From Specialization to Teamwork: IPSA’s Research Committees and Present Challenges to the Political Science Discipline

Rainer Eisfeld (Osnabrueck University, Germany)

Keynote Lecture at the Inaugural Session of the joint IPSA RC 37/RC 02 Conference on Rethinking Political Development: Multifaceted Role of Elites and Transforming Leadership Winter Park, Florida, USA, November 7, 2011

Earlier this year, in a process in which it was my privilege to participate, the IPSA Executive Committee agreed on the first mission statement in our association’s history, which you may now find on the IPSA website. The statement includes two visions: one of service to the community, and a second of organizing research in a way meant to assure the high caliber of that service. Let me quote from the first:

“Political science…(aims) at contribut(ing) to the quality of public deliberation and decision-making… Ultimately, IPSA supports the role of political science in empowering men and women to participate more effectively in political life, whether within or beyond the states in which they live.”

I am labeling this statement a “vision”, not a description, because to a considerable extent it jars with Giovanni Sartori’s 2004 contention, according to which political science – at least American-type, largely quantitative political science – “is going nowhere… Practice-wise, it is a largely useless science that does not supply knowledge for use”.1 A more recent, but no less skeptical assessment by Joseph Nye has been quoted to the effect that the discipline may be “moving in the direction of saying more and more about less and less”.2

In statements such as these, misgivings have peaked resulting from a debate about the compartmentalization, balkanization, fragmentation of political science that has continued to flare up. Reflecting preoccupations about how much relevant, stimulating, important work is being done in the discipline’s fields, that debate won unexpected media attention in November 2009, when a Republican senator’s motion, which would have prohibited the American National Science Foundation “from wasting federal research funding on political science projects”, obtained 36 votes in the U.S. Senate.3 While it might be argued that the motion says more about the current Republican Party than about political science, the vote and the reasons put forward for the motion nevertheless may serve as a caveat to the discipline. I will return to the issue in a moment.

Appropriately enough, IPSA in its mission statement aims at strengthening the discipline so that it may better cope with the envisioned purpose of serving democracy. Again, I quote:

“IPSA’s research committees encourage the world-wide pooling of skills and resources by working both together and in conjunction with specialist sub-groups of national associations… By linking scholars from North and South as well as East and West, IPSA seeks to strengthen the networks that underpin a global political science community.”

Some 40 years ago, at the VIII World Congress held in Munich in 1970, IPSA decided to institutionalize research activities throughout the world by setting up research committees. The immediate establishment of a large number of such committees signaled that our association had indeed responded to a growing demand for sustained cooperation among political scientists. Since 2006, IPSA has been pursuing a policy of strengthening already existing, and forging additional, links among Research Committees, as well as between these and the national political science associations which belong to IPSA as collective members. Efforts at teamwork across sub-fields and across countries are deemed essential for creating synergies and making the most of existing specialization. The present workshop furnishes a perfect example of what the IPSA Executive Committee hoped to achieve when it embarked on its policy. Again, I will enlarge on these considerations shortly.


By the same point in time, 2006, when IPSA embarked on its new “linkage” policy, Lee Sigelman at George Washington University, whose untimely death saddened the discipline two years ago, saw political science as having moved, during the last decades, “in the direction of being a federation of loosely linked specialties”: Sigelman argued that sub-fields and organized sections, often with their specialized journals, had been emerging as cores around which “more and more of the discipline’s intellectual and organizational life has come to revolve”.4 Indeed, not just IPSA’s Research Committees had been proliferating. Last year, the number of research-oriented specialist/standing/sub-groups, sections or working committees which altogether 13 national political science associations had generated, amounted to no less than 216. A mere four national organizations, the British Political Studies Association, the American, German, and Russian Political Science Associations between them alone were harbouring 147 such groups or committees. As befits polities and societies largely characterized by the structures and processes of ‘interest-group liberalism’ (Theodore J. Lowi), the specialization of - albeit loosely - organized groups has been supplementing, if not to some extent replacing, the specialization of individual scholars.

As a matter of course, research interests of these groups often overlap. Yet while individual members of various committees have been collaborating, in many instances there is hardly any mutual awareness of each other’s projects, meetings, or publications. Problems of “turf”, i. e existing priorities, incentives and responsibilities, seem to work as a main barrier against more cooperation between research groups. By early 2010, four years after IPSA launched its “linkage” policy, hardly one third of its 50 research committees had organized joint activities. A much smaller minority had forged links with national associations, or their sub-sections.

The discipline’s compartmentalization has been tied to the emergence of “niches” where highly specialized political scientists conduct “highly particularized” research, eventually writing for “highly specialized audiences rather than... for a few specialists and many non-specialists”.5 John Trent, former IPSA Secretary General, who organized our association’s world congresses from 1973 to 1988, and in 2000, earlier this year enunciated some obvious consequences when he stressed the discipline’s ensuing “retreat from domestic public debate… There are few ‘public intellectuals’ and few connections with the political class”. The general result, Trent concluded, is “a sense that we are not helping citizens.”6 The same self-centered “neglect of the citizen” was attested to our discipline in a recent interview by 2009 Economics Laureate Elinor Ostrom, who will be keynote speaker at the 2012 IPSA World Congress.7

Soberingly enough, both Ostrom’s and Trent’s observations exactly match the reasons which U. S. Senator Thomas Coburn (R, OK) read into the record when submitting the motion which he wished to see voted into law as Coburn Amendment 2631 to the 2010 Commerce, Justice & Science Appropriation Act. The amendment – as I pointed out earlier - would have barred the National Science Foundation from allocating funds to any political science project. Such funds, Coburn maintained, should rather be spent on endeavours “yielding breakthroughs and discoveries that can improve the human condition.”8 The implication was obvious.

Starkly contrasting with such harsh assessments of the present state of the art, the APSA Task Force on Graduate Education, in its 2004 Report to the APSA Council, argued for a commitment of the discipline that would involve nothing less than a substantial reversal of presently prevailing trends. Including among its members Kristen Monroe at Irvine, Robert Keohane at Duke, Michael Wallerstein (now sadly deceased) at Northwestern and Rogers M. Smith at Penn, the Task Force insisted that both exploring ways in which politics can “help resolve human difficulties”, and communicating “to broader audiences” how the study of politics may aid in “achieving improved understandings of substantively important features of human life” should belong among the foremost tasks of our discipline.9

I have expressed largely identical opinions elsewhere:10 We may expect to continue living in an era of globalization-induced financial and economic crises, increasing ethno-cultural pluralisation, and millenarian violence. In such an environment, both policy-makers and citizens grapple with a plethora of economic, political and cultural challenges. It is vital that political studies should address these challenges. Emphasizing broad societal participation in the shaping of public policies, the discipline should make a determined effort “to help citizens prepare themselves for various possible futures”.11 Otherwise, “perplexity, distrust, fear and intolerance” – the intolerance born precisely out of distrust and fear – may overwhelm large segments of society,12 making them strike out against democratic principles and practices.


Where to begin, and how to involve IPSA’s research committees? An answer might be: “In the spirit of Montréal”. IPSA’s 2008 Montréal intermediate conference, entitled “Political Science in the World: New Theoretical and Regional Perspectives”, systematically brought together RCs and national associations for the first time in the history of IPSA. 150 delegates from over 30 countries represented 27 research committees and 23 national associations. The Montréal event was followed by a 2010 Luxembourg mid-term conference on models of European governance, co-sponsored by the Luxembourg Political Science Association, and by a 2011 joint IPSA-ECPR event – again, a first collaboration - hosted by the Brazilian Political Science Association, whose thematic focus was the continued relevance of the international North-South divide.

These conferences stood out by their emphasis on cross-field studies transcending the domains of our discipline’s traditional sub-fields. Cutting across time-honoured boundaries, engaging salient issue areas in terms of over-arching approaches and themes, it is such cross-field research which may be expected to stimulate the discipline’s return to an agenda of wider intellectual scope, more innovative content, and greater public relevance.13

The Montréal Conference certainly pointed the way toward the pursuit of research initiatives patterned after that formula, and the Luxembourg and Sao Paulo follow-up events provided additional inspiration. But the crucial role falls to IPSA’s research committees. They must keep the ball rolling. And at that point, the significance of the present conference comes into play.

What topic could be more relevant, in the sense of addressing one or more of today’s vexing political issues, than this meeting’s focus on the role of players, both elites and mass movements, in the Arab uprisings around the Mediterranean and in the volatile countries of East and South-East Asia? And what could make more sense than pooling, for the purposes of such an inquiry, the intellectual resources of IPSA’s research groups on the recruitment and performance of political elites and on innovative, cross-cultural approaches to political development?

A joint effort has resulted, devoting itself to salient issues that, for instance, will include: From which families, clans, parties might new elites in these regions emerge? May they reasonably be expected to be more accountable, less corrupt, more ready to acknowledge women’s and minority rights? What chances have the mass movements which have recently carried the day, of attaining their objectives - quality of life, social justice, in the last instance human dignity? Will the West manage to respond more sensibly than in the past, finally acknowledging these countries as developing polities and societies in their own right, rather than automatically invoking considerations of “security”, “strategic importance”, and accessibility of natural resources? Both formally, with experts participating from two research committees and a dozen countries, and substantively, with regard to the issues being explored, this meeting offers the kind of perspective on the study of politics which is essential to the progress of our discipline.

I should like to invoke one more example of the kind of effort in political science that I have in mind, and to which IPSA’s research committees may make a crucial contribution. In June, 2010, the Russian Political Science Association, the non-governmental Saint Petersburg Center for Humanities and Political Studies, and the International Political Science Association’s Research Committee on Politics and Ethnicity jointly organized a conference on “Ethno-Cultural Diversity and the Problem of Tolerance” in St. Petersburg. Several of the major presentations focused on a central feature of present societies, which the migration component of globalisation may be safely predicted to produce on an increasing scale: the resort to ethnicity as a source of social identification and identity – not just for these societies’ minorities, but also for their majorities.

How much heterogeneity will these majorities accept? How may cultural narratives be advanced, which promote mutual “recognition” and tolerance, rather than separation and conflict? Should political science attempt to develop concepts replacing the idea of a single identity by the notion of “a set of identities” that would allow the individual “to participate in various cultural communities”?14

Once again, it is the results of such collaborative efforts from which “lay inquiries” by citizens and policy-makers alike might benefit.15 If sessions at world political sciences congresses, henceforth to be held every two years, should succeed in communicating that same impression to wider audiences, another stride toward fulfilling IPSA’s mission statement would be taken. No different from the 2009 World Congress result, 19 of IPSA’s research committees - barely over one third of the total - have presently committed themselves to organizing, between them, joint panels for the 2012 Madrid Congress (RC 32 has been particularly active, teaming up with 4 other committees).16 The lesson seems clear enough: The beginnings are promising. However, like elsewhere in our discipline, cooperation must to be broadened by further efforts.


1 Sartori, Giovanni (2004): “Where is Political Science Going? ”, PS 11, 785-786 (786).

2 Quoted by writer Patricia Cohen in the New York Times, October 19, 2009 ( books/20poli.html, accessed May 27, 2010).


FuseAction=RightNow, both accessed May 27, 2010.

4 Sigelman, Lee (2006): “The Coevolution of American Political Science and the American Political Science Review”, APSR 100, 463-478 (475).

5 Sigelman (as in n. 4).

6 Trent, John (2011): “Should Political Science be More Relevant? An Empirical and Critical Analysis of the Discipline”, EPS 10, 191-209 (196/197).

7 Cf. Toonen, Theo (2010): “Resilience in Public Administration: The Work of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom from a Public Administration Perspective”, Public Administration Review 70, 193-202 (197).

8 As in n. 3.

9, 3 (accessed October 5, 2011).

10 Eisfeld, Rainer (2011): “How Political Science Might Regain Relevance and Obtain an Audience: A Manifesto for the 21st Century”, EPS 10, 220-225. See also id. (2011): “Towards Creating a Discipline With a ‚Regional Stamp’: Central-East European Political Science and Ethno-Cultural Diversity”, Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review, No. 25, 121-129.

11 Hankiss, Elemér (2002): “Brilliant Ideas or Brilliant Errors? Twelve Years of Social Science Research in Eastern Europe”, in: Max Kaase/Vera Sparschuh (eds.): Three Social Science Disciplines in Central and Eastern Europe, Berlin/Budapest, 17-24 (22).

12 Ibid. (20).

13 Cross-field research and teaching are presently emphasized by political science departments at, e.g., the New School for Social Research, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

14 Kuznetsov, Anatoliy (2010): “Political Science Before a Challenge of Ethno-Cultural Pluralism”, in: Ethno-Cultural Diversity and the Problem of Pluralism in a Globalizing World, Conference Proceedings, St. Peters-burg, 96-110 (96).

15 Cf. Lindblom, Charles E. (1990): Inquiry and Change. The Troubled Attempt to Understand and Shape Socie-ty, New Haven/London, 216/217, 257/1258. For a ray of hope in present-day German political science, see the brief piece by Bommarius, Christian (2011): “Die Rache der Feuilletonisten. Die Politologie sucht endlich das offene Gespräch”, Frankfurter Rundschau, 67, No. 230 (October 4, 2011), 10.

16 I am indebted to Yee Fun Wong at the IPSA Secretariat for this information.