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**


9 Responses

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  1. Delia Ruhe said, on August 3, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    In my experience, the hoops through which an academic must jump if s/he wants to get tenure, promotion, merit points are getting more and more difficult to negotiate. By the time you’re in a position to take the risk of becoming a public intellectual, you’re old and probably a lot more conservative than you were as an assistant or associate professor. And who wants to listen to the old farts? I was 53 when I finally scored full-professor status, and my energy had already started to run out, and I never managed to get in nearly as many licks as I’d hoped to before retiring this year.

    Too many of my students who’ve gone on to make academic careers for themselves — students who I knocked myself out trying to politicize — have locked themselves safely away behind walls of impenetrable academic jargon. This makes me very grateful to those youngsters who do risk it and blog. But I’d be willing to bet they don’t get any brownie points for it from their universities — indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that some specially manufactured roadblocks were put in their way.

    Boring, irrelevant scholarship, besides easing the way to tenure and promotion, is what keeps universities out of trouble with their funding sources, both public and private. It’s also a primary cause of the decline of Western knowledge. What else can one expect from an institution that rivals the church in its conservatism?

  2. Zathras said, on August 3, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    In the otherwise unrelated field to which I now devote my professional life, academics frequently choose to stay far away from subjects touching on government policy or even human behavior.

    This avoids public controversy, but I don’t think they do it only for that reason. In most of the sciences, there is no greater source of regard by one’s peers than having discovered or figured out something no one else has. In the physical sciences at least, it frequently happens that seemingly small discoveries turn out to have major implications. It’s one of the reasons people choose to enter these fields in the first place, and it’s not a reason that disappears once someone gets tenure.

    Sharing discoveries with the undereducated public, from the academic’s perspective, inevitably involves going over ground that was covered long ago as well as material removed from the academic’s research focus. In the great land-grant universities, a common feeling is that this is what Extension is for.

    I don’t know if there is a similar dynamic at work among political scientists. Humans have been practicing government for thousands of years, so what is there left to discover? Maybe something, for sure, but enough to engage all the political scientists we have? And surely communicating knowledge relevant to public affairs and political life to an audience beyond one’s profession must be more intrinsic to the very study of political science than to, say, the study of plant genetics, or even agronomy. Or is it?

  3. Aurangzeb Khan said, on August 3, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    I stopped hiring PhDs in my teams long time ago; no offense intended of course to the present company.

    I had discovered that the world needs practical solutions not academic debates or scholarly papers which are unreadable and unintelligable by high school and worse college graduates.

    We use language to communicate, collaborate and compete in a world of ideas. If the language is too obtuse then one can neither communicate nor collaborate or compete. So, what good is sruch jargonful in accessible language.

    We make simple models of the complex world we live in and play with then these models to better understand first and second order complexities.

    If a problem can not be resolved in matter of few hours or at the maximum a few days then the problem is too big and too undefined and it needs to be further divided and conqured.

    I suggest the practical and useful way to cope with our problems is to utilise simple and accessible language along with simple models. Otherwise in trying to fool others we start fooling ourselves along with all its consequent problems.


    • Aparicio said, on August 3, 2010 at 6:14 pm

      I am finishing my dissertation on international law and politics, and would have agree that most PhD candidates are just too far away from real live, on a cult to pseudotechnicism and specialization. Is just ridicule.

  4. IPPON said, on August 3, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    Many Academics give lot of importance to theory and seem to neglect the empiricists. Physics made the most practical advances, that benefited humanity, when experiments and theories went hand in hand. There have been numerous theories in last few decades but in-spite of all the progress and unprecedented number of Journals and articles and money available for experiments, I cannot recall a single new invention(in last 30-40 years) that changed the lives of people in recent years as was done by the light bulb, automobile etc

  5. Grant said, on August 3, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    To be honest, although I do consider myself to be a fledgling political scientist I don’t pay much attention to the report after report overwhelmed with a torrent of mostly useless numbers. The articles I consider to be the most important are the ones that actually look at current issues and try to honestly say ‘this group is controlled by Warlord A and his forces have broken three peace deals in the past as a result of no enforcement’. Of course we need a good foundation and useful theories to explain what we have observed, but it is a bad sign when I rely more on the writings of sociologists and soldiers rather than political scientists to explain political problems.

    If I were asked what the best remedy would be, it would be to drive the old political scientists (and young ones on their way to becoming old) out of the universities and into the actual warzones. Spend five years out of New York City and in Osh or Kinshasa* and I think we would see more quality work.

    *Get a map people!

    • BigB said, on August 3, 2010 at 6:16 pm

      Placing political scientists into a warzone serves no purpose. A political scientist would go and interview people after the war to find out what motivated them to go to war or what were the factors that led to this war. The dynamics of any given situation, whether political or conflict related, is what drives political scientists. They to try to make sense of what just happened. The short fall of political science is that theories are developed ex post and are always subject to change. There is no real “law” in political science. Theda Skocpol wrote an excellent book trying to explain why revolutions occur. It was thoroughly researched and gave a clear picture according to her research. However, the same year she published her book the Iranian revolution occurred and caused her to reevaluate her theory. (I’d also recommend Barrington Moore’s “Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.” There’s a very interesting, alternative perspective on the US Civil War in his book). Anyway, my point is that being in a warzone does not serve the purpose for what it is that political scientists are trying to accomplish. Again, they are mostly concerned with “why” it happened and if there are trends.

      • Grant said, on August 3, 2010 at 6:17 pm

        The point wouldn’t be for them to create theories out of this. It would be for them to experience the actual events and have a more hands on approach to political events. As I pointed out, I personally am relying on not more experienced political scientists for my data but soldiers and aid NGOs. I’ll admit that I find myself leaning towards studies in violent politics so my sources might be skewed, but that still doesn’t explain why most of my data isn’t coming from political scientists who have investigated the matter. Where is a political scientist with an extensive study of warlordism*? Which researcher with a degree in political science is creating a detailed list of the actors in Somalia? To give a specific example, when looking at Tajikistan’s civil war I could only find two or three articles that actually gave good accounts of the events and people. The rest that I unhappily used were vague and seemed to simply mentioning the war in passing before going on to their favored topic. Don’t even get me started on Somalia.

        *I already have Lezhnev’s book. It’s far too short to be used extensively

  6. TGGP said, on August 3, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    Is net influence of such academics actually positive? It might be the case that we are better off if they are irrelevant. In your previous post you mentioned Margaret Mead, as if it were a complimentary comparison. Mead who misled millions with her bogus research. Which is not to say she was that much worse than most of the Boasians.

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