The Duck of Minerva

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APSA & African Politics

June 14, 2013

For those of you who don’t monitor the front page of the APSA website on a daily basis, you may have missed the online petition for the recognition of a new African Politics section of APSA.  I urge all of you — including those who don’t work in Africa — to take a look at the petition and consider signing.

At first glance, this may seem a strange throw-back: area studies has been passé in political science for some time, and it has become typical for Africa-focused job candidates to stress that they are “general comparativists who just happen to work in Africa” (ditto on book marketing). *  But there are two good reasons you all should consider signing this petition.

  • First of all, Africanist political science is currently one of the most exciting and methodologically innovative areas of comparative politics.  Experimental methods are not new by any measure: almost every comparativist borrows from trail-blazing work done in both development economics and American politics. But for sheer density, scale, and range, I’d wager that Africa beats other regions by a considerable margin as a site for new political science research using randomized interventions, survey-embedded experiments, and even lab-in-the-field experiments.  An African Politics organized section would provide another outlet for this kind of work.  This could wind up as quite important for graduate students using experimental methods, as this work is sometimes plagued by a “null results” problem that may make APSA program placement more difficult.  Nor is this just an issue of experimental work: scholarship on civil wars and public opinion are both growth industries in Africa.
  • Secondly, this organized section would build upon and support the efforts of the African Politics Conference Group (APCG), which has already done important work in building bridges between political science and area studies.  When I started as a graduate student, many political scientists had stopped going to the annual meetings of the African Studies Association (ASA), and other Africa-focused political scientists had come to see APSA as similarly irrelevant or off-limits.  Since the formation of APCG nearly a decade ago, this divide has significantly eroded.  Qualitative and historically-oriented Africanists have found a home at APCG-sponsored panels at APSA and elsewhere, and quantitative work has reappeared with a vengeance at meetings of the ASA.

Why is this important?  If we’re serious about multi-method work, and if we want quantitative and experimental work to be informed by and embedded in local context, cross-disciplinary conversation and solid qualitative work are absolutely vital.  So, even if you haven’t the foggiest interest in African politics, consider your signature on this petition to be a vote in favor of better and more relationally-aware empirical work.


** I don’t mention IR simply because Africa remains largely neglected by IR folks.  Hopefully, someone is steering grad students in this direction, as Africa is a novel and promising testing ground for theories of state formation, inter-state bargaining and war, and international political economy.

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