Sunday, June 23, 2013


Poli Sci? Really?

About once a week, the New York Times runs a piece that’s deliberately, rather than incidentally, about creeping philistinism.  

This week’s entry, The Decline and Fall of the English Major, is a mostly unremarkable example of the genre.  But it included a statistic that made me sit upright:

In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science.

Political science?  

I raise an eyebrow for a few reasons.  First, as longtime readers know, poli sci is my scholarly home.  I got my doctorate in it, with a focus on political philosophy.  I’ve taught poli sci at a host of colleges and universities, and spent plenty of years roaming the hallways of APSA with that distinctive mix of fear and desperation that theorists know well.  (Within the discipline, theory is very much the red-headed stepchild.)  Between the teaching and the conferences, my experience of political science was that it was selling something that very few were buying.  

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, poli sci was a hard sell just about anywhere.  As liberal arts go, it was too grubby and applied for the humanists to endorse, but too theoretical and useless for the vocationally minded.  (For a long time, it survived mostly as the de facto pre-law major.)  And anyone who has tried to read the APSR can attest that the discipline didn’t do itself any favors in terms of reaching a broad audience.

Economics, I can understand; it’s about money.  It’s the closest thing to a Business major that the Ivies and snootier liberal arts places offer.  At Williams, the Econ major was popular among football players who went on to investment banks.  Now, apparently, it’s reaching beyond the usual suspects.

But poli sci is a mystery.  Historically, it was the default major for students who wanted to go on to law school.  But law school applications are falling fast, as prospective students hear horror stories of underemployment in the field combined with herniating student loan burdens.  Outside of the pre-law function, it remains no more vocationally useful than, say, history or English.  

More frighteningly, the poli sci boom -- if that’s what it is -- seems to be restricted to the elites.  It’s simply not happening at the community college level.  Here, the social science of choice is still psychology, as it has been for as long as I’ve been around.  On my own campus we have one full-time political scientist on the faculty, and he also teaches history.  

It’s possible that Yale is a fluke, of course.  Maybe there’s some uniquely charismatic political scientist there (?!) who’s a pied piper of students.  But if that isn’t the case -- and poli sci is gaining ground among elite institutions while remaining peripheral everywhere else -- then we have a different issue.  To the extent that poli sci helps explain and make familiar the workings of power -- at its best, that’s exactly what it does -- then seeing an increased class stratification in who takes it should be alarming.  The elites are studying more closely how power works, while the masses are ignoring it.   This does not lead anywhere good.

Alternately, this may be a Nate Silver effect.  To the extent that data analytics have improved and become cool, poli sci may be where students pick that up.  Yale isn’t known for quantitative work, but anything is possible.  And I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the turn away from pre-law is less pronounced at the elites, since they’re likelier to feed into the elite law schools.  Grads from third-tier schools really struggle now, but grads from Harvard Law still do just fine.

If anything, tracing the workings of power is much more important for the non-elites.  People with money and connections will be fine; everyone else actually has something to worry about.  If discussions of money and power are restricted to those who already have both, I foresee the discussions becoming ever more provincial, and its blind spots ever larger.

The Times probably didn’t intend to make this point, but sometimes it trips over something good.  Wise and worldly readers, has anyone out there seen a poli sci boom in a community college setting?

The Obama effect? Glamourising Politics? Or a West Wing echo?
Economics may be popular, but it's also becoming quite quantitative. Some econ programs are probably looking like math programs with lots of dollar signs and occasional discussion of poverty in developing areas. This may put some students off, or simply box them out all together.

Poli Sci was one inter-connected with economics, similar to how physics and mathematics were inter-connected. Some students that don't pass the muster for econ may find enjoyment in political science. Similar themes, less math, and more discussion.

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Some of this draw may be the growing salience of overseas issues in students' consciousness. International Studies is a major growing at a lot of places, but students will often get advised to major in a discipline and use IS or an Area Studies course as a minor. If you want to work with an NGO, do policy analysis, or lobby foreign governments on behalf of a corporation, to name just a few, then poli sci looks decent.
Just looked at BLS poli sci employers government, science and research firm, consulting firms, and then business and labor groups. Me wonders in part if there's a growth trend in domestic lobbying, too, as I'm confident I've heard undergrad poli sci majors talk about that.
When you say "social science of choice", are you analyzing student's initial choice of an AA transfer major or enrollment in psych service courses taken by many majors, including AS majors like nursing? Business is the biggest wannabe major at my CC.

On your point about theory versus practice, I know a pol.sci. BA who went on to a major government position. That could be the difference between Policy (BA or MA with or without a law degree) and Theory (PhD) that you allude to.

At Yale, there could be selection bias just in who they recruit based on some idea about what is good for the Yale brand. Just for grins, I counted 48 pol.sci. profs and 44 english profs at Yale. However, many of the very large number of Asst Profs could be glorified post docs.

Apropos the second comment, there did seem to be a few Yale Asst Profs with an interest in analytics.
Yale's poli sci is very quantitative and difficult to distinguish from economics.

Poli sci is the biggest major at my uni, but probably because it's the gut major-- once you've dropped out of enough other majors, you land in poli sci and then don't drop out of school.
Because I'm that kind of guy, I went to the poli sci web site at Yale and they have 48 (!) faculty in the subject (50 in my field--economics). I recognized 4 of the names of the poli sci faculty (not a surprise there, it's not my discipline), and about 20 of the economists...Of course, none of them teach all that many courses per semester, and a lot of what they do teach is in graduate programs...I wonder how many faculty their undergrad program would justify?
Although law school applications are decreasing, I wonder if undergraduates, especially those in their first or second years are cognizant of the terrible law market. I get the sense that this realization, at least for the time being, is not coming until one is well on their way to graduating, where the cost of changing majors would be high, or until after graduation. I still imagine the de facto pre-law major that poli sci once was is still a relevant variable in explaining poli sci's high numbers; however, as years go on, this may decrease.

Another possible explanation for the high number of political science majors at Yale may also have something to do with the phenomenon of double majors, especially at elite colleges and universities. At the fairly high ranked school I'm at, many if not most students are double majoring and it seems that for many, poli sci is the second major. Elite schools seem to be bending over backwards to ensure that students can now major in two (sometimes related, sometimes not) disciplines and still graduate in four years and many of the technical fields (e.g. engineering) are actually encouraging their students to pursue liberal arts programs to improve writing and whatnot.
As a Yale grad, I actually have some insight onto this question.

1) Poli-Sci still acts as a conduit for Law School, and law school apps at Yale are certainly not in decline. You noted it correctly that they tend to largely apply/get accepted to T14 schools.

2) A lot of kiddos do IS and do poli sci as a second.

3) There are some pretty cool and well known professors working in poli sci and poli sci itself also functions as sort of a 'politics/governance' major for a lot of people who are interested in working in DC.

4) It's a super-flexible major, with a lot of classes in the department being double or triple assigned to different departments, making it very easy to double major in poli sci or do major in it while doing things you really like.

5) Politics in general is a big deal on campus and so poli sci, which at Yale has simultaneously a heavy quant focus while still maintaining a lot of quality in the study of politics, attracts a ton of people.
Also, in general, majors aren't actually a big deal at Yale. Sure, there are people who want to go to graduate school in a particular field from the beginning and thus focus on that, but for a lot of people, their major is sort of incidental to what they do on campus.

Class flexibility is a huge virtue and very few kids use their major as training in that field. The idea that's sold on campus is that you get skills from whatever you study, and that the analytical skills in your classes come in service to your extracurricular activities, which are actually a better guide of your future professional career than your particular major.

I was probably one of the few people in my friend group that thought of themselves as an academic studying a particular field (Religious Studies then History) and even I didn't end up in graduate school (teaching HS instead), which more closely aligned to a lot of education advocacy stuff I did on the side (plus some teacher prep classes I did because of my course flexibility).

9/11. That's the biggest factor.
I just had a former poli sci major send me a LinkedIn request. His job is "offshoring professional."
In the (private, liberal arts) colleges and universities where I've worked, Poli Sci has been a top five major. Usually, it's Economics, Biology (hello, pre-meds!) English, Psych, Poli Sci in the top five. Lately, I've been seeing Economics come out as the largest major.

But I agree that Poli Sci is attractive for the global studies student, the politically-minded student, the pre-law types, etc. A lot of them also do a significant concentration in Economics because they are interested in "international political economy." I believe this thinking is rooted in the "I want to have job options with global organizations after graduation, but too much economics/math will cause my brain to explode."
I went to Williams too, though more recently than you, and one reason I heard from some people why they chose polisci over something like psych is that psych was seen as the "easy" major (which in this case was undesirable) and choosing something like polisci was a way to study human behavior filtered through some sort of choice structure where only people who were really serious about studying chose to go.
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