What is the comparative advantage of political science in Canada?

Let me start by saying this is not a promise that I will be blogging again regularly. However, I’ve been thinking about this since last week’s graduate research design class, so I thought I’d go ahead and write these ideas down somewhere other than my Moleskine™.

For the first week of class, we read a handful of histories of the political science profession, most of which focused on the development of American political science (much to at least one student’s dismay).

One of the articles suggested that the Canadian market is too small to be a leader in all fields of political science, and instead, if international recognition and contributions were valued, then Canadian political science would be well-served by specializing in the areas of the field in which it has a comparative advantage. This got me and (then because I made them) my students reflecting on what subfields or areas within political science might Canada be reasonably expected to have a comparative advantage. Having been trained and taught in the U.S. system before arriving here, I have some thoughts based on observations of the differences, not only of political science as its practiced in Canada, but also differences in undergraduate education and society in general. So here are a couple of examples.

Examples of fields or areas in which Canada conceivably has or could develop a comparative advantage:

  • study of immigration policy and multiculturalism: The politics of immigration and of multiculturalism have become increasingly important and more widely relevant among advanced industrialized democracies over the last decade or so. To the extent that this has been a preoccupation within Canada for longer, it seems like Canadian political scientists can get and have gotten ahead of the curve in this area.
  • critical theory: Funding for the social sciences in Canada is housed with the humanities at the SSHRC, rather than with the natural sciences and engineering as they are housed in the U.S. I believe this difference in the funding structure (combined with a general tendency toward inclusiveness and multiculturalism, even within the discipline of political science) has given political science in Canada the freedom to develop a more eclectic range of acceptable (by the discipline’s local customs/norms) approaches. In contrast, I suspect that political science in the U.S. (behavioralism revolution aside) has constantly felt the need to justify itself and its ‘scientific’ credentials within the NSF as it is compared (at least implicitly, if not always explicitly) to the natural sciences.
  • federalism (and by extension other forms of multilevel governance): Many students (and also their instructors or the popular media?) nearly fetishize federalism. At a minimum, there is a lot of time spent thinking about and emphasizing how certain things (elections, party systems, policy, etc.) are overwhelmingly influenced by federalism. Surely these insights could be useful for lots of different questions.

Example of fields in which Canada is likely to be at a comparative disadvantage

  • quantitative analysis: Most undergraduate degrees are based on a British model where students specialize from year one and do not get a broad liberal arts foundation. Undergraduate political science majors are usually not required to take any lab science nor to complete even college algebra, let alone calculus. This means that when students go to graduate school, they seldom have the foundation necessary to learn advanced quantitative methods.
  • comparative politics outside the Anglophone world: Again, few students are required to take any foreign language as undergraduates and those that do, often take French (which will help with only a handful of countries). In addition, few undergraduates seems to study abroad and in general, when universities talk about “internationalization,” they mean attracting foreign students, not sending Canadian students abroad. This means that while graduate students can do fieldwork in non-English speaking parts of the world, few of them will have the really solid language skills to do so effectively (unless, of course, they had these from living abroad or from their families prior to school). Updated to add: As case in point, see page 10 of this mission statement from Mac’s president.

I’m sure there are more points that could be added to either list, but these are the ones that immediately came to mind as I (re)read these histories of the discipline last week.

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