The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The (American) Job Market and Interpretive Methods in Political Science

August 14, 2013

M. David Forrest, a soon-to-be-assistant-professor of American politics, forwarded the following letter to the “interpretation and methods” listserv. He agreed to let me post it at the Duck. Given the methodological heterogeneity of our readership, I thought it would be of interest. It reads:

[I am an American Politics scholar who primarily uses interpretive methods and methodologies (IMM) and recently came off the Assistant Professor job market. Several weeks back I shared some thoughts about my market experiences with Peri (Schwartz-Shea) and Dvora (Yanow), who most of you know. At their encouragement, I decided to circulate these thoughts to the I&M listserv. They are reformulated below as a letter to graduate students on this listserv who use, or are considering using, IMM. The letter’s purpose is to offer these students a more realistic portrayal of their job market prospects than the one some faculty in PhD-granting departments seem, perhaps unintentionally, to proffer. Because it is based primarily on my own experiences, you should read it only as one partial contribution to a much broader conversation.]

To the graduate students of the I&M listserv,

If you are reading this letter, you’ve likely already realized the need for and significance of interpretive methods and methodologies (IMM) in Political Science. Most of you have probably participated in a workshop, presented on a conference panel, attended a Methods Cafe, or feverishly read articles, books, and edited volumes assembled by members of the IMM community. And many of you at the dissertation stage are probably putting IMM to use in your own research projects. But, if you are anything like me, a more practical, and too often unstated, question looms over all of your work: Can I actually get a tenure-track job using IMM in Political Science?

I am writing to you because I think that–contrary to what you may have heard or come to believe–the answer is a cautious yes (“cautious” because the tenure-track job market is always highly competitive, regardless of your methodological orientation; but “yes” because this market is not radically more competitive for Political Science students using IMM).

When I first entered the job market a year ago–sporting a dissertation rooted in interpretive ethnography–I was convinced that the answer was ‘not likely,’ at least for graduate students just starting their careers. Of course, I thought, a lucky few might grab positions at schools or departments with a clear interpretive bent. Others might succeed by recasting their research in a positivist mode (reframing their constitutive explanations as mechanical ones, emphasizing the empirical generalizability versus analytical relevance of their findings, etc.). And there were always those truly exceptional students who would just find a way to stand out and beat the odds. At different times, I tried to convince myself that I belonged in each of these three groups.

But, most of the time, I saw myself as a well-qualified but ordinary graduate student using IMM who, partly due to this fact, faced a paucity of realistic job prospects. Certainly, no tenure-track search committee was going to interview much less hire me, a fledgling PhD candidate doing ethnographic research in American Politics (of all subfields!) and boasting only one peer-reviewed publication. Despite encouragement from advisors and my own attempts to feign confidence, I really believed this statement was true. In a memo to my dissertation committee, I confessed that: “I don’t anticipate getting any interviews for tenure-track positions this year…My more modest hope is just to secure any kind of full-time position…”

As it turned out, my pessimism was, by and large, unfounded. Like many of my graduate school friends doing positivist research, I received multiple interviews and a good tenure-track job offer. It wasn’t because I got lucky and only attracted the few interpretive-leaning departments doing job searches (at more than one place I interviewed, I would have been the sole scholar using IMM in American Politics). It wasn’t because I wore a brilliant positivist disguise (I presented myself, for the most part, as someone interested in the interplay between meaning-making, social marginality, and political organization). And it definitely wasn’t because I stood so clearly above the rest of the candidate field (my qualifications were, like many of yours, good but not out of this world; and, despite extensive preparation, I made several mistakes during phone and in-person interviews).

Furthermore, my friends using IMM in American Politics and other subfields seemed to be having similar experiences. Like me, they received interviews and tenure-track job offers; and they did so from a wide array of schools and departments (interpretive-leaning; positivist-leaning; SLAC, R1, private, public, large, small, etc.). Like me, they were not succeeding by strategically recasting their research in a positivist vein. And, like me, all of them were highly qualified but far from market “stars” who appeared destined for scholarly greatness.

So, then, why had I been so pessimistic? Looking back, I think my pessimism stemmed from an oft-repeated piece of advice, one that is given to every graduate student assembling application materials for the job market: “Appeal to a broad social science audience.”

In general, this piece of advice is a good one. No job candidate, regardless of her methodological orientation, can expect to find search committees and departments filled with experts in their particular sub-sub-fields. And, besides that, it’s just good practice for social scientists to link their research to issues of broader relevance. Only a few people care, for example, about antipoverty activism in Minneapolis, Minnesota (the empirical focus of my dissertation). But many people care about the representative choices and dilemmas facing advocacy and social movement organizations (the analytical focus of my dissertation).

The problem, at least in my experience, is that, when faculty members tell students using IMM to “appeal broadly,” they often mistakenly–albeit, with the best intentions–equate “broad” with positivist. One faculty member, for example, told me that by clarifying the partiality underlying my research, I risked coming off as “less scholarly than activist” and narrowing my appeal. The “winning strategy,” this person implied, was to suppress this partiality and better establish my scholarly objectivity. Another faculty member suggested that, unless I could express arguments as falsifiable claims, most faculty would remain skeptical of my research.

This tendency to equate being “broad” with being positivist fostered two myths about the job market–both of which fed my pessimism about using IMM and both of which my own experiences debunked. Thankfully, my advisors, in supporting me and helping me to craft a market strategy, never affirmed either. But even the best advisors can only do so much to check myths that faculty in many different fields and departments transmit to graduate students.

The first myth was that of the “big bad positivist.” According to this myth, search committees are filled with “big bad positivists” who are ready to huff and puff and blow down even the best interpretive research project, devouring its maker. Fortify yourself against them, the myth goes, or face the consequences.

To be sure, such scholars do exist. You have probably already met some of them at conferences and/or in your own departments. I even met some in departments that flew me out for interviews. For example, one faculty member, during a one-on-one meeting, hounded me because I couldn’t express my claims as straightforward falsifiable hypotheses. When I tried to explain why my claims were, though not falsifiable, coherent and trustworthy, this person interrupted me, commanding that I (I’m paraphrasing) ‘not turn this into a methodology discussion.’ Another faculty member suggested, in so many words, that most scholars using IMM do so as a way to avoid being rigorous.

On the whole, however, I found that the “big bad positivists” were fewer and further between than the myth had led me to believe. Every search committee with which I interacted contained members who did not rigidly adhere to positivist Political Science. In fact, to my surprise, several of them were not even political scientists and completely lacked the methodological baggage I had come to expect. Of the 8 search committees that interviewed me on the phone and/or in person, all but one had members from fields that are, on the whole, much more welcoming to IMM than Political Science (e.g. Communication Studies, Philosophy, History, and American Studies). (Obviously, if you apply to positions outside of Political Science–and you should–you may encounter search committees with no positivist presence).

Additionally, most of the positivist-oriented scholars I did meet were not as “big” and “bad” as I had feared. In all of my interviews, I met several people using positivist methods and methodologies who were willing, if not excited, to learn about interpretive scholarship (a fact that should not have surprised me, as I had already met several scholars of this type in my own department and at conferences). That’s not to say communication with this group was easy. The burden was almost always on me to educate them about the methodological principles underlying my work (more than it would have been, I think, had I used a positivist approach). But they were at least open to learning and hearing more, which is all one can reasonably ask of a research audience.

The second myth was that of the “interpretivist’s heel.” This myth states that, similar to Achilles’ heel, interpretivism is a strategic weakness that can only disadvantage and bring down otherwise strong job candidates.

Obviously, young scholars using IMM face some unique challenges on the job market. As I stated above, even when the “big bad positivists” weren’t around, I often had to clarify the methodological principles underlying my work (and do so without appearing defensive). This task was not easy; and I didn’t always do it well. Even prior to interviews, it was the source of much thought and concern in putting together my application materials and job talk.

That said, the notion that interpretivism is simply an Achilles’ heel for otherwise qualified job candidates was, in my experience, false. On the contrary, I think that, by using IMM, I gained at least three advantages over my friends doing positivist work:

  1. I could more comfortable apply for jobs in IMM-friendly fields outside of Political Science, such as American Studies, African American Studies, and Anthropology.
  2. More search committees than I thought were actually open to, if not actively looking for, scholars using IMM. Most of the search committees that interviewed me were specifically excited to find a qualified candidate doing qualitative and/or interpretive work in American Politics. And, as I stated before, these committees were not necessarily in departments known for harboring interpretive scholars (which isn’t to say none of them were or that I don’t appreciate such departments).
  3. There was–and still is–a notable under-supply of qualified scholars using IMM in Political Science, especially in American Politics. So, if someone on a search committee was looking for such a scholar, my odds of getting a call dramatically increased (in contrast, a qualified and positivist-oriented scholar in Political Science will rarely, if ever, face markedly better odds simply because he uses positivist methods and methodologies).

Put simply: the suggestion that young scholars using IMM cannot effectively and successfully pursue decent tenure-track jobs is, I think, wrong. In making this point, my goal is not to generate false hope or suggest that such scholars will get decent jobs. As most of you already know, the academic job market is, even for “mainstream” scholars and even in its best years, very competitive. As in the broader labor market, many applicants don’t get good jobs for many reasons, most of which are unjust, out of their control, and/or have little to do with their qualifications. But you cannot tank your market prospects and relegate yourself to this group simply by using IMM. And you cannot drastically improve your prospects simply by avoiding it.

You can only do what you already know to do: put together an interesting dissertation; find advisors who will help you and write excellent recommendation letters; and craft application materials that cogently demonstrate your abilities, accomplishments, and potential. Know that some “big bad positivists” exist. But don’t obsess about them. They aren’t as many in number as you, or they, think. And don’t treat interpretivism as an Achilles’ heel that you need to hide or defend per se. Clarify its significance for your research and your scholarly contribution in a confident and thoughtful manner. No reasonable body of faculty can fault you for that.

Especially for those of you currently entering the job market, I hope this letter has provided some additional measure of encouragement (beyond what your advisors and colleagues have already given you). At the very least, I hope that I have helped to dispel at least a couple lingering myths surrounding the potential marketability of IMM in Political Science.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.