Saturday, December 27, 2008

On Samuel Huntington (1927- 2008)

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
on him


James said...

As someone who has taught Huntington's books in the classroom, I very much enjoyed reading this post. I think it's a thoughtful critique of how much of the academic world dismisses his arguments too easily, and without enough understanding or refined rebuttal.

Related to your second point, I think it's worth noting explicitly that Huntington did not agree with, or approve of, the influence of his theories on U.S. foreign policy in the post-9/11 period.

Huntington was a Democrat, for instance, who did not support the Bush administration or the neo-conservative movement. He was on record as opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and believed that his opposition stemmed in large part from his views on the "clash of civilizations." He was also not one to see contemporary world politics only through the lens of grand religious struggles, despite the tendency of others to misread his work as suggesting this approach.

In general, I think that people often took his scholarly conclusions about the world (right or wrong), and inferred that he preferred the world to be as he saw it. Yet he indicated, time and again, that this was simply not the case.

Lightlight said...

James, thank you for your very thoughtful comment. Yes, indeed Huntington was on record in opposing many of the Bush administration's policies. I think your point about conflating his scholarship with his own policy prescriptions is spot on - and what is interesting is that even a fair reading of his books makes that amply clear.

B. S. Prakash said...

Greatly enjoyed reading this--thought provoking. And there is really a big clash of ideas and civilisations out there in reality.

Tulip said...

Very interesting post lightlight. I'd add to that the thought that people's preconceived notions often colored their reading of his work. In my experience some who teach his material tend to go in wanting to find flaws in his work where they might not otherwise exist. Certainly, his arguments are provocative but isn't it our job as academics and teachers to provoke our students, not bias them?

Mike said...

Thanks very much for this post. I think that you make a number of excellent points, and if you don’t mind I’d like to add a few more thoughts (though some of these comments very closely resemble the ones already mentioned by you and others).

As you imply in passing, Huntington’s legacy has been defined by his later work at the expense of his earlier contributions. To me, this is a shame. Not only did Huntington write on a wide range of topics, but he consistently set the terms of the debate surrounding those issues. “Political Order in Changing Societies” is a must read for comparativists, and any discussion of democratization without an understanding of “The Third Wave” is incomplete. And then there’s “Solder and the State.” Any serious scholar of civil-military relations will have a hard time making contributions to his field without a competent understanding of this work. The concepts and theoretical framework provided in “SATS” remain central to this topic, as most of what is written uses this framework as its foundation (by the way, the book was written over a half century ago).

Finally, you noted that many criticize “Clash of Civilizations” for guiding US foreign policy, especially since 9/11. Regardless of the policy prescriptions that Huntington intended for this work (thanks, James, for discussing that point), I’d be initially skeptical of any argument that linked “CoC” directly to foreign policy. This book was a NY Times bestseller for a reason, and that’s because Huntington elaborated on an idea that many already felt but perhaps couldn’t quite articulate. My sense is that he tapped into an idea that already existed among many policymakers and those in the general public and that any relationship between “CoC” and US policy is spurious (that said, I’d be interested to read about any of these arguments if someone has a link or has the time to explain them). Assume for a second that these arguments are true, however. Why, then, was debate over “CoC” limited to classrooms, academic conferences, and scholarly journals? If “CoC” really did hold as much sway as Huntington’s critics claim, then those critics have no one but themselves to blame for failing to engage and refute its arguments in front of a more general audience. Huntington’s attempt to reach these non-academic audiences—regardless of his specific arguments or their effect—is something that should be applauded and is an example that should be followed by his supporters and critics alike.

Lightlight said...

Mike, thank you for your excellent comments- yes, I did not get into this but SATS and The third wave etc. remain indispensible for comparativists and political scientists at large. And, it is worth pointing out that these works were much debated and controversial when they originated and later became key works in the discipline. I'm not saying that the same will happen to Who are We or even CoC (especially in light of Tulip's point) but his contributions to key questions of political science cannot be underestimated.
I could not agree more with your second point. Very well put.

Saffron said...

Surely we should not dismiss Huntington's work purely because of CoC and 'Who are We.' His earlier works are insightful and well argued. However, I for one would likely to reaffirm my right as an intellectual to dismiss a work. (And, of course, one has the right to disagree with me.)

I would argue that we have a tendency to falsely elevate individuals 1) posthumously and 2) because of their earlier works. In Huntington's cases I think we have to be careful not to assume the value in his later books simply because of the quality of his first.

That is not to say that I would argue CoC or Who we Are does not have a place in intellectual discussion. In fact, personally I think it could be an instructive tool for an undergraduate classroom. However, I also feel the time spent discussing Who Are We in a graduate seminar could have been better spent. As a student of politics, familiarity with the argument Huntington discusses is a must. However, I did not find a lengthy discussion a particularly valuable addition to my graduate education.

So, in the spirit of Doris Lessing, who I am now reading...I also assert my right to be a 'free thinker' and reject the dogma that Huntington's work some how in essential for me to learn!

lightlight said...

Your point is very well taken, Saffron. I think that people like you (and some others I know) who make and informed and intelligent rejection of CoC etc. are different from those who make such a rejection of it based on received wisdom and I think my beef is more with that than anything else...