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JUNE 2003
Volume 95, Issue 5
 

Revolution from within
WRITTEN BY SHARLA A. STEWART
ILLUSTRATION BY MIRKO ILIC

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IMAGE:  Revolution from Within
Mirko Ilic

There’s a battle being waged in political science to determine the discipline’s future. As usual, Chicago has a front-row seat.

The box lunches were an edible reminder that much has changed in the world since 1955 when newlyweds—and newly minted Harvard political-science Ph.D.s—Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph drove their Land Rover across Europe and Central Asia and into India. Then just a babe among democratic nation-states in what was rapidly becoming a post-colonial world, India and its political development would become the subject of the Rudolphs’ fieldwork for the next 45 years.

They had hit upon a hot topic—which in academia means that research funding flowed quickly and easily. The following year the Rudolphs were among the second round of the Ford Foundation’s Foreign Area Training Program, designed to stockpile “area experts” as empires splintered; later came grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Institute of Indian Studies. For every three years the Rudolphs spent in classrooms, first at Harvard and then at Chicago, they spent one traveling in South Asia, immersing themselves in the region’s language, culture, and politics. Books (often cowritten) about India’s and Pakistan’s distinct versions of modernization, about South Asian cultural policy, education, and political economy filled the Rudolphs’ c. vitae; many remain landmarks in the South Asian–studies field. They raised three children who “speak Hindi and cook Indian,” as Lloyd Rudolph once told the Christian Science Monitor, and they helped to birth a social-sciences field called “area studies.”

So when, at a conference held in the Rudolphs’ honor this April, a South Asian–studies scholar with an interest in Latin America pointed out that the grilled-chicken sandwiches were dressed with “mango-chipotle chutney,” it was more than just a comment on his affinity with the event’s caterers.

The conference, Area Studies Redux: Situating Knowledge in a Globalizing World, was convened to address big questions in area studies. Isn’t it passé, for instance, to specialize in an “area”—living there, learning its language and customs—while vast numbers of the world’s populations migrate and meld? What, for that matter, counts as an “area” amid globalization: a sovereign nation-state or region comprising several nations, or a strip of curry and kebab houses springing up in a white working-class London suburb? Wouldn’t researchers’ time be better spent, as we all become one big mass of Dasani-drinking, Googling, mango-chipotle-dressed global citizens, searching for universal themes that transcend “areas”? And, perhaps most difficult of all: if area specialists do persist, where will the funding for their cost-heavy research and fieldwork come from now that grant-making agencies have transferred their allegiances and grants to the hot research topics of the past decade: globalization and transnational studies?

As the attendees finished their lunches Susanne Rudolph, the William Benton distinguished service professor emerita of political science, delivered the last panel’s final comments. Current area-studies scholars, Rudolph noted, are witnessing an “epistemological moment,” one in which “area studies are seen as parochial and narrow. We’re urged to become more theoretical, comparative, global.” A petite woman whose faded blue eyes retain the characteristic spark that lights up old photographs of her at work in India, notebook in hand, Rudolph pronounced herself, in social-science speak, an optimist. “I continue to have this hopeful idea of agency,” she told the audience. “We can be agents in our discipline.”

It wasn’t the first time during the three-day meeting—which attracted 130 attendees, including 55 of the Rudolphs’ 210 former doctoral students—that the death knells tolling for area studies were hushed by calls for area specialists to master their own destinies. Earlier that morning, for example, University of Michigan political economist Ashutosh Varshney had remarked that, even as globalization relaxes the cultural distinctiveness that had long been the bread and butter of area specialists, such scholars can find opportunity within this “crisis”—mainly by folding their specialized research into a larger, global context. Stanley Katz, a Princeton professor of public and international affairs (and former Chicago legal-history professor), who keynoted the conference, urged area specialists to go on the offensive, to make the case that “knowing about localities and regions is extremely important in the current jingoistic, anti-multilateral, American-exceptionalism environment.” Several scholars, including one visitor from India, pointed out that American area specialists have failed to recognize that their field itself has globalized or to find allies among area specialists in other countries. And one attendee, Michael McIntyre, AM’87, PhD’92, a DePaul University political scientist, twice insisted that his colleagues should be more creative in their search for resources. “We’re worried about how we can sustain ourselves without the institutions [like the Ford Foundation] that created and sustained us,” he said. “There are other sources—like the World Social Forum. We just have to cultivate them.”

All good suggestions, as long as area-studies specialists, Rudolph said, stick with their “interpretive” mandate. Her reminder initiated a subtle shift in the conversation, away from whether area studies matter or how to make them matter or where to find funding and toward why area studies matter: the methods used by practitioners and their humility in employing them. “In describing,” she said, “we know we are committing an act of creation. No data can be selected in a neutral way. Our goal is the elucidation of meaning.” The most an area specialist—or any social scientist—can be, she insisted, is a lens on a time and a place and a society or political system.

To the layperson in the audience, Rudolph’s advice underscored that much was at stake during this conference and in its participants’ careers. When she finished speaking, a man in a gray V-neck sweater rose. “I’d like to return to this idea of agency in the disciplines,” said John Echeverri-Gent, AM’76, PhD’87, a comparative South Asian specialist at the University of Virginia. “One of the most interesting developments in our field is the development of methodological awareness. We need to be sensitive to our choices. We must develop a healthy respect for the different methods, to learn them, if only to be able to criticize them. Area studies has some real strengths. We’re messing in the nitty gritty. We help build theoretical concepts—by testing them in particular areas and seeing how they play out.”

It was as if Mr. Perestroika had crept into the room.

Nobody knows for sure who “Mr. Perestroika” is, but one Chicago political scientist (who also prefers to remain nameless) surmises that the anonymous critic of political science—who sparked a discipline-wide movement with a single e-mail—has a sheepskin with a phoenix on it.

Maybe, maybe not.

Yet it is striking how many Chicagoans, both alumni and faculty, have rallied behind “P.,” as s/he now signs correspondence. In October 2000 Mr. Perestroika issued an e-mail manifesto damning the American Political Science Association (APSA) and its flagship journal, the American Political Science Review (APSR), for excluding solid qualitative research in favor of abstruse mathematical modeling by “poor game theorists” and “failed economists.” The resulting storm of sympathetic electronic communications soon turned into a Yahoo! group, perestroika_glasnost_warmhome (“Weclome,” its well-intentioned if typo-plagued home page states, “to Perestroika’s Home: Plural, Diverse and all Inclusive. Please sit down and lets discuss political problems over a cup of Chai!! We have Java Coffee too!”). By April of this year the group had 709 members—about 5 percent of APSA’s membership of 13,500—and anecdotally, at least, a good number of political scientists who see virtue in the cause without actually signing on themselves.

Items on perestroikans’ agenda range all over the map. They call for more balance in the APSR. One arm of the movement has rallied around the fact that, unlike other social-science associations, APSA’s executive slate is not democratically elected; officers are selected by a nominating committee appointed by the past two presidents. There’s also been much fretful discussion within the movement about political science’s growing irrelevance in the outside world—even in wartime.

But perhaps the single most important point on perestroikans’ agenda is, like Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform policies from which the movement takes its name, to upset the status quo. In this case the status quo is a discipline increasingly dominated by scholars who emphasize the “science” part of their field’s name and rely on formal models such as rational-choice theory and “large-N” statistical analyses (which use large sample sizes) to identify universal or quantifiable explanations for political behavior. These quantitative types, say perestroikans, exert hegemonic tendencies, ignoring or dismissing research that they don’t consider “scientific”—for example, interpretive research by area specialists like the Rudolphs, based on fieldwork in a specific country or among a specific people, or theoretical work such as that done by Chicago international-relations realist John Mearsheimer, which relies on a few carefully chosen case studies and historical context to prove a point.

Perestroikans, Mearsheimer points out, have had an unfortunate tendency to lump all quantitative researchers together under the term “rat choicers,” which not only fails to recognize the differences between formal models and statistical methods but also doesn’t do much to endear the group to its adversaries. Formal models are to “large-N” studies as theoretical physics is to experimental physics: on the one hand are the scholars who spend their days at dry-erase boards devising equations that rely on theoretical strings and extra dimensions; on the other are the experimentalists who smash tiny particles together a million times in search of hard evidence of patterns that will contribute to a unified theory of the universe.

Since the mid-1980s rational-choice theory has been the dominant formal model used in political science. Borrowed from economics, the theory assumes that all humans, regardless of race, ethnicity, and political or historical circumstances, act rationally to further their own ends. Another often-used formal model is game theory (analyzing a situation according to gains and losses for the opposing players). While some perestroikans may use formal models in their work—including Mearsheimer, whose 2001 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics is based on a rational-choice model—what they don’t use is math. And that, says Mearsheimer, is what distinguishes perestroikans from the hegemons. What the movement is about—as Susanne Rudolph reminded her audience at the Area Studies Redux conference—is methods and whether both storytelling and number crunching can peacefully coexist in the discipline. Perestroikans believe they can: “pluralism” has become their mantra.

In a February 2002 essay posted to perestroika_glasnost_warmhome, Greg Kasza, an Indiana University political scientist currently visiting at Harvard and a staunch perestroikan, lamented the passing of the days when “substantive political ideas identified most schools: we were elite theorists, pluralists, modernization theorists, dependency theorists, neo-statists, etc. Now,” he wrote, “methods identify the major schools: we are game theorists, quantifiers, or qualitative researchers.... Fewer political scientists today dream of forging a new theory of class conflict than of concocting a new form of regression analysis or a new puzzle like the prisoners’ dilemma.”

The shift from ideas to methods is, as Mr. Perestroika charged, reflected in the discipline’s most prestigious journal’s marked tendency to favor rational choice and statistical research. In their study “Methodological Bias in the APSR” David Pion-Berlin, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside, an outspoken perestroikan, and his student Dan Cleary assessed APSR content from 1991 to 2000, finding that 74 percent of its articles were based on empirical statistical analysis or formal modeling. Only 25 percent involved political theory, and just 1 percent were qualitative case studies of particular governments or institutions. In a “publish or perish” world where jobs and research funding are doled out according to APSR appearances on c. vitae, qualitative researchers, as Mearsheimer puts it, “are considered dinosaurs.”

Many of those dinosaurs rallied at the August 2001 APSA meeting in San Francisco, the movement’s formal launch, wearing blank red buttons and packing conference rooms for panels titled “Perestroika: Undisciplined, Unpunished,” “Shaking Things Up? Future Directions in Political Science,” and “Political Science Methodology & Perestroika.” Eight of the 22 panelists in these sessions either teach or have taught at Chicago or hold U of C degrees. Several names turn up repeatedly in perestroikan circles: the Rudolphs; Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison distinguished service professor in political science; and Kristen Renwick Monroe, AM’70, PhD’74, a political economy and empirical political-theory professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Chicagoans’ support for the perestroika movement isn’t surprising. After all, Chicago, along with Yale, is considered one of the discipline’s few remaining bastions of pluralism. “This institution has maintained a boutique-like quality,” says a Chicago assistant professor who prefers to remain off the record. “This is one of the few places where you can get an education that includes both game theory and semiotics—and that makes both relevant to politics. Folks here value innovation and risk taking.” Indeed, at the 2001 APSA meeting, professor emeritus Lloyd Rudolph called for a discipline modeled on the motto “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” (The phrase comes from Mao Tse Tung’s “Let a hundred flowers bloom” campaign during China’s Cultural Revolution. “Hopefully,” Rudolph said, “the APSA will be spared the deluge that followed but benefit from the spirit of change and openness” that perestroika and flower metaphors invoke.) Among the flowers that have bloomed in Chicago political science are rational-choice pioneers and some of its leading proponents, including Stanford’s David Laitin and New York University’s Adam Przeworski, both former Chicago faculty.

So far perestroika has racked up several victories. Under editor Lee Sigelman of George Washington University, in the past year the APSR has moved to create more balance among the quantitative and qualitative research published in its pages. This March the APSA introduced Perspectives on Politics, a general journal whose mission statement is to publish “rigorous, broad-based research and integrative thought...[and to] enable members of different subfields to speak with one another.” And in February 2002 Susanne Rudolph was selected by the APSA nominating committee as the association’s president-elect; she assumes the one-year position this July from Harvard’s Theda Skocpol, also sympathetic to the perestroikan cause.

Rudolph and others quickly point out that Sigelman had proposed reforming APSR a full month before P.’s call to open its pages, and that plans for Perspectives were also already in the works when the e-mail was sent. The journal “knew it was in trouble and was on the path to rectify itself,” Rudolph says. “Perestroika became an enormous constituency to push against a half-open door.” Under Sigelman, she says, the journal is indeed more pluralist and inclusive. “APSR looks very different today than it did a year ago.” Although Sigelman himself warns, “We can never be sure of what might have happened under other circumstances,” a few articles that he suspects “wouldn’t have been published under prior editors, perhaps because they wouldn’t have been submitted in the first place,” include: Columbia political scientist Robert C. Lieberman’s “Ideas, Institutions, and Political Order: Explaining Political Change” (December 2002), Harvard political economist Tim Buthe’s “Taking Temporality Seriously: Modeling History and the Use of Narratives as Evidence” (September 2002), and UVA political scientist Lawrie Balfour’s “Unreconstructed Democracy: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Case for Reparations” (February 2003).

Perhaps perestroika’s greatest victory, though, is its very existence and persistence. “It was an achievement in itself to start the conversation,” says Rudolph. “Perestroika is an extremely active body of people who before had no platform for epistemological discussions. Even if the conversations taking place in perestroika don’t go anywhere, things get aired. Conflict and agreement both make community.” Notes a Chicago assistant professor, “Everyone claims to support the idea of intellectual pluralism. Perestroika is an attempt to have people make good on that commitment.”

The movement’s greatest enemy, most agree, is its amorphousness. At the 2001 APSA meeting Mearsheimer donned his strategy-expert hat and offered a five-point plan for moving forward. He called first and foremost on his colleagues to focus “directly and exclusively” on methodology and promote the common belief “that first-rate scholarship in the social sciences does not require mathematics.” A second priority was to seek to influence faculty hiring at Ph.D.-producing universities: “The future of the discipline will largely be determined by who is hired and promoted in the major social-science departments.” Third was to fight for more funding from government entities like the National Science Foundation. Fourth, he admonished perestroikans to “have a sound understanding of formal modeling and statistical reasoning,” both to impart methodological sophistication to students and to counter the “hexing power of mathematics” with knowledge of its limitations. Last, he reminded his colleagues to celebrate difference. The goal, he said, is not to replace one brand of parochialism with another; it is to embrace diversity and oppose hegemony.

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