Month: August 2012 (Page 1 of 6)

“Against Dogmatic Bourgeois Flunkeyism,” or what I learned in NK (1)

North Korea 2012 382
My North Korean Visa

In August, I visited North Korea for the first time. It was the most unique travelling experience I’ve ever had. I’d certainly recommend it to political scientists and Asia experts, but it wasn’t anything close to a ‘vacation’ or break or anything like that. (Yes, some of the sites marketing tours of NK actually call it that.)

At a bookstore devoted to the works of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, I stumbled across an essay, from the latter if I remember correctly, about social scientists’ commitment to the revolution and juche. It included the title line – that we must avoid ‘flunkeyism’ toward ‘bourgeois’ forms. We are supposed to contribute to revolution, not critique too much, and not ‘ape’ western ideas.

(I love that sort of over-the-top Marxist writing – I remember the first time I read Maoists decrying ‘capitalist roaders’ and their ‘imperialist running dogs.’ I couldn’t even figure out wth that meant until I got to college. Who doesn’t miss the Cold War? But wait – perhaps Kim Jong Il is wired into the ‘poverty of social science theory’ debate and knows about the flunkeyism endemic to grad school?! A-hah! He knows! He is the great leader! He sees all!)

So here some thoughts that presumably demonstrate my flunkeyist failings:

1. It really is Kim-land

There is an endless debate over the ‘real’ nature of NK – is it a gangster state? A neo-Confucian kingdom? A typical stalinist half of a country divided by the Cold War? Semi-fascist? Presumably the answer is some mix of all that, but what really struck me in-country was the personality cult. Back in April Kim Jong Un referred to NK as “Kim Il Sung nation,” and that is certainly what they showed us. The Kims, especially KIS, were all over the place – statues, placards, and their names on one institution after another.
One defining moment came as I was catching up to our guide, and I walked past a large stadium in Pyongyang. Forgetting where I was for a moment, I asked what it was called, only to be told it was Kim Il Sung Stadium. By this time, after a week in-country, one of my friends in the group looked at me like I had a hole in my head. Of course, it’s KIS stadium – my juche spirit was flagging momentarily.

So if had to answer the ‘what is NK really’ question, I would say a royalist, absolutist cult. It felt like France before the revolution, when whether or not Louis XIV clipped his fingernails that morning was a more important political moment than whether or not peasants were starving somewhere. From all the statues and placards, as well as the relentless Kim-focused presentations by all of our guides – without exception – the dominant ideology was the personal awesomeness and perfection of the two preceding Kims. KIS as something like Jesus Christ seemed far more important that Marxism, juche, and the rest of it.

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Two examples really stick out. At a bowling alley, the ball and pins which KIS bowled on the facility’s opening were kept under glass at the entrance, surrounded by flowers, with photos and a dedicatory statement from KIS inscribed on the wall. At a museum dedicated to the construction of the Pyongyang metro, the entire presentation was focused on KIS’ on-the-spot guidance of the construction, not the metro itself.

The museum should have been called the “KIS Visits the Metro” museum. A steel cup from which KIS had drunk while visiting the construction had been retained under glass (insert juche holy grail reference here), as well as the subway seat on which he sat on its opening (it had been cut out of the car to seal under glass). Huge pictures throughout showed KIS smiling and pointing, and the guide made a point to tell us how the subway ran better because of his guidance. That guidance included installing ventilation and flood control, because I guess NK engineers thought a flooded, unventilated subway system would be a great success. Good thing KIS was around to point out such subtle improvements. After seeing so many places where the Kims sat or stood or pointed, I asked semi-seriously if we would eventually visit the KIS bench museum.

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Now there’s some Flunkeism for you!

I could go on like this for pages, but in short, wherever possible, the magnificence of the Kims, especially KIS, was emphasized. Busts, statues, murals, and slogans were everywhere. “Long live the great Korean leader comrade KIS!” was the standard.

All this was far more emphasized than ideology, the revolution, juche, Marxism, the party, songun, even unification. At the Juche tower, several dedicatory plaques just gave up and referred to “Kim Il Sungism,” which dispensing of the fatiguing ideological posturing I found strangely refreshing. At the Juche section of the ‘Three Revolutions Museum,” we learned that Kim Il Sung wrote 18,300 books (that figure is even inscribed on the wall in a huge plaque).

What can you even say at this point? To me it all looked a lot like evangelical Christianity’s intense focus on the person of Jesus, except in the language of a political-stalinist personality cult. A good book on religion in Korea even makes this argument about the North. Deification doesn’t strike me as particularly Confucian, Korean, or Marxist. KIS’s mother was a Christian, so perhaps that is where it came from.

More in 3 days.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.


An Analysis of the Foreign-Policy Content of Romney’s Convention Speech

Here is a word cloud of the speech’s foreign-policy content:

In this case, the cloud adds virtually nothing to our understanding, as the entire section is only 202 words long.

Below is the section itself. It appears that the speechwriters pulled random posts off of PJ Media, stuck them in a blender, and were satisfied with the results.

I will begin my presidency with a jobs tour. President Obama began with an apology tour. America, he said, had dictated to other nations. No Mr. President, America has freed other nations from dictators. 

Every American was relieved the day President Obama gave the order, and Seal Team Six took out Osama bin Laden. But on another front, every American is less secure today because he has failed to slow Iran’s nuclear threat. 

In his first TV interview as president, he said we should talk to Iran. We’re still talking, and Iran’s centrifuges are still spinning. 

President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus, even as he has relaxed sanctions on Castro’s Cuba. He abandoned our friends in Poland by walking away from our missile defense commitments, but is eager to give Russia’s President Putin the flexibility he desires, after the election. Under my administration, our friends will see more loyalty, and Mr. Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone. 

We will honor America’s democratic ideals because a free world is a more peaceful world. This is the bipartisan foreign policy legacy of Truman and Reagan. And under my presidency we will return to it once again.

As some have noted, the section is particularly notable for the absence of Afghanistan. That’s correct. The US is currently fighting a war and it rated not a single mention in the speech of the GOP nominee for President. We are through the looking glass, people.

Despite my snide comments, I think there’s an important debate to be had over how the Washington calibrates its relationship with Moscow. But what worries me about Romney is that the only setting seems to be ‘major geo-political threat,‘ which overestimates both Russian strength and US weakness while foreclosing opportunities for cooperation based on mutual interest. Such an approach won’t lead Russia to change any of the policies that nettle US policymakers, and may make Moscow even more difficult to deal with. We’ve been there and done that in the second Bush term, and it didn’t work out well for anyone.

The Romney team also have a point about Poland. The administration botched the rollout of PHAAD and the cancellation of the “third site” BMD program. Warsaw was, in fact, pretty upset. But that was three years ago; I’m not sure why “No-Apologies Mitt” feels compelled to keep on apologizing for it. Still, I am not entirely clear on why the administration continues to negotiate with Moscow on BMD beyond the theory that it is better to keep them talking even as the program goes forward.

Romney’s inadequate genuflections toward foreign-policy issues reflect their marginal place in this campaign. What little we’ve learned suggests a factually-challenged view of the Obama Administration’s foreign-policy rhetoric. It also appears to signal a commitment to the views that captured Bush foreign policy after September 11, 2001.

Neither of these are good things, but they don’t necessarily tell us much about how Romney will lead the United States in the world. As PTJ and I recently discussed, this is more about value articulation and commitment than substantive policy… which pretty much sums up not only Romney’s speech but also the general idiom of a campaign loathe to focus on programatic details.

In some ways, the most momentous foreign-policy line was Romney’s applause-line on climate change.

President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans. And to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.

At one level, this was a pretty good dig at Obama: it nicely crystalized the idea that Obama promised the moon but delivered a eight-percent unemployment rate. But it also signposts one of the most consequential ways that we’ve failed our children — and the important role played by the modern Republican party in that failure. Perhaps, if elected, Romney will be able to move his party to where he stood but a few years ago. If so, that will outweigh a great deal.


Friday Morning Linkage


The dull, adventureless journey of post-college life

Dear Leader Kim Jong Un addresses the ruling party

I didn’t watch the Republican Convention last night, because I’m not getting paid to do so. I understand that conservatives think it was a hit and liberals a travesty, although the Romney-Ryan campaign’s invocation of AC/DC to prove their cool guy credentials strongly suggests the latter.

So it wasn’t until I read Kevin Drum’s blog post this morning that I saw this section of Congressman Ryan’s speech:

College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life. Everyone who feels stuck in the Obama economy is right to focus on the here and now….None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers — a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.

To this, I have an emotional and an intellectual reaction. The emotional reaction goes like this:

To be fair to Ryan, losing his father early did seem to make him a more disciplined  young scion; to be perfectly unfair to Ryan, losing his father does not seem to have made him more empathetic or understanding of how such an event would have affected a poor family at all.

My intellectual reaction is more subtle. House Republicans have done everything they can to make my generation jobless and hopeless by cutting support for student loans, slashing funding for higher education, and refusing to raise taxes, so how dare the global-warming-denying, deficit-spending-for-the-old-and-sick but not the young-and-promising, job-killing, rape-denying legislative wing of the Wisconsin Taliban tell me that it’s Obama’s fault?

I sometimes imagine the House GOP getting together and singing their version of the Stonecutters’ Song:

Who sends you to combat zones?
Who cuts all your student loans?
We do, we do.

Who wants to turn Earth to Mars?
Who hates all electric cars?
We do, we do.

Who hates taxes for the rich?
Who tells the poor life’s a bitch?
We do, we do.

And so on.

It’s so telling that Paul Ryan’s version of a boot trampling a human face, forever, is an unemployed college graduate. Not a single mother who could never finish college. Not an army veteran who was left hobbled by injury. Not even a fifty-something dad trapped between supporting his parents and his children. No, the worst that Paul Ryan can conjure up is a rhetorical version of Failure To Launch.

And what does Ryan propose? The usual. Maybe we’ll voucherize this or privatize that. But for an allegedly sophisticated policy-maven ideas’ man, Ryan is so intellectually thin that he’s the Kate Moss of innovation: pretty from one angle, insubstantial from any other. How would a Romney-Ryan administration address joblessness among twenty-somethings? Presumably they’ll wave their tax stick at the economy and ignite a fire of innovation that will create a tide that lifts all boats; more likely, their administration would play out like a slightly more cheerful version of the W. Bush years, in which employment and wages stagnate for everyone whose parents didn’t own large corporations.

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.


Thursday Morning Linkage

It’s a beautiful day in Washington; not so beautiful in New Orleans. Some of this text comes from PM.


#virtualAPSA2012 – Phil Arena, “Crisis Bargaining and Domestic Opposition”

Phil Arena was supposed to present his paper, “Crisis Bargaining and Domestic Opposition” at APSA. If you are reading this on an RSS feed, you should see the audio. His slides are not integrated, as his audio presentation is in mp3 format. 

This is the first of what I hope will be more of these. If you need an APSA fix, or are just interested in the topic, take 10-15 minutes to listen to Phil’s presentation and leave feedback.
If and when we accumulate more #virtualAPSA2012 presentations, I will create a more conference-like environment for them. 

Any good academic movies?

With the loss of the drinking intellectual stimulation that comes from APSA, I’m in need of some inspiration to kick start the semester that begins next week.

We all know that academic life is full of adventure, comedy, human drama, and conflict. So, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a decent Hollywood movie about academic life.

Lucky Jim should be a shoe-in, but the 1957 film is just bad. Wonder Boys ranks high because Michael Douglas looks good in a pink robe, and in a rarity for this genre, actually refuses to sleep with his student. A Beautiful Mind isn’t really about academic life, but the critique of the movie by academics is close — can you believe that Hollywood simplified the complexities of Nash’s work — oh, the outrage! Most in the genre are too superficial or predictable — Tenure, Mona Lisa Smile, and the more recent Liberal Arts.

My favorite, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, is just too scary to watch again:

Any suggestions?


Wednesday Morning Linkage

  • Josh Rogin examines how the Romney campaign has “doubled down” on treating Russia as a geopolitical foe. Some ideological habits are hard to break. In this case, the US-Moscow relationship is fraught enough to render the position wrongheaded but not completely insane. 
  • Jay on long-term democratization pressures in Russia. 
  • Noah Smith evaluates the nature of China’s economic “landing.” 
  • Jeff Colgan thinks highly of the SEC ruling that multinational petroleum firms will have to disclose their payments to foreign governments. 
  • Mark Leon Goldberg annotates the GOP platform’s section on the United Nations.
  • Will Romney’s Asia-Pacific policy exacerbate regional tensions
  • Tim Burke is teaching a class called “Bad Research and Informational Heresies.”
  • If Sony made the iPhone.
  • Will some kind of #virtualapsa2012 happen? There are indicators that a proof of concept is coming. If you had a panel and are interested, contact me. 
  • Tensions over Svalbard increase. The Duck used to provide comprehensive coverage of geopolitical threats in and around Svalbard. It may be time to restart that occasional series. 


#virtualapsa2012 Continued

With respect to my prior post….

In all seriousness, it would not be difficult to do the following:

  • Put up presentations as, say, 10 minute m4a files — straight audio, audio with slides added by hand, or audio-video derived from lecture-capture applications;
  • Post audio comments from discussants, their notes, or both;
  • Associate them all with a dedicated feed or feeds; and
  • Provide a place for listeners to comment on each virtual panel.

We could do this at the Duck. We could create a dedicated blog. We could impress upon APSA that this might make a worthwhile experiment and that they should host it. At the very least, I am happy to handle the logistics for a few trial panels or presentations myself. 


Virtual APSA? (updated)

I skipped APSA this year in favor of BISA/ISA. In fact, I haven’t renewed my membership this year.

Still, I wonder if we can’t make lemons out of lemonade.

How about a virtual APSA? If you are an IR/CP scholar who has bailed on APSA let us know (in comments) and consider posting an abstract of your presentation.

Heck, if there’s enough interest maybe people can make power points available for discussion.

UPDATE: it appears that virtual is the only option (I retain the lovely yellow from the site).

2012 APSA Annual Meeting Canceled President G. Bingham Powell announces the cancellation of the 2012 APSA Annual Meeting.  

A primary function of the association is to provide the highest quality meeting experience possible. In light of revised information we have from local officials about the trajectory of Isaac, we now anticipate the potential for sustained rain, flooding, power outages and severely restricted transportation into the city on Thursday. Under these circumstances, it is not prudent to convene the meeting. 

For attendees who are currently in New Orleans, please monitor weather bulletins and stay in touch with your hotel staff, who will provide the most accurate and timely information. 
For all attendees, we will provide additional refund information as soon as we are able. Please bear with us while we work with our vendors and local partners to provide you with detailed information. 

If you have further questions please call the APSA office and we will answer questions as best and expediently as we can.  

The decision to cancel the meeting was made in consultation with members from the APSA Administrative Committee, Executive Director Michael Brintnall, and planning staff in New Orleans. 

UPDATE 2: why “live tweet” APSA when you can just tweet #virtualapsa2012 ?

UPDATE 3: based on anon’s comments below, I’m thinking it might be worth it to do a trial of the concept. See my more recent post.


Tuesday Morning Linkage


God of Tolerance Seeks Vengeance as APSA Short Courses Cancelled

THE CANARD “All the fake news that’s fit to print.”
 –New Orleans

The god of tolerance struck down with fury yesterday, unleashing a mighty hurricane headed for New Orleans that forced the American Political Science Association to cancel the first day of its annual conference. The organization had thumbed its nose at the god, choosing to convene their enormous meeting in a city that is in a state that discriminates against gays and lesbians by refusing them the right to marriage. Now it appears they will suffer the consequences. With its short courses shelved, a year’s worth of knowledge about introducing technology into the classroom and qualitative methodology will be lost.

The discipline’s theorists and post-positivists joined with the ten others in the field of 6,000 who take normative policy issues seriously to draft a statement. “For years, we have voiced our concerns that holding the annual convention in New Orleans, despite its historical affinity for bright costumes and overall fabulousness, is a tacit endorsement of Bobby Jindal’s intolerance for our LBGT brothers and sisters. While we wish to say, ‘we told you so,’ we actually did not of course because we are all atheists. But still, we appreciate the help. Thank you, god. By the way, should that be capitalized? We are really new at this.”

New Orleans residents are puzzled as to why they should be punished by the god for the sins of political scientists, when as a whole they are supportive of gay rights. They also expressed confusion, as the previous hurricane was said to have been retribution for the city’s cultural and sexual libertarianism. They fear they are being caught in the cross-fire between the god of tolerance and Jesus, who is said by some to not like gay people.

The American Political Science Association though remains undeterred. APSA president G. Bingham Powell issued a statement: “Our work will go on. We will rebuild. We reject any interference in our democratic right to hold our conference wherever we please. The god of tolerance cannot be allowed to restrict our precious freedom. This is a question of liberty.”

Escalation is expected. Theologists fear that if all the nation’s political scientists do not immediately leave the United States, whose federal law bans gay marriage, and pursue work in more egalitarian places such as Canada or Sweden, the god of  tolerance will strike next on San Francisco, reducing it to rubble, or at least forcing the political science association to cancel cocktails when it meets there in 2015.


Monday Morning Linkage


The New Political Science Game

As the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association may face cancellation due to Hurricane Isaac, there is only one thing to do: wildly speculate how APSAHungerGames would play out in 2012.*  Spawned on twitter by @whinecough, an ABD (all but dissertation) on the job market, the idea is that in a hurricane-swept New Orleans, the APSA convention-goers must compete to survive.

* We honestly hope that all folks make it to and from New Orleans with the smallest amount of tribulations as we violate the classic comedic equation of pain plus time = funny.

The best line of the night, but the most inside baseball might be this one:

#APSA2012HungerGames Short break in carnage so everyone can agree that Thomas Friedman has no idea what he’s talking about.
— W. K. Winecoff (@whinecough) August 27, 2012


Ken Waltz thinks #APSA2012HungerGames wld be more peaceful if we gave *everyone* poison darts.
— W. K. Winecoff (@whinecough) August 27, 2012

While some would think the Neo-Realists would do well, since they focus on security or power (depending on the time of day), they might get distracted by blaming some heretofore ignored domestic actor for the policy failures.

Much of the money by the “sharps” in Vegas moved to favor the comparativists who have fieldwork experience and study contentious politics.  Will Reno, with much experience hanging out with warlords, working in places like Somalia, and known to have the biggest biceps in the profession, is currently the favorite at 4 to 1. But he does have some challenges as there is a whole new generation of hip kids who not only study insurgency and have done fieldwork in Afghanistan, but also have survived the worst academic job market in history.  And they do not lack confidence:

@texasinafrica @danatgu @smsaideman I have 2 kids under 2.5 years so I’ve been training for #APSA2012HungerGames for years. Reno is mine.
— Jason Lyall (@jaylyall_red5) August 27, 2012

The longest odds? Post-materialists.  They will find that in the Hunger Games that it is not so much the intersubjective meanings applied to arrows and bullets but the accuracy and power of the weapons launching them.  Blood may have all kinds of symbolism, but when it drains out of a post-modernist, the logic of consequences will dominate the logic of appropriateness.

Alas, the formal theorists will be killed first.  Why? Because they will have very difficult time getting their LaTex to work in all of the rain and wind.  Plus they will find that working on complicated appendixes is a dangerous distraction.

I am not going to the conference, so I can only grieve the losses and then participate in the next twenty years of study, where we fight about:

  • whether the games being played were chicken, stag hunt, prisoners’ dilemma, or deadlock;
  • whether the actors were pursuing relative or absolute gains;
  • whether the rational actor assumption is useful or appropriate (the Phil Arena fixation);
  • which element pop culture best describes the games, and, yes, many will argue against the conventional wisdom that the Hungar Games books best apply.  Indeed, Drezner-ites will insist that Zombie movies and books provide the most insights into APSAHungerGames 2012.  Somehow, Charli Carpenter will blame The Machines instead.
  • the scholars of civil war will debate about whether the Hunger really mattered, as grievances are over-rated. 

So, the bad news is that the profession may lose some of its best and its brightest in #APSA2012HungerGames.  On the bright side, the next job market might be a bit better and there will be new cottage industries of scholarship.


Reply on “physics envy”

Because not everyone reads comment threads, in part because of the way that people engage with The Duck via RSS readers, and because think the questions involved are really important ones, I’m going to post my reaction to PM’s “Yes, I do envy physicists”as a separate post of its own:

Man, I was right with you until your advance response to commenters. Making “data and its analysis central to the undergraduate experience” — a.k.a. emphasizing undergraduate research, such that one of the primary learning outcomes of a BA in International Relations or Government or Political Science or whatever is the critical intellectual disposition necessary to be both an intelligent producer of knowledge about the social and political world and an intelligent consumer of other knowledge-claims about that world — is spot-on. (And part of why one of the first administrative changes I made as Associate Dean in my school is to establish the position of Undergraduate Research Coordinator, whose job is both to coordinate our methodological course offerings and to make sure that upper-division classes feature opportunities to actually use those techniques in research projects as appropriate.) Now, you and I (probably) disagree about the relative prominence of statistical training in the enterprise of undergraduate research, since as you know I am a lot more small-c-catholic about (social-)scientific methodology than, well, most people. But hey, we’re in the same basic place…

…and then you had to go and diss history and theory. This is counterproductive for at least three reasons:

1) one can’t do good research without both theory and methodology, and the point of the exercise is to help people learn how to do good research, not how to use methodological tools in isolation.

2) de-emphasizing history and theory at the undergraduate level basically guarantees that “re-emphasizing” it at the graduate level ain’t never gonna happen. Teched-up statisticians going to graduate programs aren’t likely to willingly seek out unfamiliar ways of thinking about knowledge-production, and let’s be honest, theory — whatever your favorite flavor of theory — isn’t like methodology in general and isn’t like statistical-comparative methodology of the quantitative kind in particular. So you’ll either get a) statisticians launching smash-and-grab raids on history and theory for a justificatory fig-leaf for their operational definitions of variables and for supposedly “objective” data to use in testing their hypotheses (hey, wait a second, that sounds familiar…oh yeah, it’s what “mainstream U.S. PoliSci” does ALL THE FRAKKING TIME ALREADY); or b) existential crises when students discover that everything they learned in undergrad — I am referring to the “hidden curriculum” here, the conclusions that students will draw from the emphasis on statistics and the de-emphasis on history and theory — is wrong or at least seriously incomplete. Then you factor in the professional incentives for publication in “top-tier” US journals, and the lack of ability to meaningfully evaluate non-statistical work if one hasn’t spent some serious time training in how do appreciate that work, and you get…well, you get basically what we have at the moment in US PoliSci, but worse.

3) since we’re social scientists and not statisticians (or discourse analysts, or ethnographers, or surveyors, or…), methodology is a means to an end, and that end is or should always be the explanation of stuff in the social world. A social scientist teaching stats should be teaching about how one uses stats to make sense of the social world; ditto a social scientist teaching whatever methodology or technique one is teaching. Yes, the disciplinary specialists in those tools are not going to be particularly pleased with everything that we do, but that’s okay, since we’re on a different mission. And that mission necessitates history and theory just as much as it necessitates methodology (and, I would argue, a broad and diverse set of methodological literacies). If one tries to play the game where one looks for external validation of one’s methodological chops by people whose discipline specializes in a particular set of tools, then one is probably going to lose, or one is going to be dismissed as derivative. We’re not about to locate the Higgs boson with anything we do in the social sciences, and we’re not likely to contribute to any other discipline (I mean, it happens, but I think the frequency is pretty low). What we are going to do, or at least keep on trying to do, is to enhance our understanding of the social world. More stats training — more methodology training of any sort — at the undergraduate level is not necessarily a means to that end, unless it occurs in conjunction with more history and theory.

None of this is going to help the public understand what we do any better. We don’t make nuclear bombs or cel phones or (un)employment, and the U.S. is kind a a dispositionally anti-intellectual place (has been since the founding of the country…see Tocqueville, Hofstader, etc.) theory isn’t respected as a contribution. Everybody wants results that they can easily see — can you build a better mousetrap — and the vague sense that physicists have something to do with engineers and economists have something to do with entrepreneurs (who are, I think, the actual figures that get public prestige, because they do practical stuff) shores up their respective social value. But us, what we have a vague connection to are POLITICIANS, and everybody hates them. So that’s an uphill battle we’re probably fated to lose. So my punchline, which I’ve given many times before: our primary job is teaching students, our scholarship makes us better teachers, and the place to point for evidence of our social value is to those who graduate from our colleges and universities and the people they’ve become as a result of dwelling for a time in the happily intellectual and critical environment we contribute to producing on campus.


Yes, I do envy physicists

Even the Evil League of Evil has peer review.

One of the laziest sneers directed at us social scientists who use math and statistics in our research is that we suffer from “physics envy.”

Ha! It sounds like penis envy! It’s a quip that will slay them dead around the seminar table!

Well, I do use math in some of my work (to my great surprise). I also have a couple of working papers (soon, inshallah, to be articles) that have lots and lots of tables and graphs.

But that’s not why I have physics envy.

Nor is the source of my envy my shared commitment to an idea that the social universe can be studied exactly like the physical one—that I can generate hypotheses and test them to yield knowledge about the laws of the social world that are akin to the process my seventh-grade science textbook taught me Newton used to understand gravity. (And boy was that book wrong.)

No. The source of my physics envy is the fact that people automatically respect physicists and they have no idea what I do.

Physicists have it easy. Practically nobody who is neither a physicist nor a crank has any firm opinions on the Higgs boson or the speed of light. Even the religious objections have pretty well been dealt with by now (albeit via two processes: persuasion and social coercion). But everyone gets that doing physics is tough work–that it is, in fact, respectable.

On the other hand.

Everyone has an opinion about social science. Often, people have many, many opinions. Sometimes they are ideologues or fundamentalists or autodidacts or otherwise intellectually crimped, and they therefore have a bizarre and unyielding attachment to their ideas. For some reason, though, certain labels–“economist” is the most prominent–nevertheless carry a certain cachet. (Marion Fourcade would note this is mostly only true in the Anglo-American tradition, but, hey, that’s my tradition.) People seem to think that at least some economists do good and useful work, even if they qualify that with terms like “Keynesian,” “Austrian,” “behavioral,” and so on.

But political scientists?

Well, thanks to John Sides and The Monkey Cage, several Washington political reporters have gotten to the point where they think that political science is worthwhile. But that persuasion has not stopped Congress from, essentially, redefining my vocation out of “science”–an act of rhetorical coercion that PTJ would note in some sense mimics what data-driven political scientists did to their more critical colleagues. And at the every day level I note that practically nobody has a good sense of what I do. When I answer the question “what classes are you teaching” by saying “stats, in the spring,” the response I usually get is “What do political scientists know about statistics?”

(Statisticians and methodologists would agree with this Volkisch notion that political scientists know very little about statistics, but for every different reasons.)

One common complaint within the discipline is that APSR has too much stats-driven work (which is really outdated; the quant-for-quant’s-sake work is now in Political Analysis). On the other hand, the most common reaction outside the discipline is that we don’t do stats at all. What’s the source of this incredible disconnect? A lot of this likely stems from the fact that many introductory courses–indeed, entire undergraduate courses of study–are taught like pre-law or current-events surveys, at least when they are not taught like a history of the twentieth century (I’m looking at you, international relations).

We should change that. We should view introductory courses as an opportunity to advertise what it is that political scientists do and why it matters. That means, however, that our departments should continue to restructure their undergraduate curricula even more thoroughly to expose students to what it is that the professional discipline requires. That means, in part, making data and its analysis central to the undergraduate experience. This is not to say that we should make undergrads into junior graduate students. Rather the opposite. We should guide their exploration to make sure they cover the entirety of the field, not specialize prematurely.  But right now we aren’t even training good generalists.

To do otherwise shortchanges our students and it shortchanges ourselves. If political scientists can’t justify the intellectual contributions of our field to undergraduates–that is, if we think it’s okay to teach politics and not political science–then it’s no surprise that nobody knows what we do. And if nobody knows what we do, then how can they respect it?

Advance responses to commenters:

  • I’m sure your department is perfect in this regard; I’m talking about all the other departments out there.
  • Yes, this means that we’ll be squeezing out room for some discussions to privilege others. But choosing a syllabus–and maintaining a discipline–is inherently an exercise in what to privilege. If there are coherent sets of academic scholarship housed in political science departments that have little to do with the work of the overwhelming majority of their colleagues, then we should consider strongly whether it is a good idea for them to be housed in political science. Perhaps the not-uncommon division of “political science” and “international studies” is one that more schools should adopt, for instance.
  • Yes, this means that I think that we should have an expectation that our political science undergraduates should have minimal fluency with basic stats (up to the point of reading and interpreting an OLS table) and minimal fluency with some statistical package (even if that’s only Excel). This has obvious benefits for the discipline–early familiarity with statistical tools is the best inoculation against misusing those tools–and for our marketing of the major (“You’ll learn how to do data analysis!”) Does anyone think that either society or the marketplace will value statistical tools less in the future?
  • Yes, this means a relative devaluation of history and theory, but not an elimination of either. I’m unapologetic about this. On the other hand, these should probably be re-emphasized at the graduate level.
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