Two observations on the Midwest Political Science Association 2009 conference.
First, there is some interesting stuff in the pipeline.
For me, the highlight of the conference was another slice of the massive and diverse data set on the diffusion of new technologies among members of congress that David M.J. Lazer, Kevin M. Esterling, and Michael A. Neblo have collected and are working on. Last year’s presentation on “strategic obfuscation by members of congress” was fascinating. Their paper for this year’s conference was on the adoption of various web tools by members of congress for their official homepages, which suggests that adoption of various web tools is strongly driven within state delegations, especially among co-partisans within states (much more so than by, say, characteristics of the representatives’ district, or systematic party differences). Keep an eye out for more stuff, which they say will be listed here. They say they are planning something like 3 books and about 15 articles (!), so there will be enough for everybody…
Others deserve honorable mention too, Matthew Hindman sounds like he has a fascinating study of the structure of web traffic underway, based on Hitwise data, basically supplementing his existing work with a more dynamic modeling; Markus Prior is working on the origins of political interest based on some quite rich data from Europe; Toni Pole, presented a couple of interesting surveys of blogs, including one study suggesting that campaign blogs are used more for negative attacks against opponents and for mobilizing volunteers than for other purposes, but that there are notable differences from candidate to candidate; Hannes Richter’s presentation on PEW and NES data suggests that the information effects of internet use are extremely limited; Eszter Hargittai and Nicole Joseph’s study of young adult’s news consumption suggests that blogs are of limited importance.
Secondly, the challenges for interdisciplinarity as anything but a buzzword for university administrators are striking.
I went mainly to political communication and information and technology sections. The lack of interest in and familiarity with work in communications studies, science and technology studies, and sociology seems pronounced in both areas. Matthew Hindman made the same point when he chaired an otherwise good panel with Ben Epstein, Jaclyn Kerr, and Doug Oxley. Political scientists too need to read outside their discipline, or they risk irrelevance and worse when it comes to emerging trends and technologies.
It is not hard to understand why there might be so little interdisciplinary dialogue going on–it allows people to draw more directly on the data, theories, and methods of their forebears, and hence both continue to accumulate insights in a language recognizable to their disciplinary peers. Also, there is enough to read and do in any particular specialized discipline, field, sub-field, and debate, so why spend time keeping an eye on what the neighbors are doing? One answer to that might be that useful engagements with the questions of our day and age requires it, because they are not all neatly nestled in the boxes offered by the division of labor amongst the sciences. Anyway, that’s what I tell myself as I continue to read and learn from political science, sociology, science and technology studies even as it means I perhaps cannot read as much of the communication literature as I should…