Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Political Theory Under a Microscope

I received my latest edition of PS: Political Science and Politics, the professional journal for the American Political Science Association, in the mail yesterday. Out of the three journals APSA publishes, PS is invariably the one I read the least of. American Political Science Review may or may not have scholarly articles I'm interested in, and Perspectives on Politics often has work which synthesizes interesting trends in the discipline, as well as publishing all the book reviews. But PS, overwhelmingly in my experience, addresses the teaching and internal mechanics of academic political science in ways that are of little or no relevance to me. First, I was trained in political theory at a school with strong focus on the Continental, as opposed to the Anglo-American, philosophical tradition, with the result that I'm an odd fit amongst both political theorists and political philosophers in the American academy. (See this old, thorough discussion by Jacob Levy of the various questions which this distinction gives rise to.) Second, today I have very modest intellectual ambitions; I teach at a 4-4 schedule at a small, Christian, liberal arts college, and am very happy here: the notion of trying to align my teaching and research agenda with the priorities of the discipline as they emerge from other, more dominant schools holds little appeal to me at all.

So why write about it at all? Two reasons. First, completely arbitrarily, this blog somehow managed to get listed by some online educator as one of the "50 Best Blogs for Political Science Students." Hooray! Silly as it is, that put me in a good mood. And so I took a look at the contents of the April issue of PS, discovered that it includes the results of a massive survey of political theorists, and realized that I had something to say about it, after all.

I remember this survey, and I remember people talking about it here and there. But this is the first time that I'd seen the whole package. (Even the stuff in PS is truncated, though; you can read the full results here.) I found myself ridiculously pleased and fascinated by some of the results. Sure, my graduate school of Catholic University only received 54 votes for the list of "Political Science Ph.D. Programs by the Quality of Political Theory Training They Offer," as opposed to Princeton having received 1013 votes (Harvard, Chicago, Berkeley, and Yale all also scored over 500 votes), but at least we beat George Mason. (Suckers!) It was fascinating that Review of Politics (which I have published in, twice!) was listed third, behind Political Theory and APSR, in the order of "Journals Related to Political Theory That Respondents Report Reading," beating out History of Political Thought, Polity, Philosophy and Public Affairs, and--this one really surprised me--even Ethics. The self-reporting of the "Length of Time Respondents Spent on Tenure-Track Job Market after Receiving Ph.D." was sobering, but confirmed my own experience: in our supposedly meritocratic, winner-take-all-and-the-bigger-programs-always-win job market--which is like most every other academic job market (at least amongst those in the humanities and social sciences)--if you don't find a job fresh out of your Ph.D. program (which 46% of respondents said they did), your odds of securing a position drop precipitously, deep into the single-digit percentage points. By the time you get to where I was in 2006, after having been on the job market for five years, if you're not seriously rethinking what you're doing and where you're applying (as I, blessedly, was helped to do), then you're toast.

The results I found most eyebrow-raising, though, were the list of influential scholars, both those with the "Greatest Impact on Political Theory in the Past 20 Years," and the ones "Whose Work Will Be Influential during the Next 20 Years." The John Rawls topped the first list, with almost twice as many votes as his nearest competitor (Jürgen Habermas), was no surprise. I was gratified, however, to find some of "my" people--folks that I read a great deal of in graduate school, and who continue to influence my thinking--placing in the top ten: Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor, Sheldon Wolin, and Hannah Arendt. Probably the stand-out discovery of both lists was William Connolly, a theorist who specializes in a wide variety of post-Nietzschean topics, looking at agonistic democracy, embodiment, and the like, a man whom I've met and been on a panel with once before, but can't claim to know well: he was placed by those surveyed in the top five in both categories. (Taylor was also highly placed on both lists, but not so high as Connolly.) It makes me think that I ought to take some time this summer to read some of Connolly's recent work. (Patchen Markell, a brilliant fellow whom I once argued with about Herder, came in first on the "future influence" list, which is, I suspect, both an accurate and much deserved acknowledgment; my choice of Jacob Levy, however, unfortunately seems to have missed the cut.)

Are all these lists silly? Of course they're silly, in the same way that snapshots are always, in a sense, silly: they grab a moment in time or thought, and present it for microscopic analysis and elaboration, as if some hidden meaning were to be found therein. With every snapshot there are multiple angles from which the picture could have been taken; with surveys, the same: why ask these questions instead of those? But to get in a huff about the implications of such questions (or missed questions, as the case may be) seems even more silly to me; in the responses to the survey which PS published, Jodi Dean (to be sure, a far smarter person than I) seems to me to take all the predictable postures, fearing that the implicit and controlling methodology of the survey "operationalizes" the "name game" in a way which will do neoliberal violence to the discipline's ability to ask "the classic questions of the best way to live," etc. To which I feel inclined to respond: if you want to address the real problems which class, citizen apathy, diversity, poverty, corporations, secularism, the media, family break-down, mobility, capitalism, etc., pose to the ability of teachers to do good work in the classroom, you could do it much more directly than by outing a professional survey as a supposed Fifth Column. I find Kenneth Ferguson's response only slightly better, but following the same line. Only Martha Ackelsberg, of all the respondents, does the reasonable thing when presented with data: drill down on its specifics, and re-arrange it to highlight matters which the original framing of the data failed to show. (Among other things, she breaks down the gender of all the respondents, with the results that on the aforementioned "influence" lists some names revealing move on up.)

In any case, this is all a bunch of ridiculously inside baseball, in so far as the bulk of the readers of this blog are concerned. Still, I actually had fun reading through my copy of PS last night. I suppose, even if I am, both by choice and by circumstance, somewhat out of the game, I can still take pleasure following the scores, the plays, and the players, just the same.

1 comment:

Matt said...

That was an interesting survey- thanks for the link. I'm always surprised to see Foucault ranked so high in such lists. I guess I tend to see him more as a philosopher of the social sciences than a political thinker, but I see how others could think otherwise.