CORPORATE FOCUS: Academics Overlook Money in Politics

The American Political Science Association's annual convention recently came through town, filling up Washington, D.C. hotels with thousands of academics ready to present their latest research findings.

Browsing through the convention's program, we hoped to learn of new findings on the role of corporations in the political process. Instead, we found that there appeared to be virtually no papers on or even referencing corporate power.

That's a little strange, we thought. After all, it is hardly a controversial claim these days that corporations exert a major if not decisive influence over politics, in the United States and around the world.

We decided to make sure our impression that corporations were absent from the convention papers was correct. The American Political Science Association has conveniently posted on its website approximately a thousand of the papers presented at the conference, and the site has a good search engine.

We searched through these thousand abstracts for the word "corporation." Two hits.

We tried again, this time using the word "corporate." This time we came up with 11 hits. We did another search, for the word "business." After eliminating abstracts that use the word "business" in a context where it means something other than corporations (i.e., a reference to Congressional business), we wound up with 23 hits.

In total, three dozen abstracts even mention the words "corporation," "corporate," or "business" -- 3.6 percent of the roughly thousand abstracts we searched. This is only a rough approximation of the number that actually discuss corporate power. The vast majority of those we found refer to corporations, but don't have corporate power as their focus. On the other hand, our search undoubtedly missed some papers that implicitly discuss corporate power -- say, with a focus on labor relations -- but don't use any of our key words.

Disturbed by the results of this survey, we asked some of those who had presented papers that discuss corporations to ruminate on our findings.

Scott Pegg, an assistant professor in the Department of International Relations at Bilkent University, in Ankara, Turkey, shared some particularly interesting reactions. (Pegg's paper topic: "Corporate Armies for States and State Armies for Corporations: Addressing the Challenges of Globalization and Natural Resource Conflict.")

First, he validated our sense that the findings of our survey constituted a remarkable oversight. "The three largest subfields of [U.S.] political science are American government/politics, comparative politics, and international relations. The study of transnational corporations is relevant to all three of them," Pegg says. "In particular, in an election year, I find it stunning that the huge numbers of people working on the American electoral system and presidential politics would be neglecting the corporate role in bankrolling politicians to such a degree." Our sentiments exactly.

Asked to account for the corporate studies vacuum, Pegg suggests several explanations. Corporations may fall through disciplinary cracks, he says -- they aren't the traditional political actors on which political scientists focus. Corporations are reluctant to share information that academics need to conduct their research, he points out, and information that is available tends to come from nongovernmental organizations with which many academics are not familiar. Academics tend to reward theoretical inquiries over empirical investigations. And, he says, "many academics are interested in securing outside funding for their research projects. Corporate funding is available for some projects, but probably not for those that critically assess corporate crimes or corporate human rights violations."

To check that the results of our survey were not a fluke, we did a similar search on all U.S. dissertations published in the last two years. The results were similar. After we eliminated those that mentioned corporations in completely irrelevant contexts (e.g., thanking a nonprofit funder with corporation in its name, or mentioning that a corporation had invented a scientific process used in the dissertation) we found 75 dissertations that included the word "corporation" in their abstract. As a point of comparison, 43 dissertations used the word "baseball" in their abstract, and 1,008 included the word "war."

We can't help but draw depressing conclusions from our surveys.

One of the sources of corporate power is that corporations appear both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. With the commercialism explosion of recent years, there are fewer and fewer public spaces free from corporate logos. At the same time, the dominant political and social culture orients us away from assessing the many ways that corporations shape the contours of our politics, life opportunities, even our leisure time.

We would hope that the academy might be a place where researchers would seek to break from corporate hegemony, and undertake empirical and theoretical investigations of the manifestations and consequences of concentrated corporate power.

Of course, these hopes may someday be realized. If protests challenging corporate power continue their recent upsurge, academic inquiry will, eventually, follow.

But for intellectual leadership, it appears we should look to the undergraduates in the streets, not the professoriate.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999).

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