'Two Cultures' Tension in Social Science

Key philanthropic and government programs offering grants for Ph.D. students appear to be excluding proposals for graduate students in sociology and political science, while favoring proposals from those in history, anthropology and a range of relatively small disciplines, such as art history and ethnomusicology, according to data released Friday.


The analysis was presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association and focused on programs to support field research or international research. The issue is particularly important because the analysis comes at a time that many political scientists are urging the discipline to push those who focus on American government and politics to take a broader view, and to study other parts of the world as well. According to those who discussed the issue at the APSA meeting, a variety of factors — including biases and habits within disciplines — are hurting the "explanatory social sciences," in ways that are damaging to those fields and their graduate students.

Ronald Herring, a professor of government at Cornell University who focuses on South Asia, said that he first became concerned about the issue when he was on a board looking at fellowships for the American Institute of Indian Studies, which is the largest funder of support for graduate work in India. The year he looked at the situation, the success rates for political scientists and sociologists seeking grants were both zero. Nearly three-quarters of proposals in art history were accepted, two-thirds for history, and nearly half for anthropology. While the situation has since improved, Herring said he wondered why "some social sciences were being weeded out of area studies."

Asked Herring: "Are we entering a C.P. Snow world of 'two cultures'?"

While Snow lamented the lack of understanding between those in the humanities and the sciences, the two cultures seen as divided in the research presented Friday are the social sciences that are perhaps closer to the hard sciences and those that closer to the humanities. (Definitions are a bit mushy here, as some fields, such as history, were described at the session as a humanities-leaning social science while many historians view themselves as in the humanities.)

Whatever the causes, data presented suggest that political scientists and sociologists are at a distinct disadvantage in seeking certain kinds of graduate support. The data were presented by Rina Agarwala, assistant professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, and Emmanuel Teitelbaum, assistant professor of political science at George Washington University. In terms of raw numbers, they left little doubt that some social science fields get more than others. For the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad program, for example, 31 percent of grants went to those doing work in history, 30 percent to anthropology, and 16 percent to regional studies, languages and literature. Political scientists gained only 5 percent of the awards — less than the 6 percent awarded to arts and ethnomusicology.

Relatively similar breakdowns were found in grants awarded by the National Science Foundation and the Social Science Research Council for similar programs supporting dissertation work abroad. Some of the data suggest that the trends are getting worse. For example, the Social Science Research Council's International Dissertation Research Fellowships, 10 years ago, were supporting 15 political scientists and 5 sociologists a year. Now each field gets two or three, a fraction of those going to anthropology and history.

The drops don't reflect a lack of applications, but lower success rates. Over the last 10 years of data for the SSRC program, anthropology's success rate had one year at 4 percent, but was otherwise between 5 and 8 percent. Since 2000, political science has been between 2 and 4 percent. Sociology, which used to be close to anthropology in success rates, has fallen to the 2 and 4 percent levels in recent years.

Notably, these shifts took place at a time that the composition of the selection committees for the fellowships was also changing, the Agarwala-Teitelbaum study found. In recent years, the committee has had one or two each from political science and sociology, while three or four each from history and anthropology. While history has been consistently high, political science used to be its equal, and anthropology's numbers have been growing on the panel as political science's have been shrinking.

At the National Science Foundation, the success rate for dissertation grant proposals for political science (20 percent) lags those for other fields, such as economics (37 percent), law and social sciences (53 percent) and cultural anthropology (27 percent, but with a larger grant total and many more grants given out than in other disciplines). But as Brian Humes, a program officer for the NSF who stressed he was sharing his opinions and not official agency policy, explained, separate panels are used to evaluate proposals, so the judges have plenty of knowledge of the various fields.

Humes said that certain problems tend to hold back political science proposals. He said that many of the proposals "don't provide a justification" for the funds. For instance, grad students will talk about their dissertation as a whole and not relate the grant's proposed trip to that work. Many other proposals, he said, don't suggest sufficient familiarity with the research challenges. In one case, an applicant had an interesting project for which he wanted to conduct research in French military archives, but the applicant admitted that he didn't know French. "When you add that you don't know French, you're cooked," said Humes.

Stathis Kalyvas, a professor of political science at Yale University, said that he sees the data pointing in part to ambivalence in political science about the value of field work. Many political scientists, he said, don't trust it at all and don't include it in their work. Others see "field work as an afterthought," and don't build it into their research agenda, but do field work to add "local color" to their work. This kind of approach isn't worth funding, he said.

But a "more promising" kind of field work, he said, involves research abroad that directly frames and analyzes various questions. But this kind of work requires advanced language and other skills, he said, and "you can't start from scratch."

While speakers noted problems within political science, they were also highly critical of the way those in other disciplines evaluate work by political scientists. David Waldner, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, described the experience of being the lone political scientist on review panels of the Social Science Research Council that were dominated by anthropologists. "It's all about the discursive," he said. "They say things like, 'You do numbers, don't you?' " and that suggests an inappropriate focus, Waldner said.

Waldner quipped that he suspected that more grants went to the study of Javanese transgender musical performers than to all of political science.

At the same time, he said, the research council wants to be sure that something in political science gets funded. But this means that the grants go to political science that is "utter junk," but that appeals to anthropologists. "The squishier [proposals] were, the more the anthropologists would like them," he said. When political scientists try to raise issues of concern to the discipline, they are shot down, he said.

"If you say 'research design' in that room, you are having lunch by yourself," he said.

Kalyvas said that when he played a similar role on the review committee, he felt "alone" in questioning projects that didn't seem to have much merit. He said that political scientists tend to be tough on proposals from their discipline while members from other disciplines, especially small ones like ethnomusicology, "see themselves as protecting their turf."

The panel was originally supposed to also feature Nicole A. Stahlmann, program director for the dissertation grants at the Social Science Research Council. While a scheduling conflict prevented her from attending, she responded via e-mail to questions about the research and discussion at the meeting.

Stahlmann disputed the data on success rates and said that the gaps in grants reflect the disciplines, not any bias at the council. "It is not surprising that disciplines, such as history and anthropology, in which a higher proportion of dissertations are based on international on-site research, including ethnographic and archival research, win more awards," she said. Further, she said that while political science and sociology "once had larger proportionate engagement in on-site and especially fieldwork-based international research and closer relationships to the area studies fields in which students often gain contextual knowledge and linguistic skills for such research," but don't have those ties now. Anthropology and history, she said, "have maintained stronger traditions" of this type.

The program intentionally includes the humanities, she said, based on the agreement with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which supports the awards. "This is not a 'bias' but part of the funding agreement and the conceptualization of the program," she said.

As for the issue of whether the review panels have enough political scientists or sociologists, Stahlmann said that some of the panel members who are not in political science or sociology "have appointments in interdisciplinary programs" and "were trained in political science and sociology. The claim that these disciplines are underrepresented is false. Additionally, the committee composition reflects a search for regional as well as disciplinary expertise."

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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