Margaret Levi, Stanford University
Margaret Levi is the Sara Miller McCune Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford, Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of Woods Institute, Stanford University, and Jere L. Bacharach Professor Emerita of International Studies in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington. She became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow in 2002, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015. She served as president of the American Political Science Association from 2004 to 2005. In 2014 she received the William H. Riker Prize in Political Science.
She earned her BA from Bryn Mawr College in 1968 and her PhD from Harvard University in 1974, the year she joined the faculty of the University of Washington. She was a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University, in 2013-14. She held the Chair in Politics, United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, 2009-13. At the University of Washington she was director of the CHAOS (Comparative Historical Analysis of Organizations and States) Center and formerly the Harry Bridges Chair and Director of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies.
Levi shares her experienes being elected a fellow of the AAPSS, her current work, and her advice for political scientists and others in the field.
How does it feel to be elected fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science?
Levi: It is a great honor, of course, and I love the fact that it recognizes my efforts to use my social science skills in the service of the larger polity and society. I am particularly pleased to be named as the Robert Dahl Fellow. His work was foundational for my own, and he was twice a resident scholar at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS), which I now direct. I also had the privilege of interviewing him for the first video profile we did for Annual Review of Political Science, which I co-edit.
The key to my success, I believe, has been in defining good questions and making whatever distance I can on them using the appropriate tools, methods and disciplinary approaches—even when they did not fit squarely with current practice in political science.”
Tell us about the work you’re doing right now.
Levi: I continue to write and think about the conditions that make government more trustworthy and that improve interactions between government officials and those they are meant to serve. Current projects include historical research on the development and implementation of policies and laws in collaboration with Barry Weingast and Mariano-Florentino Cuellar; and exploration of the sources of and limits on legitimacy. With multiple collaborators, I am also part of a program at CASBS attempting to analyze the variations in moral economies, that is the reciprocal obligations among populations, government, business, religious organizations, and others who make up a given society. Our aim is to reframe our current moral economies and design policies appropriate to them.
What can people do to help improve government?
Levi: Being alert and active citizens is key to good government. Mobilizing voters (and preventing vote suppression) is one piece of this, but there are so many more activities in which we can engage to ensure that our polity is concerned with the well-being and dignity of all. Perhaps the biggest challenge in this era is finding a means to agree on the facts. We should be arguing about policies, not facts. The burden is on social scientists to learn why it is that people doubt the credibility of science and evidence—and change that.
Sacrifices and giving, the stuff of altruism, are necessary ingredients for human cooperation, which itself is the basis of effective and thriving societies.”
What advice would you give others just starting in their career?
Levi: Study issues and puzzles you think are really significant, and then find a way to make them tractable. Methods are essential and part of what we all need to learn, but it is important to remember that methods are simply tools to address problems. The key to my success, I believe, has been in defining good questions and making whatever distance I can on them using the appropriate tools, methods and disciplinary approaches—even when they did not fit squarely with current practice in political science.
I also recommend finding good mentors and role models who can help you think and write clearly. For me, mentorship was less a source of emotional support—for that I turned to my cohort and loved ones—than of finding someone who challenged my ideas.
What else would you like people to know?
Levi: I just wrote a piece on “reciprocal altruism” for Edge.org. I’d like to share the last line of that essay: “Sacrifices and giving, the stuff of altruism, are necessary ingredients for human cooperation, which itself is the basis of effective and thriving societies.”