Wednesday, August 25, 2004

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Explaining APSA

William Sjostrom has taken a look at the American Political Science Association's (APSA) press release announcing the highlights for its annual conference next week. Sjostrom thinks the deck of high-profile speakers is stacked:

Their featured speakers from outside the profession are George Soros, Mary Robinson, Paul Heinbecker, Lani Guinier, and Joseph Stiglitz....

Guinier and Robinson are experienced, articulate and smart lawyers. Whatever his failings as a policy maker, as an economic theorist Stiglitz is a genius. Granted, Soros is a few cards shy of a full deck, but he is a billionaire, so maybe he will pick up the lunch tab. What is depressing is remarkably narrow range of ideas present. If this were the annual banquet for The Nation, it would be hardly out of place. But for the APSA featured speaker line-up, it is seems as if the organizers are indulging in aggressive ideological narrowness.

Sjostrom has half a point. I flipped through some of the previous APSA programs, and though there are some exceptions -- William Kristol is an APSA regular -- most of the guest speakers range from mainstream Democrat (Rep. John Lewis, Amitai Etzioni) to radical leftist (Noam Chomsky). And I'll certainly acknowledge that the APSA membership and structure is probably skewed slightly to the left.

Over time, this is undoubtedly a self-reinforcing equilibrium, as conservative-minded political scientists abandon conferences like APSA for the think tank world or for parallel organizations like the Eric Voegelin Society. The assumption that all academics are leftists probably makes it difficult for APSA to obtain top-flight speakers that are right of center.

However, before anyone gets too excited, a brutal, unvarnished truth must be acknowledged -- at most, 5% of APSA participants attend these talks. APSA has about 6,000 attendees, and a crowd of 300 for these kind of talks would be impressive. These speakers influence no one, but are rather preaching to a small and committed choir.

The reasons for the poor attendance are several. First, these kind of talks are usually held during the vital hours of eating and drinking, where the real business of APSA is conducted: power-schmoozing. Well, that and reconnecting with old grad school friends. Second, after a long day of presenting, discussing, and listening to political science, the last thing most people want to do is go to a lecture about politics.

Which is the other dirty secret about my profession -- there's a difference between political science and politics. Most of the presentations and papers given at APSA do not address normative debates about the way politics should be. Instead, they are more detached analyses of why things are the way they are. Sometimes the answers can be ideological, but most political scientists just care about whether their answer is correct -- or more precisely, whether someone else can demonstrate that their preferred answer is wrong.

Anyway, now is as good a time as any to link back to my tips for conference rookies attending APSA for the first time this year.

posted by Dan on 08.25.04 at 10:48 AM


Of course, there are other good reasons not to be a member of APSA: I have yet to meet a political scientist who thinks the journals have recovered from the Finifiter era; professional membership and conference fees are massively overpriced; and regional and subfield organizations are more relevant to most scholars. If I weren't on the market, the only good reason I'd have to be an APSA member would be so I could subscribe to Political Analysis (via the Methods section).

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 08.25.04 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

I'd like to hear Mary Robinson talk about her achievement at Durban, or George "However Many Millions it Takes" Soros hold forth on campaign finance reform. Perhaps Stiglitz can tell us how he would have "saved" Russia from both Zyuganov and the oligarchs.

posted by: lex on 08.25.04 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

This is one of the reasons I am still struggling with whether or not to join APSA. In all liklihood I will go to the think tanks after my dissertation is done, and quite frankly the profession is too full of people who think political science really is a science (Statistics have their place, but it seems the theoretical/normative side is completely lost). That said, it seems self-defeating to completely give up the fight and cede academia to the left. Not sure what to do.

posted by: paul on 08.25.04 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

“Most of the presentations and papers given at APSA do not address normative debates about the way politics should be. Instead, they are more detached analyses of why things are the way they are.”

Political science? Me thinks that these academics, like the economists, are subtly trying to con themselves that they are practitioners of a hard science. They often possess an inferiority complex. The hard scientists apparently are a few pegs up on the university pecking order. Soft scientists seem to be treated as second class citizens.

There is admittedly a valid role for such a profession. Nonetheless, these folks are easily tempted to focus on a number of smaller aspects while missing the big picture. It’s akin to a blindfolded fellow grabbing the legs of an elephant and not seeing the whole body.

posted by: David Thomson on 08.25.04 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

David, Paul: I think the distinction between "hard" and "soft" science is almost completely an issue of measurement. Social phenomena, alas, aren't always as easy to measure as quantities of a substance, velocity, and other physical phenomena.

As to the neglect of normative theory, considering the existence of at least one regional association (the Northeastern) whose primary focus is normative theory, and considering the relative prevalence of normative theory articles in the APSR, I find it hard to believe there is neglect of the subfield.

Besides, there's plenty of empirical theory in political science (although, alas, sometimes researchers fail to ground their work in it), not to mention formal theory.

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 08.25.04 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

Chris, don't get me wrong, it's not 100% all quantitative nowadays. In fact it's funny that you should mentioned NEPSA as I will be presenting a paper there in November. But it seems to me to be the opposite case with APSR as few of the articles contained therein are normative works, though perhaps it changes from issue to issue.

It's hard to find too many traditional departments - luckily I happened to have found one such for my graduate stduies. The discipline does tend to telf fairly heavily to the left politically, and to the statistical/empirical side methodologically.

posted by: paul on 08.25.04 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

Ideaology is religion. If you want to study religion go to the religious studies department.

posted by: Jor on 08.25.04 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

“Ideaology is religion. If you want to study religion go to the religious studies department.”

Ideology is not merely religious in nature. It can also include the political and the philosophical realms. What is ideology? It is the adherence to a procrustean bed of inflexible beliefs which one will not allow to be challenged.

posted by: David Thomson on 08.25.04 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

Kerry's Lie is the sand that Political Correctness is built on top of, and the Leftist Press has been enabling it.

Leftists claim "moral superiority" based on Kerry Lies. This is the unspoken heart of the issue. See

posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad on 08.25.04 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

Here's one tip I saw that was missing from the helpful list that Dan reposted:

Be prepared for the promised LCD projector / overhead / microphone / whiteboard to be missing or broken. This happens, even at APSA. Last year, I ended up trying to give a graphics-heavy quantitative presentation in a room with no projector, no blackboard, no nothing.

If you are expecting to project straight from a computer, bring transparancies too. And in addition to transparencies, bring handouts with the critical charts or tables, and distribute them if necessary. Having paper copies handy also makes you look good if someone asks for copies of your charts at the end.

Now, one vital question for Dan or others in the Chicago know: Any good bars you'd suggest near the Palmer House? "Good" being defined mostly by excellent beer selection, and / or attractiveness of clientele?

posted by: Dave on 08.25.04 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

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