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

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. Read Part I of this interview, here.

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: What are some of the ideas or themes present in your work that you think are most important for people to consider in a contemporary political context?

Carol Nackenoff: As you know, I do some work on the courts. The courts figure in some of my written work, and they certainly figure in the classroom. Sexual harassment is certainly an important contemporary issues. One of the things that’s in that paper is about a controversy over a court deference to rule making by administrative agencies. While that doesn’t seem like a sexy issue, it became clear to me that it was an important issue in the Neil Gorsuch confirmation hearings. While Scalia believed in Chevron Deference (which is what it’s called) Gorsuch is far more skeptical. The conservatives and the Federalist Society have decided that they don’t like this deference standard. Just the other day in the paper, it was reported that Trump apparently wanted to use it a litmus test for judges their view on Chevron. Well, this isn’t something people think about every day, but it’s important. It’s really about the relationship between the branches. That’s one kind of issue.

Immigration. Even though I study more historically-focused immigration issues, the question of birthright citizenship is important. The reason we have birthright citizenship is because of a Supreme Court case that decided that’s what the fourteenth amendment says. But that’s just a Supreme Court case. Conservatives have been anxious to try return to that issue and to say that people who are not American citizens who come here to have their kids, that their kids should not be U.S citizens. That struggle dates back to the Chinese in the 1880’s-90’s. So, that’s a hot issue relevant to contemporary politics.

I’m very concerned based on earlier work about the declining interest in expertise in American politics. Whether we all are of one estate was a theme of the Alger book.

A focus of my work has been on American political culture and American political ideology and thought. I was trained as a theorist first and then went into more behavioral political science. I think that those are very important questions, and my work has spoken to questions of polarization in the past. Because I keep a finger in some of this kind of work, with my elections course, that’s a theme of great contemporary importance.

Growing inequality in America. My Alger work is clearly about the relationship between inequality and beliefs in the American dream, so I’m sometimes asked to comment on things about that.

AR: How did you become interested in political science, and particularly the areas you work in now and have in the past.

CN: Well, maybe students would like to hear that it was a very circuitous route. I think I went through six intended majors before I landed on what was then called Government at Smith College. I started off thinking I was going to be a music major. Music remains important in my life. I need to perform, I need to be involved in something. Now, I’m studying oboe. I studied voice for nineteen years and I still do some singing. I wanted to do English, and my father said, “What does an English major do?” I went through French, I went through History. I tried on the idea of several different majors. I was drawn to Government because of political philosophy. I ultimately decided, after I went to graduate school thinking I was going to do political philosophy, that I couldn’t do it. In American politics at the time, there was a lot going on. Theory at the University of Chicago was of a particular school called Straussian. It was pretty conservative, and I just couldn’t do it. It was also clear that were weren’t very many jobs in political theory. There were a few people who were doing more theoretical and exciting work in American politics who really helped me think about how to transition into doing something more theoretically-rich about American politics. I really didn’t want to do the traditional stuff like Congress, Presidency, and courts back then.

Chicago was always sort-of unorthodox in its approach to political science. Maybe that’s good and maybe it’s not good. It was good for me, but it also doesn’t prepare you for the rest of the field when you go out onto the job market and other places. I often questioned whether I was in the right field, and whether I wanted to be in this field. I questioned it a lot at my first job. But, I finally found a niche — teaching at liberal arts colleges — which gives you more latitude to write the kinds of things that you want to write, to follow your own interests, and to be a little more interdisciplinary in your work. When I was on the job market, I had a bunch of interviews, and some departments said, “We don’t have the luxury of hiring a theorist.” The other folks said, “We don’t have the luxury of hiring an Americanist.” When the University of Chicago produces people who are cross-field, that’s seen as not an advantage in the job market. So, I’m very happy in a liberal arts setting because it allows me to do the kind of scholarship that makes me happy.

AR: In the future, what questions are going to be asked more often in the field of Political Science?

CN: I can only speak from my little portion of the world, because I’m sure somebody in international relations would say something different. I teach environmental politics, so climate change and globalization are huge issues that I hope our field will get increasingly serious about. That can include transnational social movements and transnational organizations and institutions. I think that, in American politics, one of the interesting questions has always been why things don’t change. Sometimes it’s interesting to think about why things change, but also why certain things don’t change is a perennial question. What is an institution? It’s not just the White House, Presidency, Congress, and courts. People know that political parties are extra-constitutional institutions. In my field, we’ve been thinking about other kinds of institutions. I’m hoping that that will become more important in the field.

It doesn’t seem that we’re interested enough in inequality and its impact on American democracy. Is democracy going to survive? There seems to be a trend in the world away from American style democracy. I think those are important questions. I certainly won’t be writing on all of them, but maybe I still have something to say on a few of them.

AR: You mentioned how a lot of the work you do focuses on women, and how women in the field of political science may be understudied. How do you feel about the state of women in the field of political science?

CN: Women aren’t underrepresented overall right now in the field, but they are at some of the higher levels. They’re certainly represented in the lower ranks. We’re doing better. They tend to concentrate in particular subfields, and they also tend not to be as prevalent in foreign policy and some of the more quantitative ends of international relations. There’s a woman at Penn who came and gave a talk to the Swarthmore Group Women in Political Science who talks about women’s underrepresentation in certain kinds of journal publications, but its partly because of the kind of work they do, in that they tend to more qualitative and not quantitative work. I started off with quantitative work and just decided it wasn’t answering the kinds of questions I wanted to answer. But, I think my field is a bit on the conservative side in terms of what they think is important. There are women in political science, but there are subfields in which you don’t find them.

Featured image courtesy of bu.edu.

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