06 February 2009

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

Introduction

Earlier today I was challenged by a colleague to name 10 monographs on politics that could count as major contributions. (Strangely, the challenge fell to me even though I was the one who claimed that we have nothing to offer the world...) I will also take this opportunity to challenge my fellow Hoboken Groupers to forward their own lists from their own fields following basically the criteria I lay out below (see "Methodology"). The two readers of this blog are also encouraged to chime in.

Methodology

The initial criteria discussed were:
1. Truth;
2. Importance;
3. Applicability to non-specialists (i.e. the wider educated public).
In turn, these criteria entail a fourth:
4. Familiarity to the subject (i.e. me).
5. To make the task harder, the books must be whole works rather than edited volumes or collections of essays.
6. Finally, a sixth criterion of temporal scope seems necessary, else the list would probably not include anything published after 1900. So the books must be published roughly in the period post WWII.

(1.) seems immediately problematic: here I take "truth" to mean nothing more than "on balance, given the era and context in which it was written, the work makes normative, interpretive, positive, and/or empirical claims that seem warranted." "Truth" does not imply infallibility or unassailability to valid criticism. As an arbitrary and post facto objective "measure" of importance, all of the works on my list have a Google Scholar citation count of well over 500. More importantly, they seem important to me. As for (3.), "applicability" requires accessibility and also means that the work is not disciplinary navel-gazing or of interest only to those familiar with the details of the debates in the (sub-)field in question. Finally, (4.) ensures that the results will be biased: you will note that there are basically no works on domestic (American or otherwise) politics included.

Results

1. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971)
2. Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action (1965)
3. J├╝rgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms (1992)
4. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (1983)
5. James Scott, Weapons of the Weak (1985)
6. Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (1960)
7. Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States, AD 990-1992 (1990)
8. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (1944)
9. Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (1977)
10. Hendrik Spruyt, The Sovereign State and its Competitors (1994)

Conclusion

Notably, the majority of the authors are not political scientists primarily: there are 3 philosophers, 2 economists, 1 sociologist, and 1 of whatever Polanyi counts as. I guess this says as much about my own tastes as about our sorry discipline... Had I restricted the list to works of political science, the task would probably have been impossible. Strictly speaking, I don't think political science has produced 10 "true, important, widely applicable" books.

Too harsh?

4 comments:

Bentley said...

Excellent Work.

I don't have my list finalized, but certainly Rawls, Olson, Anderson, Scott, Schelling, Tilly (or Moore, but not both), Polanyi, and Schelling will be on the shortlist. I think Morgenthau (or Carr) is on it too.

Obviously, your list is short on the American politics heavyweights like Aarow and Converse. And Habermas, really, you're going to count that as appealing to a wide audience? American politics students won't even read it without grumbling!

Also, for me, I think 'true and important' is best interpreted as of having enduring value for humans. That is it says something about the human condition.

Aldous said...

Reasonable people can disagree, but I don't know if the list needs any classical realists. My friends in Medicine could recreate that set of arguments and they only have practical knowledge.

As for H-mas (yes, that's what I'm rolling with): grumbling yes, ignoring him no. Rawls and Habermas tell us where we might go as liberals. Does anybody else really have their vision?

Anonymous said...

criteria 7: truthiness.
-rosie

Quyen said...

Gorgeous!