In my world there is no figure that people love to hate more than Samuel Huntington, who passed away earlier this week. Much of this is targeted at Huntington's last few works, most notably 'The Clash of Civilizations' and 'Who are We'. The common charges are that Huntington is a (perhaps 'the') neo-conservative, is a shoddy academic because he makes grand, sweeping arguments without the requisite research, that he is anti-Islam and anti-multi-ethnic societies and has that agenda for US foreign policy, that he is arrogant etc.
What this translates into in classes is an all too easy dismissal of Huntington even before one has the chance to talk about the work at hand. A snigger here, a snarky comment there and we're done with our 'discussion'. I have rarely seen a group of otherwise argumentative and opinionated people fall into such complete agreement than when it's time to bash Huntington. I predict that in the weeks after we all come back to school, there will be much of the same reaction.
While there are some substantial reasons for some of this derision, the quality of it has always troubled me. At the very real risk of alienating or annoying professors and peers, I and a few of my peers have tried to address this in class only to be met by a unified response of incredulity and half-joking accusations at being secretly conservative! And I don't even really agree with the man on his core hypotheses.
Don't get me wrong- Huntington was too influential, powerful and successful to need defending. His work was at its best powerful and insightful and at all times enormously provocative and designed to spark debate and dissent, which by all accounts he enjoyed. Secondly, I agree that some of the arguments about the flaws in his research are valid and his conclusions, while provocative, can be troubling for those who see themselves as fundamentally liberal. So this is not a blanket statement to rescue a scholar who needs no rescuing. Instead this post is to make two observations on Huntington's legacy:
First, I think (and this is not very social-sciency of me) that Huntington's role as a public intellectual far supersedes his role as an academic political scientist or a social scientist. To those of my interlocutors who point to the flaws in his 'research design' or 'case selection' and bemoan the lack of theoretical or literature review, I can only say that that was not Huntington's aim in his later work. His early work has all of that and those are still powerful and important works in political science. But the later work, for which he is most often criticized, was all about larger ideas. Surely we can agree as constructivists that there is a core place for and a power of large ideas in the world?The charge that Huntington cannot account for Case A or Case B ignores that he is often pointing his finger at, in a prescient way, large, complex and abstract forces and phenomena in society. The role of holding up those larger patterns, and even shaping the contours of the debate on huge issues such as identity, religion and violence or immigration is a pivotal one. And it is different from the important work of 'normal science', to twist that term.
Secondly, many criticize Huntington's influence on guiding the shaping of contemporary U.S. foreign policy, specially in the post 9/11 period. The argument is that Huntington's 'Clash of Civilizations' idea predisposed a certain (misguided) interpretation of those events and strengthened the idea that this was a religious struggle rather than one over concrete political conflicts. This is a huge and un-resolvable debate in many ways and I'm not sure that we can easily separate the domain of the religious from the political in any of the conflicts Huntington was talking about; but at a very minimum shouldn't his influence on U.S.policy mean that we should engage with his ideas in a much deeper sense? How can dismissing Huntington out of hand help us truly understand the making of U.S. (or indeed other) foreign policy? Huntington's passing alerts us to the enduring problem of the harmful mutual disengagement of scholars of international relations with practitioners of foreign policy. Both see the other as misguided and out of sync with reality and because each side thus has their pet intellectuals, the bridge is harder to divide.
Thirdly, and related to the points above, to truly understand the workings and deeper sociological roots of foreign policy anywhere requires us to give up the rote conventions of academia, to be wary of political correctness and to take more seriously the arguments of those we disagree with. We owe it to ourselves as members of academia as Kanti Bajpai reminds us in a fairly devastating piece he wrote on the Clash of Civilizations in 1998. To 'pirouette dismissively' from Huntington, Bajpai says, is lazy.
Thus, I, like many others, have my differences with Huntington but I respect his contributions to our discipline, will engage with his many insights and admire his always provocative, always challenging mind.
And, in true Huntingtonian spirit, I relish any and all arguments that this post might provoke!
ETA: Here's the NYT obit