February 07, 2011

Does Egypt give us all an excuse to beat up on political scientists?

I have been greatly entertained by the debate between Daniel Drezner and Arpoova Shah over the question of whether the situation in Egypt says anything about the strength of political science in the United States. I encourage you all to read what the two of them have written, but there is something going on here that neither Drezner nor Shah deal with. I was standing in line a few hours ago, waiting on a sandwich at Potbelly's, when I read this, from Greg Gause, in a volume of the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies last year:

Over the past five years, from volume 37, number 1 (February 2005) to volume 41, number 3 (August 2009), IJMES published thirty-seven articles that deal with politics in the contemporary Middle East, broadly understood. This is my count, of course, and others might add or drop some articles. I define contemporary as post World War II and have a relatively expansive definition of politics. My count does not include short features, only full articles.


Eighteen of the authors of these articles are identified as having academic appointments in political science departments, fewer than 50 percent of the total (some of the articles are co-authored, so there are more than thirty-seven authors involved). The other authors are concentrated in the discipline of anthropology (with one sociologist and one historian) or have appointments in religious studies or Middle East studies departments. Of the eighteen political scientists who have published in IJMES during this period, only eight were employed in North American universities. The majority of the political scientists appearing in IJMES during this period have appointments in European or Israeli universities; one political scientist working at an Arab university appeared in the pages.


Although those North American political scientists who did publish in IJMES during this period did some very good work, and it was my pleasure to review many of their articles, these numbers lead me to the troubling conclusion that there is a growing gap between the professional requirements for disciplinary success in political science in North America and the standards and forms expected of the best Middle East studies work. Increasingly, particularly at the best research universities, advancement in political science requires work concentrated in formal and statistical methods. There are, of course, exceptions. Some political scientists working on the Middle East who use postpositivist methods have secured leading jobs at top research universities. There is a refreshing recent trend toward encouraging mixed-methods research in dissertations, with large-n statistical and/or rational-choice formal mathematical components supplemented by case studies based on field work and more classic discursive and qualitative approaches. However, professional advancement in the field is driven by publication in journals that are heavily weighted toward quantitative and formal methods. In the subfield of comparative politics, where most Middle East work is done in the discipline, there are also strong currents arguing that cross-regional work, not intense concentration on a single region, is preferred. In promotion and tenure decisions, publication in regional-studies journals, although not actively discouraged, is not credited as highly as publication in disciplinary journals. The sad fact is that, for ambitious political scientists looking to get the best North American jobs, publication in IJMES is not a great career move. ...


The professional situation of political scientists outside of North America is not as constrained. Good area-studies work that is informed by the epistemology of social science but relies on “old-fashioned” area-studies methods of qualitative analysis and considerable field work is more highly respected in the discipline in Europe and elsewhere. One can advance professionally at the best universities in Europe and the Middle East doing such work. Because of these different incentives, and different financial-support systems, graduate students at European universities who are interested in the Middle East tend to spend more time in the field and produce work that is more accessible to cross-disciplinary Middle East studies audiences. The significant representation of European-trained political scientists in the pages of IJMES over the last five years is testament to this different set of career structures and incentives.

I am not trying to demonize quantitative methods here. Although I tease "Quants" because I myself am an area studies geek, let's be honest: the more "tools" you can bring to bear on a question, the better. And I am not trying to say -- and neither is Gause -- that one cannot publish smart scholarly work on the Arabic-speaking world outside of IJMES (which is the flagship journal of Middle Eastern Studies). But I am trying to say that American political scientists are, by and large, rewarded for doing work that does not immediately lend itself to relevance in situations such as the one in which we currently find ourselves.

There are some excellent American political scientists working on the Arabic-speaking world. Greg Gause is one of them. So is Marc Lynch, whose writing during this most recent crisis has been excellent and necessary. So too is Josh Stacher, who published a great essay in Foreign Affairs over the weekend. So it is unfair, Drezner is correct to point out, to start bashing political science. I actually think American political scientists -- from Samer Shehata to Nathan Brown -- have been quite prominent in offering informed commentary during this crisis. But that's not a reason not to fret that political scientists trained in America might not be doing the kind of field work necessary for both top-flight area studies as well as providing policy-relevant insights onto events on the ground when crises arise. I spoke at THE Ohio State University last week, and one of the professors there similarly worried to me that students trained in the American academy would not be able to "keep up" with their European peers on regional expertise. That, to me, might be worth American political scientists thinking about. 

Work cited (emphasis mine):

Pensée 3: Political Science and the Middle East

F. Gregory Gause (2010).
International Journal of Middle East Studies, Volume 42, Issue 01, February 2010 pp 8-9