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2019 in Political Science (1) – A Personal Account

My path into political science as a profession was never planned. It started rather accidentally, quite exactly 10 years ago, without me knowing that I would end up where I am today. This year, in 2019, I will try to regularly blog about this profession, my own research, and the research of others – even if this promise may end up one of those New Year’s resolutions that never really materialise.

Why do I want to start with such a series of blog posts? Mainly because I see, in online and offline conversations, with friends and family, with colleagues, and with strangers, that academic life in general and the work of a political scientist in particular need a bit more public explaining and a little more public reflection.

I also get asked, quite often, whether what I, what “we” as political scientists, do is relevant for society at large. So, I feel that I should explain more, and better.

When I say “I”, what does the “I” stand for?

It stands for the perspective of a white, male, fully mobile, German scholar (to highlight just a few dimensions of who I am) who is working on a full-time, multi-year contract at a major German university. Currently, I am an advanced postdoc, employed in a research project at the Geschwister-Scholl-Institute at LMU Munich. When I’m asked what I’m an expert on, I’d probably say that I focus on United Nations and European Union institutions and finances.

I also come from a family that values and encourages education: my parents have university degrees and have always supported my path(s), whether I wanted to become a diplomat (in my late teens and early 20s), be a PhD student in political science after realising that diplomacy wasn’t for me (in my mid-20s), turn to professional activism close to my PhD topic (in my late 20s) or start the life of a university-based political scientist (in my 30s).

Why is this relevant? Because I have learnt to know my privileges, and because my path into academia shapes how I see the world and this profession.

First, I work in an environment that under-represents women and that also lacks diversity with regard to other dimensions of social and individual personal backgrounds. On most of these dimensions, I score clearly towards traditional, individual privilege. And even though the individual is pretty important in academic life, and so is individual privilege, the academic system also favours well-known, rich, and Western institutions. As I work at such an institution, I have additional institutional privilege.

Second, although I am not tenured, my personal background and professional situation as well as my path into academia make that I feel less pressured by the precarious life situations that most of my peers face, in various combinations. These precarious situations include short term contracts; unwanted part-time contracts; implicit and explicit pressures to be highly mobile across countries, continents or world-wide, independent of family and relationship situations; being required to do research-unrelated teaching and to deliver on requests related to university administration while being mainly evaluated on research output and fundraising success for career advancement; etc. Although I face some of these pressures (some increasingly), my personal and professional situation eases my ability to deal with them (for now).

Third, when I study the United Nations and the European Union institutions and finances, I look at the world through the eyes of a Western European scholar, despite some East European socialisation and despite my urge to better include different perspectives into my work. So far, I focus mainly on the powerful in my research, not the powerless. I build on the notions of democracy, bureaucracy, culture, politics, etc. that I have grown up with, perspectives that my own, mostly male, mostly Western, exclusively white professors and academic supervisors have rarely questioned, at least not fundamentally. So my perspective is grounded well enough into the current Western mainstream to not feel marginalised academically, even when I work on so far unexplored issues.

In light of this, my goal for this year is not to explain “how political science works” as if this was an objective perspective where personal, institutional, and cultural factors don’t matter. I simply would like to share more often what I do, whether it’s researching, teaching, publishing or communicating science; to share more frequently what I learn, whether it ends up in academic publications or not; and to publish one or the other commentary on academic life as I experience it, without having to go through the lengths of the traditional academic publication process.

PS: Speaking of the traditional academic publication process: were I to blog at least weekly this year, something between 500 and 1000 words per article, I’d end up with around 25,000 to 50,000 words, that is 4-6 academic articles or about half an academic book. If academia stays the way it is, this will not be counted as academic publishing and it will not be considered by search committees. Because it’s on social media.

It means what I write here is not registered on Google Scholar or in the Social Science Citation Index, and it therefore does not count in academic terms. That’s fine for me. It’s fine because the only blog post that I managed to write in 2018 – I was much more prolific in previous years – already has about as many views as the first peer reviewed academic article I ever published (paywalled, published more than two years earlier in 2016). My only blog post last year was in German [Google translation]), about why major academic conferences and political science as a profession are not as bad as reported in a major German newspaper. I take this as an encouragement to write more about my job and my profession on this blog, whether it counts or not.

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