RESEARCH TALK ▼
PATTERNS OF THE PAST - TRENDS OF TODAY.
AN INTERVIEW WITH IRA KATZNELSON | by Theresa Schmitz
Name: Ira Katznelson
Field: Political Science, History
Country: United States of America
Occupation: Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University
Research Interests: The Liberal State, Inequality, Social Knowledge, Institutions
I noticed that you're not only a Political Science Professor but also a History Professor. What makes this combination particularly relevant for you?
I.K. First it's, in part, a product of intention and accident. That is, as an undergraduate I studied History. But I applied to graduate school in political science because I wanted to be in a field that I thought was more germane and relevant to current things. I was about to start a PhD programme when I learned that I had won a fellowship to go to Cambridge, England. And in England, for reasons which are interesting to me but probably to no one else, I ended up staying, rather than for one year, staying to do my PhD. But there was no politics faculty then in Cambridge so I did my PhD in history.
You went back to your roots.
I.K. Yes, I am completely unqualified as a political scientist.
That's hardly true.
I.K. When I finished my PhD, I only applied for jobs in political science because that's what I wanted to be. And by some miracle I did get a job. My first job was at Columbia University, where I also teach now, although I haven't been there consecutively. From the day I was hired, no one ever asked me whether I was truly qualified. So my graduate education consisted, I would say, of the dozen years after my PhD when I taught for four years at Columbia and then at the University of Chicago. The faculty at Chicago was very close to each other. We each critiqued each other's work at seminars every week. And we took turns presenting work in progress, 25 of us, and at least 20 would show up each week. You really learn what the field is in that way. It was a form of merciless but comradely criticism. So I think I actually became a political scientist only after I had been teaching for about 15 or 16 years even though I was teaching political science. When I came to Columbia 20 years ago, and then again 2 years ago, I was recruited by politics but the history faculty asked me whether I would accept a joint appointment so I live in both worlds and my students come equally from both departments.
And that combination has just always guided you in your work?
I.K. Yes, if I had to use two words to describe my work it would be: Analytical History. That is, I tend to work with historical materials but try to use the sensibilities of social sciences to probe what I hope are interesting or significant questions.
Does your work reflect the issues that society is facing or is it the other way around?
I.K. I think the topics I choose, are, perhaps linearly, generated or shaped by contemporary events. I'll give you two different examples about my work: One, we currently live at a time of deep anxiety, even fear, concerned with, for example, issues of terror or other matters. And I am very interested in fear as an analytical concept. How should we think about this systematically? Deep anxiety, risk, these are all close words but not identical. I've actually written a book that focuses on the period of the 1930s and 1940s in which the United States, and the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, was located in a zone of fear. Fear having to do with dictatorships, whether in the Soviet Union or Italy or Germany. Fear because of economic collapse, because of capitalism. Fear because of war and violence, and so on. I hope the work I've done on the New Deal Era in America meets the test of History and Historians, it's not just reading backwards, but the reason I wanted to probe that period was to better understand the analytics of fear. And I called the book "Fear Itself" which was the famous phrase by Franklin Roosevelt.
And the second example, which is, you could say, more current events driven, I wrote a short book called "When Affirmative Action was White". And it was written self-consciously by me as an intervention into public debates about race and affirmative action in America, very controversial issue, very current issue. But the argument of the book, and it's again about the same period of the 30s, 40, 50s, was that, because of the power of Southern members of the Democratic parties from states that practiced racial segregation at a time when the Democrats were a large majority, many aspects, even surprising aspects of social policy, had a racial dimension to them. One example, labour law, minimum wage law, union law excluded any farm workers or domestic workers, maids, and this was at the insistence of Southern democrats because that's what black people did in the South. Another example is veteran's benefits. After the Second World War, soldiers got huge benefits in America for schools, housing, job training, job placement...but because the Southerners insisted that the implementation should be local, the racial dynamics of the South meant that black soldiers couldn't take advantage of many of these benefits. So in that sense, affirmative action was white. And when you add that historical part of the story into contemporary debates it actually changes the way the conversation proceeds. Those are two examples of how working historically either informs current debates or events or, in the case of the first example I gave, where current events help shape the way I ask questions about the past without trying to make the past just like the present.
Would you say you have a framework of personal ethics or values? You do say you write self-consciously on rather controversial topics. Do you have some kind of framework for choosing your work or is there anything you haven't done because of certain moral reasons?
I.K. I wanted to go to Yale because I was going to go study with Robert Dahl, who was my hero. Robert Dahl, the political scientist, who wrote about democracy was an inspiration to me. People like him showed that it was possible to write about the largest questions of value about democracy, about equality, using the techniques of social science and doing so with empirical rigour and good evidence and good logical arguments. So I've tried, I don't know that I always succeed, but I try to find subjects which are essentially about difficulties within the Western liberal tradition. And I think one of the subjects with which the Western tradition has had a lot of trouble, and continues to have a lot of trouble with, is the question of membership. Who gets to belong? People who just look like us? People who just worship like us? And so on. And this question of membership sometimes takes the form of questions about race. So one reason I've been interested in questions of race is because, ultimately, I am interested in the capacities of the Western tradition of enlightenment, reason, liberality. I value that tradition but I also understand that it doesn't always behave beautifully and I'm trying to work at the edges of that tradition.
You said you won a fellowship to go to Cambridge and it happened by chance that you did PhD in history. Would you say that there were some calculated career decisions you took, like going to Chicago? What do you base those decisions on?
I.K. Yes, when I chose to move from Columbia to the University of Chicago, I chose it because, at the time, I thought the University of Chicago was the most vibrant, interesting, rich collegium of political scientists anywhere in the United States. It was actually not easy for me to leave New York because I'm a provincial New Yorker. I was born there, I lived there. Chicago is a perfectly interesting city but it's not New York. And eventually I made a decision, a judgement, to return to New York. But as I've said earlier, I truly value the roughly dozen years I spent at the University of Chicago, which is a truly great institution.
Do you have any advice you could give our doctoral students on the verge of entering into the academic world? Perhaps something that you would have liked to have known while you were doing your PhD?
I.K. The main advice I give my own students, first when they begin their degree is: Work on things that you have some degree of passion for. Methods and rigor are very important but it should be about something that you really care about because that propels you. There are other things you could do in life but this one comes from within, a kind of self generated set of purposes and interests. The great thing about this way to work is that - despite the fact that everyone in teaching knows there are all kinds of demands on your time and committees and bureaucratic and administrative things - it is an uncommonly free way to earn a living. We are paid to think, to teach to communicate, to learn...it's a great privilege. First of course it's not always easy to get the employment to give you that privilege but assuming that one makes that transition into academic life, then the main advice is not just to appreciate it but to be self conscious about how to maximize the values you have in this relatively privileged way of being an adult in this world. ◼
// Interview and editing: Theresa Schmitz
Image Credits: © Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences