Why political scientists should talk to annoying strangers

Casual encounters are a chance to correct the public's irritating assumption that political science is all about elections, says Christopher Hallenbrook

January 21, 2023
Two people having a heated conversation
Source: iStock

My wife hates it when I don’t want to talk about my job in public.

“Oh cool, what do you teach?” someone asks, when they find out I am an academic. But I become tense, bracing myself for “these must be interesting times for you” or questions on topics well outside my specialty, and she thinks, “Oh great, here we go again. They are being polite and intellectually curious; he’s going to be gruff and tersely shoot them down.”

But I’m hardly alone. Political scientists notoriously hate discussing what we do with our Uber drivers, the guy watching the game on the bar stool next to ours, or the friends of friends we meet at parties. We find the public doesn’t understand what we do because they have no idea how specialised our expertise is. They assume that we all want to talk about elections, whatever DC story is in the headlines that day, or their personal (often inaccurate) take on politics. But we don’t. Indeed, these assumptions drive us so nuts that one of my grad school friends used to tell strangers that he studied “ag econ”, knowing that their resulting mystification would shut the whole conversation down.

Yet as unpredictable and off the wall as these conversations with strangers can be, I’ve come to recognise that by avoiding them we create a missed opportunity for the public outreach and civic engagement necessary to the health of our profession and our democracy.

Political scientists forget that we all have something to offer in these conversations, regardless of our subfield. We have the ability to expand the public’s conception of what political science is and to broaden their definition of politics. If we want the public to know what political science really is, we have to tell them.

We’ve all learned our elevator speeches, and by drawing on those we can make our research interesting to the layman. As a Hobbes scholar, I could say, “Oh, I study political philosophy from hundreds of years ago”, or I could discuss my focus on why we obey the state and how these questions play out in times of political crisis.

Thousands of political scientists each talking openly about what we do is not only a powerful way to inform the public what our discipline really is and does. It’s similarly a profound chance to increase the public’s political knowledge and develop their tools of citizenship. Most Americans don’t take our classes. Only a third have college degrees. But we encounter many of those that don’t on a daily basis.

Even if we haven’t studied elections or laws, literally anyone with a PhD in political science has learned something about US politics. Attendance of a single grad seminar on it would give you a good chance of knowing more that your interlocutor does about why politics works the way it does – remember what you learned about rational ignorance in that course? And even if you didn’t attend such a course, all political scientists are trained to think about politics in the rigorous, systematic ways that public opinion scholars find so few of the general public do. So engaging is a chance to show how to do so in an intellectually honest and humble way when faced with a topic we know little about. It is a chance to model the informed, engaged, attentive citizen that our discipline has bemoaned the absence of for so many decades. We can lead by example at a time when ignorance of and misinformation about politics is shaking the foundation of democracy.

Trying to live by these convictions isn’t always easy. I still wince when asked what I teach because I don’t know what is coming. People still repeat their theories to me as fact even after my “well, actually” – which is deeply frustrating. But the next time I’m at a cookout, Zooming with an extended friend group, or in a cab to the airport, I won’t be ducking the question, I’ll be discussing political science, and politics! My wife can even join in if she likes.

Christopher R. Hallenbrook is assistant professor of political science at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (1)

Why is there no concern with the size and nature of the population sampled? The process is useless without serious concern about method and sources. Pol Sci hasn't yet lost that, has it?


Featured jobs