Why Can’t Political Science Graduate Students Get Their Field Research Funded?

May 12 '10

Rina Agarwala and my colleague Manny Teitelbaum recently sought to answer this question. An ungated copy of their newly published paper is here (pdf). Manny writes:

bq. This piece was inspired by our experience as graduate students conducting field research in India under the auspices of the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) program. The fellowship was a very social experience, with fellows meeting formally to present their work at regular gatherings in Mumbai, and informally to hang out at restaurants, attend cultural events, and so forth.

bq. We enjoyed these gatherings and the company of the other fellows immensely, but we noticed that intellectually we were somewhat out of place. Rina was the lone sociologist and I the lone political scientist participating in the DDRA program in India that year. In contrast, there were many historians and anthropologists, as well as a number of scholars doing research in a variety of humanities disciplines like ethnomusicology and theater. We wondered why, despite the size of our disciplines and their strong traditions in comparative and international research, there were not more sociologists and political scientists in the field with us. Was it idiosyncratic—something unique to that year or South Asia area studies? Or was what we saw part of a broader trend affecting our disciplines?

bq. We decided to gather some data and find out. We looked at funding patterns among three major award-making institutions—Fulbright-Hays, the Social Science Research Council, and the National Science Foundation. We found that the pattern we saw in India was anything but idiosyncratic.

bq. Between 2001 and 2006, political science graduate students won just five percent of Fulbright-Hays DDRAs and sociologists just three percent. The picture was similar for the SSRC International Dissertation Research Fellowship (IDRF). Between 1997 and 2007, political scientists won 12 percent of IDRFs and sociologists eight percent. The lion’s share of awards—over 60 percent of Fulbright-Hays DDRAs and over 50 percent of SSRC IDRFs–went to students in history and anthropology. As for NSF funding, political science and sociology students won roughly the same percentage of funding as they did in the SSRC IDRF competition (20 percent), although the positions of the two disciplines were reversed. Sociologists were awarded 12 percent of NSF doctoral dissertation funding and political scientists 8 percent.

bq. Moreover, we found that the problem has become worse over time, with political science and sociology graduate students winning fewer and fewer awards each year.

bq. We identified some aspects of the review process that may be contributing to the problem. The interdisciplinary committees that adjudicate the SSRC and Fulbright-Hays competitions tend to be dominated by anthropologists and historians, whose theoretical and methodological priorities naturally diverge from those of political science and sociology. Moreover, the outreach-related goals of some programs tend to advantage students in the humanities. Fulbright emphasizes cultural exchange and the Mellon Foundation, which funds the IDRF, emphasizes humanistic studies.

bq. At the same time, we try to avoid placing all or even most of the blame on the funders. We think that the more important thing to pay attention to is the fact that graduate students are not submitting competitive applications because of a lack of area studies training. An increased emphasis on methods training in political science and sociology has, in most programs, traded off with training in area studies and language coursework. Students at the minority of programs that integrate their political science programs with area studies programs (e.g. Berkeley, Cornell, and Northwestern) win a substantial number of awards. However, most students face an uphill battle when their applications are compared with those of historians and anthropologists, who have devoted their entire graduate education to learning about a given region and who have visited their field sites multiple times.

bq. To some, it will come as no surprise that the discipline’s increased emphasis on methods training has traded off with area studies training. However, we feel it is important to recognize that how we train graduate students has implications for their ability to even get to the field, let alone produce quality area studies research. In recent years, the cross-national quantitative analysis of many important outcomes has reached a saturation point. Consequently, more and more scholars are looking to sub-national research designs to overcome the methodological challenges inherent in cross-national quantitative research. Indeed, the creation of new datasets that permit the comparison of sub-national units (states, districts, municipalities, etc) is fertile ground for the next generation of scholars.

bq. Young scholars will find it easier to find funding for such research if they have area studies training. As a discipline, we would do well to provide it to them.