The Knowledge We Have Lost

Ajay Verghese, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside

Each summer, political scientists begin thinking about putting together their syllabi for the upcoming academic year. One thing most of us strive to do is update our courses by adding the newest and most ‘cutting edge’ research. Whether it’s the latest RCT (randomized control trial) or a new revisionist historical case study, we want to expose our students to work that we view as representing the frontier of our discipline.

One dispiriting thing that the continual updating of syllabi can reveal, however, is the knowledge we as a discipline have lost: books and articles from earlier periods fall out of fashion, slowly get forgotten, and stop appearing on reading lists altogether. This is doubly problematic because it means that newer work is sometimes merely reinventing the wheel – without even knowing it.

Examples of this lost knowledge abound. The experimental turn in political science seems quite recent, but Harold Gosnell conducted important field experiments in the 1920s. Scholars interested in police brutality, especially in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, could learn something from W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1904 polls of African-American youth on the police in Georgia, and William A. Westley’s “Violence and the Police,” published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1953. My own recent work looks at the effects of Hinduism on political behavior in India, but I only recently stumbled on an American Political Science Review article from 1919 by Benoy Kumar Sarkar titled: “Hindu Theory of International Politics.” My point is not, of course, that earlier work is ‘better’ than more recent work, only that earlier work is more easily forgotten but can still provide important insights for current politics.

So how could one ‘recover’ this lost knowledge? This seems like a difficult task, but there are many promising avenues to do so. First, one thing would be to reach out to senior professors in your department/subfield and ask for old copies of syllabi. What readings did a seminar in comparative politics or political theory include in the 1980s, 1970s, or even earlier? Departments could then keep old syllabi on file, if they aren’t doing so already, or APSA Educate could centrally collect them. A second option is to mine bibliographies. We all know some classic work – books or articles that are widely assigned on syllabi – but who are those authors citing? A third option is simply to search journal websites. More journals are moving toward full digitization, including of older volumes, meaning more knowledge becomes available in an easily-accessible format. Similarly, Google Scholar allows searches by custom range date, a quick way to see what was published on a particular topic decades ago.

There are, of course, some important limitations and downsides to recovering disciplinary knowledge. First, there are certain topics – racial science, as one example – that were studied seriously in the past, but we recognize now to be failed and unethical enterprises. Most importantly, the academy was far less diverse in the past, and so a return to ‘classic’ work often means producing a less diverse syllabi, an option that appears to move the discipline in exactly the wrong direction we intend.

But I think these problems have solutions. The former problem can be overcome by being selective and judicious in what we seek to recover from the past – not everything is worth saving. The latter can be overcome by searching more thoroughly for the forgotten work of women and racial minorities. Who were the pioneering women, African-American, or indigenous scholars that we don’t yet appreciate? And perhaps by consciously pairing older readings with newer work by a more diverse pool of scholars we can see the ways our discipline has changed and improved.

As political scientists prepare to return to teaching this fall, it would be worthwhile to think through the knowledge we as a discipline have lost. This can be useful to recover lost insights, to understand how intractable some social issues are, and to avoid reinventing the wheel.


Ajay Verghese is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside. He received his Ph.D. in 2013 from The George Washington University, and was a postdoctoral fellow from 2012-13 at the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. His research interests include Indian politics, ethnicity, political violence, historical legacies, and religion. His first book, The Colonial Origins of Ethnic Violence in India, was published by Stanford University Press in 2016, and his articles have been published in Modern Asian Studies, Terrorism and Political Violence, Journal of Development Studies, Politics & Society, and Politics and Religion. He is currently writing his second book, which examines secularization in Hinduism, a project that has been funded by the Fulbright Program and the American Institute of Indian Studies.

Editor’s Note – This post is part of Educate’s commitment to encourage faculty discussion covering best teaching practices. If you would like to contribute to this on going collaboration, please email us at Educate@apsanet.org.

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