APSA 2015: what we do when we’re not on fire

by Julia Azari*

As I contemplate how to write up a conference where thousands of blazer-clad political scientists carrying $6 cups of coffee stepped over homeless drug addicts in order to attend a conference called Diversities Reconsidered, it occurs to me that I could probably just end the post there.**

But we all know I won’t do that. When political scientists come together and go out into the world (at least, accidentally on the way to the Hilton lobby), it’s worth considering what we’ve learned about the politics of producing knowledge about politics. There were two big controversies that got a lot of attention: APSA’s policy on children at the conference, and the new DART initiative. I’m not going to write about those here, because DART deserves a post on its own, preferably after I’ve had a chance to get informed on the topic. Charli Carpenter has a smart piece on the child care issue, so go read her instead. Instead, I’m going to focus on a few issues whose broader implications may be less immediately apparent.

First, stay with me here for some organizational politics. I promise there’s a point. APSA is generally understood to have a very low acceptance rate for proposals,  lower than many good journals. The process by which proposals are selected involves the forty-six organized sections, which reflect the ways in which political scientists organize themselves by field of study. Each section is given a certain number of panel slots based on membership, attendance, and rejection rate (the formula keeps changing). For example, the Comparative Politics section, which is very large, had 45 panels on the program. The Presidency and Executive Politics (PEP) section, of which I am an active member, had 9. In the past, sections could create co-sponsored panels that would only count as half a panel. So the PEP section could co-sponsor a panel on, say, Latin American presidential politics with the Comparative section, or a panel on gender and the presidency with the Women and Politics section. PEP would then be left with 8 panels, not seven. This increases the number of proposals that can be accepted, which is important for smaller sections, but it also allows for some conversations across the usual professional boundaries. It’s important for scholarly arguments to be pressed by different methodological approaches and assumptions.

This year, co-sponsored panels counted as an entire panel by the main sponsor. What this meant in practical terms is that people backed away from co-sponsored panels, of the sort that I’ve described above, that they’d been planning to do. This is entirely consistent with basic collective action models about cooperation. What’s the incentive to bear all the costs of a co-sponsored panel with another section? It’s a very basic paradigm used by the vast majority of the discipline.

What’s even better is that the stated reason for this was that the new software couldn’t handle the idea of a half a panel in the allotment formula. There’s another wing of the discipline whose research draws on the idea of path dependence – that a change at a particular moment can shape the course of what happens later. The decline of co-sponsored panels isn’t going to reshape the discipline, of course. But it might contribute to an even more pronounced “silo effect” in which even people interested in similar ideas rarely cross paths, and groups of researchers become more insular. People interested in the rigorous production of knowledge should be concerned about this. As we come off a year of various scandals that have arisen in the social science research community, one lesson was that research benefits from more perspectives, more eyes, more tests. Insular research communities in which people’s professional fates are all tied together and people think in similar ways do not provide ideal conditions for catching mistakes, abuses, and faulty reasoning.

The organization’s decision to let the technical glitch drive this particular policy also suggests a couple of dispiriting possibilities about the relevant political science theories. Possibility 1: the people making these decisions don’t know about collective action issues or path dependence. Possibility 2: they know, but they don’t really think that the organization and its members are susceptible to them – or they know we have these theories but don’t actually believe they work in the real world. Possibility 3: they knew, accepted that these institutional changes would shape professional behaviors in these ways, and couldn’t or didn’t care enough to figure out another solution. As we think more about how political science theories can not only illuminate but also improve the world, it might be hard to make the case that others should take this stuff seriously when our own professional organization does not.

On a lighter note, I gave a great deal of thought this weekend to the perfect way to dis someone at APSA. There’s always a lot of focus on senior scholars who aren’t responsive to junior scholars’ attempts to network, and on the infamous scanning of name tags while deciding who is important enough to talk to. But I think the matter deserves more systematic thought.

Let’s admit it, part of APSA is showing off that you’re too important to talk to everyone, and maybe getting a dig into the person who called gave you a hard time about your uncorrected heteroskedasticity at Midwest, or who criticized you for  paying insufficient attention to intersectionality at Western. Or maybe they cut in front of you in line for drinks at Southern.

So now you’re at APSA. How to best give that person the cold shoulder? We tend to focus on the out and out ignoring when it comes to dissing people at APSA. But like so many things we mismeasure, this may not be linear. So here are your options, carefully considered by me:

Pretend you don’t know them at all

Much of the offense that people take at “ignoring” – not recognizing or failing to acknowledge – is probably lack of understanding of the other person’s perspective. When someone ignores you, there’s a decent chance they’re preoccupied with trying to remember where there panel is or which excuse they gave about why they skipped the business meeting. Or they genuinely don’t remember you – which isn’t flattering, but may not be overtly hostile. Out and out ignoring, while the coldest way to treat someone, lacks important signaling information.

Look at the name tag, then ignore

 Does your Tinder bio say you love walks on the beach? So cliché. Be original.

The lame excuse

 This is an insult, not your grad school friend’s panel. Don’t say it’s great to see them but you need to call your spouse/go back to your room to decompress/have a meeting with an editor. Own it.

The name-and-pass

So if you really want to diss someone at APSA, you need to signal a bit that you are doing so. Look them in the eye, call them by name, and keep walking. No excuse or further comment. Message: I know exactly who you are, I saw you, you know I saw you, and I am choosing not to stop to talk to you.

In sum, we are social scientists. We’re supposed to understand human behavior – but sometimes what happens at APSA isn’t great evidence of that.

This will probably be my last post at the New West for awhile, as I get my bearings with Mischiefs of Faction at our new home – Vox.com.

Here at New West, we’ve got a great team and we are looking forward to publishing some great content this fall. We welcome guest posts from scholars in political science and related disciplines – please contact me or Meredith Conroy if you’d like to submit a guest post.

*Readers should note that our blog disclaimer applies especially to this post – all opinions, obnoxiousness, silliness and loving jabs at other organizations are solely the author’s, and not the official opinion of the Western Political Science Association.

** The author is guilty of the stepping but not the blazers.


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