Research Spotlight: Carol Nackenoff and Political Science (Part I)

This is the eighth interview in the series Research Spotlight, in which I share conversations that I have with faculty regarding their research, their journeys within their fields, and their fields in a broader context.

Carol Nackenoff is Richter Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College, where she teaches American Politics, Constitutional Law, Environmental Politics, and Political Theory.

Aidan Reddy: Generally, how would you describe your research? What sort of methods do you use?

Carol Nackenoff: I’ve changed my research focus several times over the years. I was actually trained to use survey research methods. My dissertation used survey research. The first couple of articles I published used survey data to look at how Americans understood changes in the job structure and how it impacted the American dream.

I left survey research behind after I wrote a couple of articles about that, and started trying to get at those questions about the relationship between economic changes and beliefs in the American dream a different way. I wrote this book on Horatio Alger and the American political discourse (The Fictional Republic), which was really mining literature and trying to locate some of the themes in a historical context in terms of some of the major issues of the day.

Now, I do a lot of archival research. Most of my research is archival now. For example, I had a student working with me two summers ago going through a lot of diaries in the Friends Historical Library and looking at Quakers who were involved in the field with Native Americans. Students were also helping me look at reports from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Board of Indian Commissioners. We were looking at annual reports from the field. I was actually examining enforcement of monogamy and barring up polygamous practices on reservations, and why that seemed so very important to reformers, who were operating really outside of federal law. The Bureau of Indian Affairs sanctioned what they were doing, but there was no legal structure within which they were working.

To give you a broader answer, I work on late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century reformers and reform movements — especially women reformers. I study organizations in which women were dominant — if women were not exclusively running the organization, they were very highly active. They were pushing new political agendas on the nation state, and also individual states. So, I have been working on that for a while.

That’s the monograph I’m working on. Each chapter is making me become an expert on different kinds of historical materials. It’s very time consuming. It’s taking me a lot of time to do this. So, I have the Native American chapter. I’ve been working on women who spearheaded the juvenile court movement. I’m going to be giving a new iteration of that paper with a co-author in a couple of months. Here, we’re interested in not just the origins of the juvenile court and how it spread across the nation, but also how juvenile courts were administrators of mothers’ pensions. A lot of the early juvenile courts were. What’s the relationship between the way the courts handled mothers’ pensions (which kind of overwhelmed them) and mothers’ pensions eventually getting located in the Social Security Act and administered by the Social Security Administration, rather than the Bureau of Children’s Affairs? We’re looking at that transition, and how and why it happened.

For some reason, the nineteen-thirties is about as late as my research runs these days.

What other kinds of things am I doing? Historical, archival work is essential to each chapter in this project. That’s very tedious. I’m working on an edited book with a colleague on family, state, and American political development. The reason we’re doing it is because political science hasn’t looked at the role of the family in politics. They think the family is a private institution. They don’t see how the state shapes families and how families are sometimes vehicles through which the state administers certain kinds of policies. The family is a construct, and it changes over time. We’ve got a bunch of really interesting chapters in this book coming from legal scholars, political theorists, and people who study American political development and who are doing case studies. We’ve just written an intro to the book. I gave it at a conference in San Francisco last week. We’re going to revise it and give it again at Policy History in May. So, we’re trying to move it along incrementally and finish it this fall. That includes looking at neoliberalism, and how it expects the family to take up a lot of the work that the state used to. Like care work and social welfare work. We’ve got a very interesting section in the book that I think really does break some new ground on neoliberalism and the American family. With that book, I’m working with the same co-editor and co-author with whom I worked on Statebuilding from the Margins,  which is really about how groups outside of the state conducted policy experiments and vested a lot of energy and money into particular kinds of ventures that they then tried to get the state to take over or to say, “Look, this is viable, and we want to help do this and stay involved.” So, it’s not just a measure of passing it off to the state.

That was a book we did in 2014 that we’re very, very happy with. That co-editor and I are also giving a piece up in Princeton in April. We’ve been working on Chinese family relationships as reflected through case law on Chinese exclusion. Who is a family member? The state seems to be trying to dismantle rather than construct families. How does that square with the idea that families are building blocks of civic life? So, we’re looking at a lot of case law there. We’re also looking at the tussle between the judiciary and other branches of government over who got the final say on deportation, because we’re actually finding something that’s contrary to a rather standard view in the field that courts just get out of the way. We don’t think they do.

A lot of my recent work is focused in the progressive era. I call it the long progressive era, roughly from 1875 to 1920. I’ve done an edited book on Jane Addams and Hull House, because they really were a locus of a lot of reform and social activism of the sort that I’m studying. More recently, there was a conference up at Yale on the progressive century and what it all added up to. I was one of the invited participants, and I wrote about women. I talked about Hull House and the kind of pragmatic reform that they had in mind that really did consult the community and see how things worked on the ground with the idea that there were going to be iterations of reform. The problem is that politics gets sticky and policies were really hard to change once put in place. But the idea was a kind of participatory reform cycle with regard to policies in which those who were going to be affected by the policies not only helped design them, but they had to help judge how they were working.

Those are some of the things I’m working on.

AR: It sounds to me like a lot of the work you do might not align with the layperson’s view of what a political scientist does. For example, studying family as a political institution.

CN: We’re fighting a battle with our own profession. It should not be just women studying these things. We don’t know whether we’ll win, but the fact is, we got some attention for the Statebuilding from the Margins book, which was also working against a dominant paradigm, which said that administrators who were bureaucratic entrepreneurs figured out policy ideas that would help them expand their authority. We see a different process at work as well.

You’re right. This is historically-grounded work. A lot of political science is. I think the layperson might think that political science is just studying congressional committees or the presidency. There’s a lot of political science that goes way beyond that. We’re a very diverse discipline.

I participate sometimes in a law conference down at the University of Maryland. I’m not invited every year; different people are invited depending on the topic. This year I wrote on sexual harassment law in light of the Me Too movement. Sexual harassment law has clearly not been as successful as one of the dominant narratives about sexual harassment law would have it. And so, what are the limits of law? I wrote a piece for that and I’m expanding it for the American Political Science Association meetings.

View Part II of this interview, here.

Featured image courtesy of bu.edu.

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