Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Is Academia Killing Political Science?

Posted in United States by Dan on August 3, 2010

I’ve been a member of the college community for over four years now, and I will continue to be a member over the next year as I enter graduate school at Syracuse University later this fall.  When taking that into consideration, perhaps it’s not a shocker that I sometimes ask myself why so many professors and researchers are devoted to specialties that are both boring and trivial to a majority of the American population. Molecular biology and clinical psychology is one thing…how can you spice up a discipline as confusing and methodological as that?! You can’t, unless you have a really great mentor who is willing to show you the hidden gems of the field and steer you in the right direction.

But political science is something entirely different.  Political science is not molecular biology or clinical psychology, or mathematics (although math is prevalent in the field).  Politics is an exciting and lively study of social interaction at the highest levels of society; a place where a quest for power, fame, money, ethics, and revenge intersect and often get mended together in due course.  Politics express America’s best and worst qualities, as both a beacon of democracy and debate as well as a hub for corruption and short cuts.

So given the nature of political interaction and the scandal that is often produces in the end, why the heck are some scholars in the field so afraid of pursuing a project that is exciting and useful to the outside world?  Have you taken a glance at some of the academic journals in the American Political Science Association?  Most of the stuff out there is drivel and has absolutely no use for the likes of ordinary people like you and me.

Take this list from the January/February/March editions of the American Political Science Review as an example:

1) Cross-cutting Cleavages and Ethnic Voting: An Experimental Study of Cousinage in Mali

2) Broad Bills or Particularistic Policy? Historical Patterns in American State Legislatures

3) Without Foundations: Plato’s Lysis and Postmodern Friendship

4) Building Strategic Capacity: The Political Underpinnings of Coordinated Wage Bargaining

Oh goody, where do I sign up (sarcasm anyone)?  I’m sure each article is well-researched, documented, and respected in academia, but what average person is going to sit down and read this stuff without getting heavy in the eyes (by the way, if you have read any of these pieces, send me a quick email and I will personally send you a congratulatory letter)?

It’s the 21st century.  So many developments are going on, from the war on terrorism to the current global economic crisis to the spreading popularity of counterinsurgency doctrine.  Why, even during one of the most turbulent periods in world history, are scholars at all levels and of all magnitudes sticking with projects that stray away from the types of issues that are affecting the United States today?

Here are some quick comments as to why this might be, although my observations are anything but universal.  If you have your own, by all means contribute.

In today’s environment, it’s very difficult for an academic to research anything controversial, regardless of what issue in political science we are talking about. Society over the last few decades has gotten so politicized and politically correct that any outspoken piece of writing or any interview out of the mainstream is viewed as either inflammatory or insensitive. Just a few weeks ago, the longtime Washington reporter Helen Thomas was pressured to resign over her comments towards Israel (which, I have to say, were quite hurtful to the ears), ending a 50-year career in journalism on a negative note.

Professors in universities and research institutions may not want to follow in her shoes.  In fact, doing so would pose a great risk to an individual’s career, even if his/her work is a few inches away from the conventional.  People who step outside the box usually get challenged or thrown out my management if their work- however innovative and groundbreaking- draws money away from their organization. Say what you want, but most Professors simply don’t want to put their reputation as a scholar in jeopardy. They want to remain in the field, make more money, produce more work, and rise to the highest position possible on the totem poll.

But it’s this overly sensitive P.C. culture that the United States now finds itself in that could gradually destroy the field of political science. Like all subjects out there, the strength and quality of political science as a discipline depends on the willingness of younger generations to join the cause. Attracting up-and-coming scholars is the only way political science departments across the country will sustain itself. But the field is not likely to attract these students if mundane topics are continually addressed and controversial ideas are not expanded upon. No one wants to spend the rest of his or her life in a boring occupation. But the study of politics may be getting to that point if today’s academics are not brave willing to go outside the box and bypass the traditional rules of academia.

Obviously not all professors embark on boring research projects with no outside application. Most of my mentors at SUNY Plattsburgh (and I’m hoping at my graduate school as well) are in fact satisfied with their current careers and excited about issues that have been under-researched in the past. It also helps that these very same people were practitioners and had “real world” experience before they settled on academia. It would just be nice to have more of these people out there, since these are the people who will ultimately draw students in and contribute to the discipline’s future success.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Stephen Walt at FP.com**