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James Petras. Bartle Professor Emeritus Binghamton University and Adjunct Professor St. Mary’s University (Halifax, Canada)


The older tradition of philosophical and theological inspired social studies followed a discursive and reflective style of research. The approach was “totalistic” and all-encompassing, rejecting empirical and statistical behavioral research.

The growth of political economy especially in the writings of Ricardo, Smith and Marx which emerged in the 18th and 19th century illuminated the relationship between state and economy. Through the application of rigorous empirical study political economy was guided by theoretically informed research designed to guide policy and political practice.

Parallel to political economy, and eventually eclipsing it, was the growth of disciplinary specialization, guided by a mathematical and abstract theorization. This approach ‘abstracted’ a narrow part of the total universe of human behavior in order to carry out detailed empirical research. To further specialization and to enhance the prestige and influence of practioners of ‘narrow’ focus research, departments were established which institutionalized the fracturing of the social sciences and humanities. Over time, the limits of “specialized research” anchored in fragmented departments, to deal with systemic crises led to efforts to create a unified view of social realities.

Contradictions of Specialization

Applied empirical studies and disciplinary specialization had a contradictory outcome: on the one hand it led to a wealth of empirical data and statistical historical studies, which were subject to the rigors of hypothesis testing and counter-evidence; on the other hand, while subjecting the previous philosophical ad theological narrative to a withering critique (and dismissal of most of their claim), it sacrificed the holistic approach to systems in crises and large scale changes in favor of a study of measurable phenomena, subject to quasi-laboratory controls. The scientific method gradually became associated with the narrowing of the field of research and the isolation of ‘variables’, to be examined within a given set of conventional assumptions.

The Politics of Academic Studies: 1900 – 1945

Countering this tendency toward rigorous but narrow focus empiricism and mathematical abstract modeling in economics, was the growth of theoretically informed historical studies of long term, large scale change.

Germany, from the mid-19th century to the rise of Nazism was the world leader in the physical and social sciences[1]Peter Watson, The German Genius (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).. German academics were in the forefront of the organization of ‘departments’, specialization and the foremost practioners of a narrow empiricism and long-term, large scale historical changes. With the rise of Nazism, the social sciences and humanities were decimated in Germany.

In the West, the collapse of capitalism, with the World Depression, provoked a major crisis in the narrow focus social sciences. The old assumptions of inevitable progress and imperial/capitalist growth were in tatters.

However, most Left academics were confined to critiques of the failures of capitalist theories. There were few notable exceptions, especially in history. For the most part however, most left writers were reduced to textual exegesis of Marx and his epigones and general narratives demonstrating the superiority of Marxism.

With the onset of World War II, most western social scientists were harnessed to the state war machine. Most of what passed as “research” was propaganda and narrowly instrumental to the war aims of the state. In the East, stalinization precluded any original critical application of Marxism.

In the period following World War II there was a brief period in which western social sciences sought to recover their critical identity especially in Europe. However, their writing was negatively influenced by the ‘victors’ mentality’ and precluded an analysis of the imperial aims of the anti-fascist “allies”. The emergence of US imperial hegemony in the West and the extension of Stalinism into Central and Eastern Europe rapidly stifled the emergence of critical political economy studies in the social sciences.

The Cold War: The Ascendancy of Specialization

The brief blossoming of critical social sciences and holistic humanities (1945 -1947) in the West was aborted, with the onset of the Cold War, McCarthyism and the purging of critical intellectuals, East and West. Neo-colonial wars (Korea), the economic recovery and expansion of capitalism and collectivism fostered the ascendancy of conformist academics ensconced in disciplinary departments engaged in specialized research.

With the defeats of the post war social upheavals in the West (especially in France, Italy, Greece) and the global ascendancy of US imperialism backed by rightwing social democracy in Western Europe, the social sciences and humanities became captive of CIA funded Cold War academics[2]Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Art and Letters, (New York: New Press 2000). The intervention of the state and its quasi-state private foundations (Ford, Rockefeller, and Fulbright) was crucial to their ascendency. Research funding and publications revolved around conformity with the basic assumptions of the emerging American empire in prestigious universities. To secure large grants to build “prestigious” academic ‘area studies’ centers revolved around producing empire centered policy papers. These political constraints encourage academics to confine themselves to their specialized discipline.

Narrow focus empiricism operated within the cold war assumption imposed by the McCarthyite purges and academic blacklisting of critical political economists. The academic “gatekeepers” strengthened their hold over departments and the specialized research of the leading academic journals[3]C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (Oxcord: Oxcord University Press 1959).

Specialized Academic Disciplines as Vehicles for Cultural Imperialism

US social science with its disciplinary specializations became the ‘model’ for academic “reform” throughout the world. Generously funded by government agencies and private foundations, hundreds of thousands of overseas graduate students came under US academic tutelage. Those who returned to their home country spread the gospel that “serious social science” involved modeling, specialization, narrow focus empiricism and reorganizing faculty into “modern” departments within disciplinary boundaries.


In many of the newly independent countries, like India, the Philippines and Indonesia intellectual debates and confrontations emerged between Marxist academics pursuing political economy approaches and the newly minted overseas “PhDs” who operated within the boundaries of their specializations. The debate was imbued with a strong ideological undertone: supporters of imperial modernization versus advocates of anti-imperialist social revolutions versus nationalist developmentalists.

The practioners of narrow focus empiricism assumed the mantle of “rigorous scientists” and accused their Marxist colleagues of being “ideologues”. The latter in turn responded by accusing their critics of abdicating their intellectual responsibilities by failing to face up to the “big picture”, the large scale long term structures of an imperial-centered political-economic universe.

In the beginning of the post-colonial period, in the heat of the independence and national liberation struggles, the Marxists had the upper hand. Over time, especially with the onset of neo-liberalism from the 1980’s onward, social and humanities studies were taken over by several variants of ‘specializations’ – the micro analysts of markets and “civil society”, the post-modern academics describing multiple identities and debating how many ethno-racial-gender-caste-class identities could be articulated in a social formation. Overseas and corporate funding flooded the academic marketplace – promoting specializations which served corporate ad state interests over the holistic approaches of critical political economists.

Class Power and the Rise and Fall of Academic Paradigms

The fortunes of competing paradigms and styles of research, the rise and decline of political-economy or disciplinary specialization, was not decided merely by the logic of evidence and success in predictability within academic circles. To a large, but indeterminate extent, the prominence and pre-eminence of one or the other approach were determined – sometimes directly others indirectly – by large scale historical changes in the world outside of academia.

The Challenge of Political Realities and the Myths of the Autonomy of Social Sciences

The overt influence of political power over the direction of social studies in the US is a case in point. With the onset of US imperial supremacy after World War II and the economic boom which followed, in the context of rising income, debt fueled consumerism and a de-radicalized bureaucratized labor movement, social sciences were increasingly confined to ‘departments’ and disciplinary specializations. Nineteenth century political economy programs were transformed into ‘Government Departments’. The latter were intent on training future functionaries into the operations of government or as pollsters and pundits analyzing voting results. By definition, studies of “ruling classes” were ruled out, by the ruling dogma of “pluralist democracies”. The publication of The Power Elite by C. W. Mills was the rare exception[4]C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1956).. Needless to add , this magisterial interdisciplinary study was condemned by academic “gatekeepers” as lacking “scientific” merit.

With the onset of the 1960’s and the US – Indochinese war and the massive and sustained Afro-American revolts, the younger generation of undergraduates and, especially, graduate students organized mass protests. These movements challenged imperial and racist state practices and the ‘specialized fragmented lectures and readings which ignored the large scale structures of power. Students demanded readings and studies of the military-industrial complex, the segregationist social and the political power structures and the closed elitist political institutions which dictated wars independently of the attitudes of youth conscripted as cannon folder.

The formal academic institutions and prestigious professors refused to budge: the new realities of imperial wars and black uprisings failed to register in the prestigious academic journals. Between 1964 – 1975, the period of the most intense imperial and racial warfare, engaging over 500,000 US troops (5 million over the 11 year war) in Indochina and 130 black uprisings (including violent combat 4 blocks from the White House in Washington D.C.),the American Sociological Review (ASR) and the American Political Science Review did not publish a single article describing and analyzing the political, economic and social dynamics of the national liberation struggle or the ruling class’s imperial strategy or the dynamics of popular racial revolts[5]James Petras and Christian Davenport,, “Prestigious Publications and Public Relevance: Vietnam War and Black Protest in the American Sociological Review and the American Political Science Review”, Crime and Social Change, 17, 1992..

In the face of such obtuse institutional rigidity and political irrelevance, students and younger faculty organized “teach ins” where the larger questions of world-historic significance, the political economic structures of empire and racism (among others) were discussed, debated and interpolated in an inter-disciplinary context. Non-academic weekly and monthly publications proliferated. As well, what the Popes of academia deemed ‘second tier’ academic journals, published articles on the issues of the day. The social sciences entered into crises by the early 1970’s[6]Alvin Gouldner, The Coming Crises of Western Sociology (London: Heinemann 1971)..

The cultural-intellectual breakthrough continued, however, in diluted form in the aftermath of the first major US military defeat in Indo-China and the opening of ‘white society’ to an emerging black bourgeoisie and middle class. However with the onset of the neo-liberal offensive in the Anglo-American world during the Reagan-Thatcher period, mainstream specialized academia regained hegemony and went its way in specialized arcane research and policy studies for the imperial state and corporate financial sponsors.

The Rise of Variants of Inter-Disciplinary Studies: Corporate or Critical?

Policy elites of empire and multi-national corporation are increasingly aware that politics is entwined with economics, that ‘soft power’ (culture) complements ‘hard power’ (military intervention); that ideological hegemony is less costly than military invasions. Leading political and corporate decision makers are demanding academics pursue ‘holistic’, ‘interdisciplinary’ research to serve a sprawling empire covering diverse cultures, economies at different levels of development and political risks resulting from burgeoning social movements[7]James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, Social Movements in Latin America: Neoliberalism and Popular Resistance, New York: (Palgrave MacMillan 2011).. Once again “political realities” outside academia influence the style, form and substance of research paradigms. Inter-disciplinary studies are in demand from the corporate end of the political and economic spectrum.Neo-liberalism needs political-economic and cultural knowledge for opening markets; displacing indigenous peoples to exploit extractive and industrial activity; knowledge of consumer tastes to further sales and a whole host of other profit making activities.

A new kind of ‘political economy’ has come into demand, no longer centered in the quest for social emancipation but carried forward in the name of capitalist modernization, state deregulation and free markets.The language of “globalization”replaces the more precise concepts of imperialism and empire-building.


In the new millennia “global studies centers” bring together different disciplinery departments to further corporate management research agendas. Political economic consultoria are established to ‘get the big picture straight’ for global empire builders. Ex-Marxist economists advise on how to compete in the world market. A host of new and varied ‘interdisciplinary’ approaches emerge to promote old and new imperial empires along with centers of post-modernism.

What distinguishes the new interdisciplinary centers from the earlier critical political economy approach is not only the class point of departure (which is not usually acknowledged by the contemporary practioners) but the method by which programs are put into practice.

Critique of Neo- Liberal “Interdisciplinary Studies”

Bringing together political scientists, economists, sociologists and humanities professors to present their views and to articulate their ‘perspective’ simply repeats what otherwise takes place in the fragmented specialized disciplines. This approach neither transcends the limitations of disciplinary boundaries nor provides a new theoretical paradigm to inform teaching and research. The units of analysis are still derived from the organizing principles of narrow disciplinary paradigms.

The development of an interdisciplinary paradigm requires a conceptual framework which looks at the dialectical interplay of state structures, class and productive systems in a world-historical context[8]Bertell Ollman, Dialectical Investigation (Routledge: London, 1993).. Economic institutions are defined by the classes which own and/or control them and which influence or determine state policies. At the same time state policies, promote, demote or repress different classes; and the emergence and/or decline of one set of economic sectors over another. Likewise, the predominance of one type of economic institutions brings forth a set of classes who orient the state to subsidize and finance a strategy which maximizes their growth and profits.

The interplay of domestic classes, national states and dynamic economic institutions are conditioned by the development of expanding or stagnant world markets and competing classes, states and economic enterprises.

The dynamic interaction of domestic and global factors of power are in turn influenced by historical processes; the rise and decline of empires; the use and abuse of new technologies embedded in productive or speculative institutions; the impact of class, caste and national struggles and imperial wars; the changes induced by economic and financial crises.

This entire ensemble is defended or attacked by cultural analysts, who provide an ideological justification or critique which reinforces or undermines the operations of the totality.

Conclusion: Objectivity and Political Commitments

In other words inter-disciplinary studies integrate in one body of theory the interacting structures of ‘social life’ (in the broadest sense of the word) and does so in a manner to promote social and political action and policies based on the class interests defined by the teacher, researcher or student[9]Henry Veltmeyer, The Critical Development Studies Handbook, (New York: Pluto Press 2011)..

There is no contradiction between objective interdisciplinary research and political commitment; between diagnosis and political advocacy and practice. Political commitments define the subject or object of investigation; rigorous interdisciplinary research will diagnose the conditions, institutions and policies which favor or undermine the advancements of the interests of the subject[10]Michael Parenti, The Culture Struggle, (New York: Seven Stories Pr3ess 2006) Ch. 14. Interdisciplinary research may involve overt policy advocacy or not, but the findings will be available for those who act to further their class interests over others. The application of the interdisciplinary findings to political practice is in large part shaped by the large political environment – especially the audience (the social classes) to which inter-disciplinary research is directed.


[1] Peter Watson, The German Genius (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).

[2] Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Art and Letters, (New York: New Press 2000)

[3] C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (Oxcord: Oxcord University Press 1959)

[4] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1956).

[5] James Petras and Christian Davenport,, “Prestigious Publications and Public Relevance: Vietnam War and Black Protest in the American Sociological Review and the American Political Science Review”, Crime and Social Change, 17, 1992.

[6] Alvin Gouldner, The Coming Crises of Western Sociology (London: Heinemann 1971).

[7] James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, Social Movements in Latin America: Neoliberalism and Popular Resistance, New York: (Palgrave MacMillan 2011).

[8] Bertell Ollman, Dialectical Investigation (Routledge: London, 1993).

[9] Henry Veltmeyer, The Critical Development Studies Handbook, (New York: Pluto Press 2011).

[10] Michael Parenti, The Culture Struggle, (New York: Seven Stories Pr3ess 2006) Ch. 14

(Republished from The James Petras Website by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Academia 
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