In case you’re struggling for a dissertation idea…

Like many people, I had never looked at Ostrom’s 1990 book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, until Monday morning, when the news from Stockholm sent me scurrying for a copy. Smarter guys than me, indeed most of the economics profession, had never heard of Ostrom. (Steven Levitt, of the University of Chicago, describes in an edifying way how he looked her up on Google.) I knew at least that she and her husband, Vincent, also a political scientist, had a big following at George Mason University.

That is David Warsh commenting on last week’s Nobel pick in his excellent Economic Principals blog.

I see this and two words appear in my brain: arbitrage opportunities.

There are vast amounts of relevant knowledge in related fields, seldom exploited. The economists have been pouring into the economics and psychology gap, but the economics-politics gap is just starting to close. Politics and behavioral psychology is still wide open territory.

Even within the disciplines there are gains from exchange. Just the other day I listened to a group of grad students suggest that political theory (i.e. philosophy) wasn’t answering questions relevant to other fields of politics. Sounds like a research frontier to me. Why, for instance, has political science left the human rights and humanitarian debates to ex-journalists?

To end on a different note, I’m thrilled with the prize going to Ostrom. I’m partly influenced by one of her former students (my wife) but Ostrom and her ideas were also a great influence on one of the great civil war scholars I know. Her ideas are some of the most influential in the field of political economy, and it’s a treat to see it recognized.

10 thoughts on “In case you’re struggling for a dissertation idea…

  1. Maybe political philosophy isn’t answering questions relevant to other fields of politics because political philosophy is mostly narcissistic posturing, not answering any questions relevant to anything but feeding the ever-growing self-regard of the philosopher. Why do you think it’s the worst elements of the extremely conservative wing of American political culture who are most obsessed with political philosophy?

  2. Surely you’re not suggesting that students write interdisciplinary dissertations? Because as great as that is for academia, it can be a bit of a disaster, career-wise…

  3. No one took my bait the other day about the economics profession’s comparative disadvantage of knowing zip about ontology and epistemology. (I’ve met PhD students from the Kennedy School who didn’t distinguish method from methodology.)

    However, I think that it explains quite a big part of your “arbitrage opportunities”

    PS. Someone at the University of Chicago hadn’t heard of Ostrom. What a shocker! :-)

  4. Chris,

    Elinor, or Lin, for those who have had the pleasure to meet her in person, has worked hard to create and establish an open journal which is a great source of inspiration for us all. You can check The International Journal of the Commons through the link below and you students can find a lot of inspiration on it too.


  5. I think there very much are people out there talking about humanitarian and human rights issues in the academy — maybe I’m biased because it’s what I studied, but those pesky geographers talk about this a great deal. But Geography has always been a synthetic discipline – probably more so than any other social science. In the course of my degree, I studied political theory, economics, participatory methods, statistics, ecology…

    I’d say you should pay a visit to your local Geography department, but Yale isn’t smart enough to have one. ;)

  6. “Why, for instance, has political science left the human rights and humanitarian debates to ex-journalists?”

    I also do not understand this question. Human rights has been one of the most fertile areas of research in international relations recently.

  7. @Beth: I was thinking about human rights and political philosophy. The leading intellectuals seem to be Michael Ignatieff and Sam Powers. That may be my ignorance speaking, but the point is that there are pressing new problems that political theory could tackle.

  8. Usually, at least at my college, we already have a set of topics written by a number of professors and we have to choose one from the list. And this makes dissertation writing both easier and harder. It is easier because I don’t have to think of a topic but it is harder since I have to write it as my supervisor sees it. My first draft was written according to my ideas and thoughts but unfortuantely my supervisor thought it wasn’t correct and I had to rewrite the whole paper. From service blog and dissertation writing workshops like at NYU I’ve got some ideas how to write my paper but still, I’m awaiting approval from my supervisor. Well, now I just feel he wants the paper to be written the way he wants like because his reputation depends on my paper.

  9. Good topic ideas come from good thinking and experience, thats why when it comes to choosing, students ask their professors for an advice. Of course they easily can get dissertation help from eWritingService or any other company, but proper topic still remains one of the key to successful result.