Book/Article Reviews

Blogging the ARPS: Evans

See the introduction to and explanation of this series of posts.

Tribal-State Relations in the Anglosphere, by Laura E. Evans

Indigenous politics is a perpetually-understudied topic (or set of topics) in political science. It’s somewhat less neglected in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand than it is in the U.S., but given the dominant position of American political science in the discipline, and the relatively low profile of the other three countries in comparative political science, the result is that there’s not a lot of attention. Moreover, most of the work is domestic to one or another of those countries (though there is a small-but-growing body of strong comparative work; see, e.g. my colleague Christa Scholtz’ book Negotiating Claims: The Emergence of Indigenous Land Claim Negotiation Policies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States).

There’s also the difficulty that the field of “race and ethnic politics” is dominated by behavioral and attitudinal research– research about voters and opinion polls and interest group lobbying. All of that matters for indigenous politics, but so too do laws and institutions, in a way that isn’t as true for (e.g.) the paradigmatic REP cases of African-American politics and Latino politics. Indigenous peoples have self-government rights in a number of countries, and their political lives are substantially structured through the institutions of self-government, through relations between those institutions and the settler governments, and through legal contestation about those institutions’ powers. So studying indigenous politics has to be something like studying federalism in addition to being something like studying the voting patterns of African-Americans.

Add on top of that widespread ignorance about the basic facts of indigenous law and politics, and Evans was faced with an unenviable task for this article: provide an overview of basic information, and then a basic survey of literatures domestic and comparative, behavioral and institutional, about indigenous politics in four countries; and include throughout exhortations for more people to engage in research on indigenous politics at all. In a better state the world, the basic information would be common knowledge, the exhortations would be unnecessary, and the literatures would be so dense that there would be regular survey articles just about institutions of self-government, others about behavioral research and representation, and others about law and courts. But given where we are now, I’m happy to see Evans’ article included at all, and happy that she opted to try to do so many things in it, even if the result is that each is done pretty quickly.

Next up: “Democratic Authoritarianism: Origins and Effects,” by Dawn Brancati.

Published on:
Author: Jacob T. Levy
  • Irfan Khawaja

    I like the idea of this series, but I don’t think I quite agree on the upshot. In the original explanation of the rationale for the series, Jacob said this:

    “ARPS articles are, for the most part, state-of-the-field surveys and overviews, not original research contributions– though they can be very original in how they define a field, in what they choose to incorporate and how they choose to delimit boundaries. To oversimplify, a study becomes more likely to be published in the APSR the more it departs from what we already know, whereas an article in the ARPS offers a creative synthesis of what it is that we do already know about a topic, question, method, or approach.”

    I agree with that characterization, but another way of putting the same point is that ARPS offers a summary of the consensus of the most conventional views in political science, and thereby illustrates what mainstream political scientists see fit to ignore when they discuss a topic in supposedly “objective” or “academic” mode.

    The Evans piece does a good job of summarizing the state of the field as conventionally understood, but it doesn’t demonstrate any self-consciousness about a paradox about the field. On the one hand, the article proceeds as though the normative assumptions made in the field were basically unquestionable–at least not worth questioning. Near the end, it admits that the field’s normative assumptions were structured in large part by the political agenda of a specific political activist (Vine Deloria, who’s quoted at the outset as well). What it doesn’t ask is: what were Deloria’s basic normative commitments, and how sound are/were they?

    Imagine an ARPS article summarizing the state of some swatch of the libertarian literature, noting in passing that it was inspired by Murray Rothbard, but that was silent on the controversial nature of Rothbard’s theorizing, e.g., his non-aggression principle, treating it as somehow too obvious to provoke any deep questions. *Every* ARPS article I’ve ever read does some equivalent of that. Maybe I’m expressing a theorist’s biases here, but in that case we need to ask about the utility of ARPS articles for theorists.

    In the case of Evans, it seems to me that two questions get short shrift:

    1. Who counts as indigenous, and by what criterion?
    2. Yes, we observe indigenous groups engaged in political manuevering over “resources.” But whose resources are they, and by what criterion?

    It’s amazing to me how often political scientists seem to regard the answers to these questions as “obvious,” leave them unasked, and then make huge assumptions about what they regard as plausible answers to them. But the answers aren’t obvious at all, and you’d think that political scientists would recognize that fact. Native Americans were at one time indigenous to the U.S.; they aren’t any more “indigenous” any more than anyone else born here. It’s not clear why “indigenousness” is a transitive, cross-temporal property. Yes, indigenous groups (in the conventional sense) are worse off than non-indigenous groups. But is that because they’re currently being stolen from, or is it because the redistributive subventions they receive are too small? There’s no way to answer that question without addressing (2).

    Imagine a survey of Near East Studies in which the author did the following:

    1. Treated her normative assumptions as uncontroversial, then admitted that they derived from the political activism of Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi.
    2. Insisted that the Palestinians were indigenous to historic Palestine but Jews were not.
    3. Then noted that Palestinians engage in political jockeying over resources, are less well-off than Jews, suggesting at last that Jewish anxieties about Palestinian political successes were most likely a function of racism and financial interests rather than any well-grounded fears about rights (see p. 281, the summary of Bobo and Tuan’s research).

    This is the kind of thing that would go into the Journal of Palestine Studies, whose partisan advocacy credentials are obvious to anyone (as is Israel Affairs from the other side). No one could publish a “review of the literature” of the preceding sort in ARPS and regard it as a summary of uncontroversially obvious claims. But that’s essentially what Evans has done in this article–very competently and skillfully, yes, but problematically all the same.

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