Thouhts on First MPSA

I have been absent from the blog this week because I was attending the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) annual conference in Chicago. This was my first conference specifically within the discipline, which gave me a chance to see a very broad collection of my colleagues, learn about their work, and observe the idiosyncrasies of my particular field. After two days, nine panels (including my own) and two nights out, I have a few thoughts on the conference specifically and political scientists more generally.

  1. Narratives versus tests – I have spent a lot of time on this, and other blogs, talking about the divide within political science with respect to doing qualitative or quantitative research. One of the most striking themes that I came away from the conference with; however, was that this divide is really a sub-divide within a higher level split within the research community: narratives versus tests. In the former case, a large number of the paper discussions I listened to were interested in creating a rich narrative regarding some narrow substantive field. Whether it be political institutions in Ghana or terrorism is Latin America, many researchers' work sought to provide deep descriptions of these situations, often within the framework of their own personal experiences. On the other hand, the the latter set of researchers set forth to generate hypotheses within their area of research, and then develop a methods—either qualitative, quantitative, or both—for testing these hypotheses. Likewise, these hypotheses frequently came from personal experience, e.g., field research or country of origin. This difference of vision sets up a very interesting divergence of opinion, often resulting in passionate, though respectful, debates within panels.
  2. Political scientists are actually really nice – In this I was very pleasantly surprised. Leading up to the conference several faculty members had filled the collective grad student consciousness with horror stories of fiendish panel discussants and "hand grenade-like" questions being lobbed in from the audience. For me, and after talking with several colleagues, our experience was diametrically opposed. With respect to the discussants, I received outstanding and detailed comments from Andrew Healy of LMU on my research, and in fact all of the discussants I sat in on provided very constructive comments to their panelists. Outside the panels as well, interacting with each other in the hallways and hotels, everyone was very happy to share thoughts on research, a citation, or even an introduction to faculty from their universities. I do not know about other social science disciplines, but the political scientists are a great group to spend time with if you ever lucky enough to get them in such a large group (as one newly wedded couple found out at the conference hotel). Finally, it was great to meet in person many people that I had only interacted with online; particularly, Laura Seay, Eduardo Leoni and Kerim Can.
  3. On technology and data – Apparently, this was the first year MPSA provided LCD projectors for panelists, which meant in previous years over-head projectors were used during presentations. Though relived that the conference decided to leap forward into the early 1990's, this did not mean that everyone was prepared for this revolution. There is a fortune to be made in designing a truly idiot proof projector, perhaps Apple could create a one button projector as an accessory to the iPad? More broadly, however, I was a bit disappointed in the technological sophistication of some researchers interested in hi-tech sub-fields. For example, I heard a talk about analyzing the tweets of politicians as compared to their statements made through more traditional media outlets. An interesting question no doubt, but when asked how the Twitter data had been collected the author responded that she had copy-pasted the tweets by hand. The lack of familiarity with the medium of interest in this particular case was bordering on obscene, but in general it was clear that political scientists have a lot to learn in terms of collecting, storing and analyzing large data. That said, I saw lots of R being used, despite the fancy display booths setup by Stata and SPSS.
  4. The students coming out of U. of Michigan are impressive – Somewhat by chance, I sat in on several panels that included presenters and/or discussants from the University of Michigan, and I was very impressed. Across the board, these grad students had very well structured research, with tight methodological designs, and focused questions. Rather then talk about the students and their papers specifically, I would simply recommend the reader to peruse the listing of the grad students at Michigan, as they are doing some great work.

If you attended the conference, I am interested in your thoughts. Do your impression match mine, or was your experience completely different?