This course is something of an experiment. It brings together several disciplines – history, sociology, political science, philosophy, and perhaps others. It spans several centuries and several nations. The topics range through individual attitudes, political behavior, demographic stratification, historical development, contemporary institutions, public policy, and normative goals. Most importantly, the course brings into direct contact with one another several robust academic literatures that have largely developed independently of one another—studies of American racial dynamics, American ethnic and immigration politics, and some comparative ethnic and immigration politics. The experiment consists of discovering whether we can find enough common themes and sufficiently comparable evidence to keep all of this complexity from flying apart by sheer centrifugal force, while respecting the distinctive features of each research tradition and substantive focus.
We have developed the course in this manner rather than through a more conventional focus on one or several groups, nations, academic literatures, or analytic questions for several reasons. First, each topic or literature is frequently too self-referential. Scholars of American racial politics, for example, tend to distinguish simply between blacks and everyone else or between whites and all “people of color,” while scholars of ethnic politics tend to focus only on a particular group Yet all of these groups, and more, co-exist in the political arena, and a large share of political contestation consists in the jockeying among them.
Second, each literature can be atheoretical. By focusing on a particular group, nation, or political dynamic, scholars find it difficult to avoid either a narrow and perhaps misleading causal analysis or a descriptive or overly broad conclusion. In addition, scholars tend to be defensive about the particular group whom they study, and to see its circumstances and behaviors as unusual if not unique. Comparison forces us to be more analytically sophisticated and more precise in our claims about causal forces, particular conditions, and breadth of conclusion.
Finally, we hope to enable the class to move up one level of abstraction – that is, to focus on the political dynamic(s) that explain or grow out of the detailed cases and evidence in a given set of readings. To switch metaphors, in order not to be lost in the trees we will have to raise our sights to the forest: What is the overall historical trajectory here? How do small minorities operate in a majoritarian political system? What institutions shape, maintain, constrain, or destroy racial hierarchy? Why do some observers see increasing equality among groups while others see persistent stratification? Where are the crucial political dividing lines? And so on. Our ultimate goal is to connect the study of race, ethnicity, and immigration to the rest of the realm of politics and of political science, and the experiment consists in seeing if we can do that by moving quickly through great complexity of material.
Claudine Gay and Jennifer Hochschild, Spring 2012