Political Theory as Profession and as Subfield?

By Kaufman-Osborn, Timothy V. | Political Research Quarterly, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Political Theory as Profession and as Subfield?


Kaufman-Osborn, Timothy V., Political Research Quarterly


Abstract

How does the enterprise of political theory create and sustain the borders that account for its appearance as a distinguishable profession? In this article, the author considers and criticizes a recent effort to defend political theory's right to exist in the form of one of several subfields constitutive of the academic discipline of professional political science in the United States. The author closes by suggesting that theorists might be better positioned to think critically about politics, and the politics of liberalism more particularly, if this self-representation were to be unsettled and possibly jettisoned altogether.

Keywords

political theory, subfield, discipline, political science

Theorists as Thugs?1

At the 2007 business meeting of Foundations of Political Theory, one of thirty-nine "organized sections" of the American Political Science Association (APSA), those in attendance voted unanimously to authorize its chair to compose and, following approval by its executive council, to send a letter to the head of the Department of Political Science at Pennsylvania State University (PSU). That letter, dated October 8 and signed by eighty-five academics, a vast majority of whom are institutionalized in political science departments and self-identify as political theorists, exhorted the department at PSU to reconsider its decision "to discontinue the track in political theory as a course of study available to doctoral students. . . . In light of the central place that political theory has for the study of political life, we find this decision regrettable and ill-advised" (Gibbons 2007).2

Although not officially issued in the name of Foundations of Political Theory, a second letter, dated October 12 and signed by fifty-five persons, all but two of whom had endorsed the first, was also sent to the department at PSU. Although this letter acknowledged the "right" of every institution of higher education, and so of every department of political science, "to set their own program parameters," it nonetheless insisted that "it is essential to the well-trained political scientist and teacher, whether in American, Comparative, IR [International Relations], or Public Law, that they have a training that includes an underpinning in political theory and critical thinking," and hence that the "subfield" of political theory be incorporated into the "mandatory curricula" of all graduate political science programs. Adding teeth to this exhortation, the letter then proceeded to specify "certain consequences that we believe will inevitably be occasioned by the PSU decision, if that decision is ratified and put into practice." These include the signatories' refusal to encourage suitably qualified undergraduates to apply for graduate study in political science at PSU and their refusal to recommend those who receive doctorates from that program, regardless of subfield, for positions at their home institutions. Sounding more like adherents of Tony Soprano than the heirs of Socrates, the signatories closed by urging the department at PSU to "take into account not just theoretical arguments about the nature of the social sciences and abstract views about the interface of theory and political science" but also "the real consequences for your students- those you aspire to recruit, and those you will want to place-of unhooking training in political science from its moorings in political theory" (Barber 2007).3

In the first substantive section of this article, I elaborate upon and criticize certain specific claims advanced in these two letters. Before turning to that task, a caveat is in order. If these letters are to be appreciated adequately, they must be located within a larger historical context, one to which I return later in this article. Anyone conversant with the history of political science in the United States, especially during the decades immediately following World War II, will hear in these letters reverberations of a period when many proponents of the behavioral revolution sought to rid the discipline of forms of political theory whose claims were deemed antiquarian and/or unverifiable. …

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