The Humanities Informing Political Science

Articles in Journals or Chapters in Books?

In my experience with academic incentives, chapters in edited books get far less credit than peer-reviewed articles in journals. Edited books rarely use double-blind reviewing. When the editor of the book asks you to write a chapter, it would seem ungracious for her to then send it out to anonymous referees, and possibly reject it on the basis of their reviews.

Given these incentives, why do academics continue to contribute to edited books? Why are there edited books, anyway? Ideally, an academic would want to edit a book to explore an important and multifaceted topic and do it by assembling a team of colleagues. It is intrinsically an act of thought leadership and academic entrepreneurship. Academics will agree to write a chapter because they recognize that their research falls within the agenda set out by the editor and because they will benefit intellectually from working with the team. Finally, an effective editor will assemble some resources to benefit contributors, such as providing honoraria or, in pre-Covid days, covering expenses for team meetings somewhere nice.

Getting down to specifics, I was approached by Professor Susan Hodgett who was editing a book on what political science can learn from the humanities. She was interested on my research on narrative as part of that broad topic. My co-author Beth Herst and I suggested a chapter incorporating our research analyzing political ads as mini-movies. Finally, the project would cover my expenses to present at a seminar in London. I was in.

The Ultimate Product

What Political Science Can Learn from the Humanities: Blurring Genres, co-edited by Susan Hodgett and R.A.W. Rhodes, has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan, a highly regarded UK-based scholarly publisher. I had heard presentations of only three of its eleven chapters, including ours. I’ll try to be objective in evaluating the book by performing a thought experiment: what would I think of it if it had ten chapters, not including anything I had written? My answer is that this is collection of high-quality, diverse, fascinating, and creative essays that live up to the challenge implicit in the book’s title and show, rather than merely tell, what political science can learn from the humanities.

Hodgett’s and Rhodes’s point of departure is that mainstream political science, as its very rubric indicates, has been strongly influenced by the natural sciences and has privileged quantification, causal inference, and prediction. In contrast, the humanities are characterized by qualitative analysis, thick description, and interpretation. To the editors’ credit the book devotes much less attention to critiquing the mainstream than to exploring alternatives to it. Somewhat ironically, the chapter by Herst and me is the one closest to the mainstream. Mainstream political science has studied political ads and done so quantitatively; our work is novel in that we analyze ads using narrative concepts, but it is also quantitative. Thus, our chapter is the only one with tables.

Chapter by Chapter

Out of respect for my colleagues on this project, rather than just writing about a small number of favourite chapters, I will go through them all in order. The book is divided into two sections, the first under the theme of narrative, the second under the theme of visual arts.

  • Yiannis Gabriel unpacks the narratives of populists – the term he uses is “post-truth political cultures” – especially stories of crisis and imminent catastrophe, nostalgia for a golden past, and conspiracy theories.
  • The Borins-Herst chapter discusses political ads in the 2011 and 2015 Canadian federal elections. I have posted such discussions frequently on this blog and the one closest to the chapter is Narrative in the 2015 Federal Election: Some Initial Results.
  • Susan Hodgett analyzes the literary critic Raymond Williams’s 1979 novel The Fight for Manod, which focuses on the impact of policymaking in Whitehall on the hard-scrabble lives of people in rural Wales. She has convinced me to read the novel.
  • A.W. (Rod) Rhodes’s chapter is an instance of autoethnography, self-reflection in writing. Like me, Rhodes is at the end of his academic career and, like Rhodes, I am reflecting on my career, an increasingly frequent topic of my posts. The two great rites of passage in academic life are completing and defending your doctoral dissertation and getting tenure. Rhodes presents a near-catastrophic dissertation story. In my previous post, I alluded to Sherry Turkle’s tenure story, also a near-catastrophe. Both are gripping.
  • Lee Jarvis, Lee Marsden, Eylem Atakav, and Qudra Goodall discuss a collaborative research involving the production of a film on British Muslim values. This lively four-way conversation deals with both process and product.
  • Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell examine photographs in British political history, focusing on the Prime Minister, and providing examples showing how photographs serve both as evidence of history and how they influence history.
  • Charles Goodsell explores the architecture of public buildings, using US state capitols, to show how design features can influence public perceptions of and attitudes towards government.
  • Bruce Brown continues with the theme of design, discussing how the concept of design has moving from consumer products to public institutions.
  • I stopped reading comic books in my teens and have never read graphic novels. Randy Duncan makes a strong argument that they can serve as an effective form of political persuasion. Perhaps I should find out what I’ve been missing.
  • Catherine Althaus discusses her experience revamping a course for senior public sector executives run by the Australia New Zealand School of Government (ANSZOG). The course now draws on the artistic and indigenous communities to teach a broad range of leadership skills, including empathy, intuition, and performance. Thirty years ago I designing a similar course for Government of Canada executives, and thought we were being leading edge by introducing study tours and lectures by academic experts; ANSZOG has now moved the state of the art far beyond where it was then.

My Bottom Line

I greatly enjoyed and learned from this book and hope to follow up on some of the readings that my colleagues reference. I strongly recommend it for readers interested in the relationship between politics and narrative and between politics and the visual arts.

Academic books are expensive, especially one that contains 62 photographs, 6 in color, and 7 cartoons. The Canadian web page lists the hardcover at $120 US and the eBook at $90 US. Readers associated with a university should be able to download the book from their library, though I don’t know if there are conditions or limitations. As a contributor I was sent a copy of the hardcover and the eBook resides on my computer.

This is the twenty-eighth chapter I’ve contributed to an edited book during my career. While one should never say never, it may well be my last. I enjoyed the collaborative process that Hodgett and Rhodes created and I’m proud of the final product. I’m finishing on a high note.


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