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Second Nature

Interdisciplinary understanding comes naturally to political psychology, which divines voters’ deeper motives

Professor Dana WardProfessor Dana Ward builds minds while on the clock at Pitzer. Off the clock, usually during his summers since the 1970s, he builds houses. Both of his construction projects, whether students or his homes in Maine, require the integration of several disciplines. Stone by stone, idea by idea, the end result has provided pride and comfort during the course of 24 years teaching political psychology at the College.
“Political psychology uses psychological theory to explore political decision making,” Ward explained. “Political science examines certain aspects of foreign policy fiascos like the Bay of Pigs or the invasion of Iraq while the psychological side applies methods and theories of decision-making to that political example. If you only focus on the political aspects of decision-making, you’re going to miss the very important psychological dimension of the forces that led toward a disastrous decision.”

The scope of Ward’s education exemplifies the core of interdisciplinary studies.

“One of the things I liked about my education at Yale was that I got a genuinely interdisciplinary degree,” he said. “I did all the work that someone getting a Ph.D. in psychology would do and I did all the work someone getting a Ph.D. in political science would do, giving me a firm grounding in both disciplines.”

“What I like about Pitzer is we encourage students to create their own majors and cross the disciplines they perceive to be of interest to them,” Ward continued. “It’s possible to have an equal number of courses in multiple disciplines to satisfy your combined major or your independent major or your double major and increasingly our students are doing that.”

Like most programs at Pitzer, political psychology has a sense of mission. Many people in the field focus on real-world conflicts, providing reconciliation alternatives aimed at resolving tense relations around the world. Political psychology’s interdisciplinary approach broadens these efforts by moving past the concerns of traditional political scientists, who so often see conflict through the tight material lenses of oil, borders and economic access, ignoring the psychological sides of conflicts, Ward said.

“Conflict resolution must take into account the psychological side,” Ward explained. “For instance, many of the problems in Iraq cannot be understood without acknowledging that Baathist humiliation has played a part as they try to recoup self-esteem” after being swept from power and discredited with the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Closer to home, political psychology plays a part in the election process. The role can be positive, such as identifying problems with balloting procedures, or negative, with political consultants and operatives using advertising and other means to manipulate voters, Ward said.

Some of Ward’s work deals with moral reasoning in the political process, which basically identifies two lines of thinking and the behaviors associated with them. With the United States split along red-blue partisan lines, understanding the difference between those who view their morals and the source from which they spring as immutable and absolutely correct, and those who view morals and laws as human constructs and thus malleable and imperfect, helps explain and predict behavior in a variety of arenas, particularly politics, he said. Viewing ideology from just the political point of view reduces analysis to primarily economic considerations, Ward explained.

“Karl Mannheim (1893-1947), who was a great sociologist of the interwar period of the 1930s and 1940s, said in Ideology and Utopia that any discipline that remains within its own boundaries is blind to its own limitations. So with interdisciplinary studies, we can force questions to the fore that might not even be considered in the single discipline.”

“One of the things that happens when you engage in interdisciplinary research is that new questions, questions that just never occurred to you, come to mind,” Ward continued. “Problems are always multifaceted. There’s always more than one perspective. There’s always more than one force affecting whatever it is. So it may even be something like party identification and the vote. We may have different theories about class and the social foundations of people’s partisan identification. If you look at it from the point of view of memory you begin to see that very different kinds of forces may be affecting people’s partisanship than we imagined.”

With borders of all kinds falling down, including disciplinary walls, interdisciplinary studies matter more now than ever, Ward said.

“In the nineteenth century it would not have made a whole lot of sense to talk about interdisciplinary work because there was still a great deal of work to be done in fleshing out particular knowledge in particular fields. Getting back to Mannheim, we are getting to the point where progress within our disciplines depends upon cross-fertilization. We have reached the limits of singular disciplines and in order to go beyond what we already know within our disciplines we have to begin to apply methods and perspectives from other disciplines.”

While building minds requires tearing down walls, Ward’s houses in Maine require strong walls. Much like interdisciplinary ventures, which often seek a solution to a problem outside traditional boundaries, the self-sufficiency of building his own homes was Ward’s response to the oil crisis of the 1970s.

Home in Maine

“I was at Yale in graduate school at the time and I was involved in community development programs, urban homesteading and housing and energy issues,” Ward recalled. “I eventually took a course on solar energy in Vermont. I got interested in this whole idea of alternative energy supplies, ways of freeing ourselves from our dependency on oil and I just got fascinated at the same time by Scott Nearing, who was an active socialist in New York City in the 1930s. Nearing grew all his own food, built his own houses, and in the process of his long life – he lived until his 90s – he wrote more than 100 books on topics ranging from physics to politics. I was inspired by his work and we took out some student loans when I was in graduate school with my wife, who was not my wife at the time, and another couple and we bought some land in Maine.”

“Our goal was to be as self-sufficient on that land as possible,” Ward explained. “That meant using materials from the land to build the house. All of the stones for the house came off the land. All the work was our work. Pitzer Professor John Rodman even put a couple of rocks in. It came out of a political crisis to begin with, the oil crisis, which then led to looking for alternatives.”

Interdisciplinary studies posits alternatives by seeing past boundaries, beyond walls, and through obstacles. But to get there, you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves for some hard work and heavy lifting.

— Jay Collier

Next

Stuart Goldstein '86 on Pitzer Opportunities
Professor Kate Rogers on Organizational Studies
Jacque Kaster Torrens '92 on Linked Disciplines
Team-Taught Courses Integral to Pitzer Experience
Professor Dana Ward on Political Psychology
Michael Pearson '06 on Breadth of Understanding