From the Fall 2010 University of Oregon Political Science Department newsletter, featuring my graduate advisor, John Orbell, an excerpt from his essay, “Reflections on a Privileged Life.”
I don’t see [political science] as a discipline in the sense of, say, economics, where scholars frequently agree on theory and methodology; political science is more of a holding company for people interested in subjects that, by some stretch of the imagination, can be called “politics.” Understandably, this cacophony can sometimes lead to departmental conflict, but it can also disappear if one side wins all the hiring battles.* More happily, though, it often allows scholars to follow their noses wherever they sniff out interesting problems. After all, contemporary disciplinary boundaries were spelled out in the early twentieth century, and many problems that are interesting and important today require those boundaries to be crossed if they are to be adequately addressed.
If this rationalizes diletttantism, so be it; but it has worked for me…**
Beyond the great privilege of being an academic, my point is this: Disciplinary boundaries are an unfortunate barrier to pursuing problems that do not belong to any one discipline–and none actually do. The major charm of political science as a “nondiscipline” is the freedom it gives scholars to follow such problems, provided they can (1) wriggle past the question often posed by department heads of whether it is “really political science”; (2) find appropriately skilled collaborators when moving into an unknown discipline; and (3) build from a basis of skills developed for prior projects to address new ones.
Few people have been as successful at successfully navigating those three potential obstacles as Orbell has been. He would be the first to tell you that he’s not a genius, but he has a particular talent for spotting linkages between disciplines–those places where disciplinary boundaries slice right across intellectual problems, just as colonial boundaries slice across indigenous populations–and for managing research collaborations with patience, good humor, and gentle nudging.
He, more than anyone, shaped my way of thinking about my “nondiscipline” and about how to approach the intellectual life, which is why I bristle when I hear that political science is about studying government, or some such other pigeonhole that doesn’t do it justice. In fact my considered view is that properly understood, political science is a subset of biology, along with all the social sciences (at least psychology and economics–I am dubious about whether sociology has any value worthy of being recognized), because we are studying the behavior of a particular species of animal in its interactions with the environment and with others of its kind.*** That doesn’t mean we ought to be reorganized into the biology department, but that we should keep in mind, always, that we are studying a species that is biological and that has an evolutionary history that has shaped it.
[Special note to JamesK. John Orbell is a New Zealander, and an ideal type of all the Kiwis I have ever met, which I mean as a great compliment.]
* This is a sly shot at the current makeup of UO’s political science department. For many years, there was an uneasy truce, with John Orbell as one of the leading brokers, that allowed two opposing sides in the department’s culture to effectively alternate hires. After the retirement of Orbell and the Marxist professor who helped broker the truce on the other side, this system broke down, and now the non-Orbell side has won most of the hiring battles.
**Orbell has published in journals devoted to political science, sociology, psychology, economics and decision sciences, and perhaps others that I don’t know about.
***One of my best friends is an entomologist who specializes in social insects–I like to turn this formulation around and tell him his discipline is a subset of political science. Although I say that mostly to bug him, if Harold Lasswell’s definition of politics as “who gets what, when, and how” is taken as the starting point, then he is indeed something of a political scientist. And, I would add, an economist, as his dissertation research involved cost-benefit analysis of foraging strategies among imported red fire ants, and he did cite directly to the economic literature on cost-benefit analysis.