Friday, June 11, 2010

Will Political Theory (and Science) "Long Survive"?

Alan Jacobs, after making some pertinent, pointed, and appropriately smart-alecky comments about some recent, rather vague talk about how to "save the humanities" (make them more publicity-minded, more digital, and "bigger," apparently), throws out his own two cents:

I will say one thing about my own discipline: humanities centers or no humanities centers, I do not think that the study of literature will long survive as an independent concern within universities. I think by the time I retire literature will be studied only as part of two other disciplines: rhetoric and cultural history. And while that will be unfortunate in some ways, it won't be the worst thing that ever happened to literature.

Not being a literature person, I don't know how best to think about this prophecy, aside from noting that it would mean the end of jokes about English majors. But it does prompt me to wonder: will my own field--political theory, and even more broadly, political science--long survive? I think so, because I think we're in better shape than literature, when you look at how classes, budgets, requirements, and enrollments are spread across the American academy, from its self-important research one heights to its humble community and liberal arts college depths. But that certainly doesn't mean we'll flourish, at least not in the way graduate schools have been teaching their PhDs to assume the discipline will flourish over the past half-decade or so. Were I to put on Alan's prognosticating hat, and look forward to when I retire (say in 25 years, when I'm my late 60s), I guess I wouldn't be surprised to see, outside of a few select or otherwise well-insulated institutions, political theory essentially absent from political science departments--political philosophy and ethics, done by philosophers, legal scholars, and the occasional political scientist with a cross-appointment, could easily hollow out "political theory" as its own wholly unique subfield. And as for political science itself, I could see it as increasingly conjoined, both conceptually and in terms of actual departments--though probably not by name; I would imagine a lot of shared degree programs here--with either history (possibly to the benefit of Americanists, some comparativists, and what might be considered the more methodologically "conservative" of political theorists) or international studies (perhaps to the benefit of those who do international relations, other sorts of comparative politics, and comparative/non-Western and more "radical" political theory). Constitutional and public law will, I might guess, be sucked away entirely into various pre-law and masters of law programs, and public administration has been moving towards the business schools and the economics departments for a while now. So there you go: political science, circa 2035, might easily mean joint political science/history or political science/international studies departments, with theory courses being rarely taught, with most of that happening over in philosophy (which itself would likely have merged with religion and/or general humanities programs).

Pretty sad? Yes and no; it some ways, the end of political science as its own separate claim to social science thinking might make the study of politics and government a little more interesting to those who care to engage in it. But it any case, I'm just speculating here. Your thoughts, if any?


Jacob T. Levy said...


There's continuing government and foundation demand for the research done in IR and comparative politics, demand which is *less* likelyt o be met in a fuzzy "international studies" setting. There is real undergraduate demand in all four traditional subfields, and in a way that advantages poli sci over even a near-neighbor discipline like sociology ("war and peace" or "American government" or "Chinese politics" are perpetually attractive to smart well-read 18-year olds without having to explain themselves, and theorists increasingly have a stable market niche as the primary custodians of the great books tradition outside literature). I doubt that "pre-law" will become a hiring unit or even a degree-granting unit as long as that's not what law schools want-- and it's not-- so poli sci will also keep its informal custody of pre-law demand.

And, well, I believe in the stubbornness of institutional forces of organizational persistence. Creating new fields is easy in times of affluence, but retrenching in times of scarcity is *tough.*

Yale has been trying to knock down the traditional four-field structure-- to approximately no effect even within Yale.

It seems especially odd to me to think that *philosophy* will prove to be so institutionally robust that it will be left with some of the pieces of the dismembered poli sci departments. In research funding, teaching demand, and so on, we're safer than they are-- and it's been philosophy departments that have famously faced the axe in the UK over the past couple of years, not politics departments.

Chris Lawrence said...

I teach in a combined department, and it's pretty safe to say that the experience has illustrated how little our disciplines have in common; there might be some overlap between quantitative (or even empirical) political science and the other "hard" social and behavioral sciences like psychology, economics, and sociology, but there is very little commonality between what historians do and what I do.

The only way I can see a spinoff of pre-law is if law eventually becomes an undergraduate degree as it is in most Commonwealth countries, but I think the ABA and law schools like having undergraduate programs as a "screening" mechanism for students (much as the pro sports leagues like having universities to subsidize player development that they'd have to do themselves otherwise).

As far as theory goes, I think the primary risk is that the continued terrible market for theorists will cause enough of a backlash that there will be a swing from oversupply to undersupply. But I think that would take a decision by a leading program or two to eliminate theory as a major field to get the ball rolling; cuts by the likes of FSU and Penn State are not going to have much effect on supply, but if (say) Harvard and Duke both shut down their theory fields that might have a ripple effect across the discipline.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Jacob, good points. I was going to say something myself about path dependency and the "stubbornness of institutional forces of organizational persistence," but I was trying to keep the post short. I hadn't thought about the demands of government and foundations, though; you're certainly correct there. I suspect, however, that there would be serious dispute--certainly at least amongst academic administrators and professionals, if not scholars themselves--about the "fuzziness" of international studies; in my observations, students (and hence administrators) love those programs. Combine Chinese language, Asian politics, and international relations all together into one degree...with fewer faculty necessary to teach it! More bang for the buck.

You're right about theorists as the "custodians of the great books tradition," though I'm curious (and a little fearful) about what a generation or two mass, instantaneous, hyperlinked textual readings will do to the very nature of canonicity. Though note what I said about philosophy--not that it itself would remain robust, but that I could see a future of theory being absorbed into philosophy, which is absorbed into religion and the humanities, etc.

Chris, I teach in a division which combines "hard" social sciences (criminology, sociology) with "soft" (psychology), with history and political science thrown in, and I don't disagree at all with you that the lack of commonality is obvious. But nonetheless, I still historians and political science people being lumped together all the time; it's actually quite common, in my observation, and I can imagine a future in which it becomes even more common. It's an interesting question as to why that's so, however. One possibility--again, based on my own experiences and observation--is that it's driven in part by the structure of secondary public education in the U.S.; anyone who wants to qualify for licensure to teach high school history is also having to qualify for civics, economics, geography, etc. Hence, universities produce exactly what we have here at Friends: a history/government secondary education program. Get that path developed, and all the other ways historians and political scientists, at least in my experience, get regularly thrown together is well underway.

Note, though, both of you, that I don't really see this happening; if (when?) American higher education collapses, I really don't think political theory or science will be a major cause or victim. But hypothetically, these are some results I can imagine as plausible.

Law Talk said...

I don't really spend any time in the world of undergraduate education, so I'm not sure that my thoughts are worth much here. With that preface, here are a couple of things:

First, I think that Jacob is right that in the United States pre-law and legal studies undergraduate programs are a non-starter. Law schools don't like them. Certainly, as a law professor I would be affirmatively OPPOSED to a student studying such a thing. Get a degree in something else -- preferably science/engineering, philosophy, history, or economics -- and then come to law school. A prelaw program is just going to give students a bunch of bad intellectual habits they will have to unlearn. They'll get exposure to theory and various law and ___ disciplines, which is all very good, but they can't get any real exposure to a mass of legal doctrine and so in a very real sense they will have no idea what they are studying.

I also don't see law becoming an undergraduate degree anytime soon, although in the abstract I am not opposed to the idea. The reason here is not simply academic inertia -- a force never to be underestimated -- but also professional inertia. In most Commonwealth countries the legal profession is structured around an undergraduate law degree. Turning law into an undergraduate degree would require not only an overhaul of legal education but also of the legal profession. It's not going to happen any time soon. A more likely bundle of reforms would be a move to a two year basic program in law, perhaps with a revival of the LLB degree, and more joint degree programs where legal training is integrated with other professional training such as MBAs or Masters of Accounting and a further rise in "professional services" firms that combine accounting, management consulting, some financial services, and limited legal advice.

As for political theory, it seems to me that political science is divided between theory types and social scientists. The social science side of poli sci doesn't strike me as having much unity in and other itself. My prediction is that you will see increasing convergence in the social sciences so that across economics, behavioral psychology, sociology, and political science disciplinary boundaries matter less. I could see theory migrating toward intellectual history and philosophy, where frankly it makes more sense to locate it rather than having folks reading Herder and doing regression analysis on voting behavior in the same department.

But I don't know anything...

Russell Arben Fox said...

Nate (Mr. Law Talk--nice handle!),

I completely agree with you on the uselessness of pre-law degrees; that's why I resisted developing one here at Friends for so long. Unfortunately, the demand for them--from incoming freshman, from their parents, and from administrators--is simply overwhelming. Ditto for the numerous masters of law and various two-year law-and-business degrees which have proliferated across the landscape. You're surely correct that there would have to be a massive (and massively unlikely) transformation of the legal profession's intellectual infrastructure in the U.S. for such programs to truly become serious players to become dominant players in undergraduate and masters-level education; I'm just speculating as to how such programs could theoretically take on courses in constitutional and public law should political science departments become broadly transformed.

As for your comments on political theory, your thoughts about how intellectual history and philosophy could absorb the subfield, given certain changes over time. As I said to Jacob, though, I actually don't find those changes likely; they are, however, at least plausible, I think.

Matt said...

My understanding is that many of the undergraduate "legal studies" programs are essentially re-branded criminal justice majors. Those were often (but not always) "gut" majors for people looking to be police officers, prison guards, security guards, or sometimes MPs in the military, and they were never looked well on by law schools. This isn't true of all such programs- it's not so of the "legal studies" major within the Wharton school at Penn, or, I'm pretty sure, the program at Amherst or Dartmouth, and in some such re-branding there seems to have been an attempt to make more seriously scholarly departments, but I think that in many cases these are still not seriously academic programs.

Kenngo1969 said...


You mean I don't know how lucky I was to be admitted to law school as a criminal justice undergrad? (Maybe that's why I sucked so bad as a law student???)


MH said...

I've also always thought that pre-law and criminal justice were both gut majors like communication or “business.”

seth edenbaum said...

You refer to the academic study of literature in an academy currently defined by the study and furtherance of generality, bureaucracy and the tendency of average people to be shallow, self-absorbed, greedy and manipulable. As a result academics are becoming all of the above. The objective pessimistic understanding of human partiality has become the optimistic celebration of self-interest, and people have become more greedy, changing the balance of society. That's determinism not freedom.

Geniuses by the definition of this academy are those capable of predicting the behavior of idiots, but more than anything they're geniuses at manipulating the knowledge that's already been handed them. Bureaucracy has produced a culture of expertise and generations of miserably bad diagnosticians.

I was raised to understand greed, not to be greedy. I was raised to understand nationalism but think of it as vulgar and anti-intellectual. I'd like to think that if and when I defend US actions in the international arena it has nothing to do with an innate preference for anything more than the furtherance of the rule of law and democracy. People who put love of country first tend to be dangerously illogical about other things as well. It's called DISINTERESTED REASON and it's impossible but it's the goal of intellectual life. Disinterested reason in the search for gelt or power isn't disinterested reason anymore. American academics are less aware of the changes in this culture than club kids in Miami. As Jack Balkin says of the Supreme Court "They're the last to know." But it's even worse since academics pride themselves on having to be first.

Political science is the attempt at writing the history of the present so as to avoid becoming history. The fallacy of original intent in reading the works of the past will apply to works written today and read by our descendants. They will think of us and most of what we've done as odd. It has always been this way and always will be. Historians understand this. Novelists understand this. Mathematicians and those whose work descends from mathematics [and very much like priests] want to imagine themselves in an eternal present, which is why by and large their politics sucks.

If literature fades from university curricula it will be because the business schools have triumphed. The writing of literature is the study of specifics: the light on a single cup on a specific day at a specific moment in a specific life. Art teaches you an awareness of specifics, not to rely on names and labels handed you. It keeps you curious.

But Bell gradually withdrew its support after yet another positive assessment found that while executives came out of the program more confident and more intellectually engaged, they were also less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities. By 1960, the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives was finished.

You write as if there were a chance John Rawls will be remembered as equal to Proust, as author or intellect, because you study one and not the other. The first thing you defend is yourself. Rawls will be remembered if he is for wasting his time trying to find single correct answers to problems that can only be resolved for each instance of their appearance. That's why courts are more important than verdicts and why history is important for democracy, Democracy does not produce truths it supplies a means for people to make and revisit decisions in their own time. The only truth is that history will judge us by terms other than those by which we judge ourselves.

seth edenbaum said...

The link I posted was broken. It was to an Op Ed in today's NY Times, on a program developed in the early 50's to teach the humanities to executives at Bell. It was successful, so they ended it.