Date November 17, 2022
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Brown’s new PPE Center applies a century-old framework to contemporary issues

Brown’s Center for Philosophy, Politics and Economics, a new hub for research, teaching and debate, is blending old and new academic traditions to confront complex social problems facing the world in the 21st century.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Can a hundred-year-old academic tradition offer important perspective on some of the 21st century’s most pressing problems? Yes, it can, say leaders at Brown University’s new Center for Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

The center, two months into its inaugural academic year, will convene leading experts from across the humanities and social sciences for dynamic conversations, joint research projects, unique courses and a variety of public events aimed at understanding and solving problems that weigh heavily on Americans’ minds — including the uncertain future of the country’s democratic system, global supply-chain troubles and deep political polarization.

Brown’s PPE Center builds on an academic tradition that began at Oxford University in the 1920s. For a century, Oxford’s degree program in philosophy, politics and economics has attracted students who wish to develop a holistic understanding of how the world’s political and economic systems work, while also honing analytical and logical thinking skills through the study of philosophy. Many of the program’s graduates have proceeded to become heads of state, activists and other influential leaders.

Brown Provost Richard M. Locke said that PPE’s cross-disciplinary approach to teaching, learning and research remains ideal for unlocking solutions to complex problems and understanding how global societies can thrive.

“Subjects such as racial inequality, the future of democracy and political polarization don’t fall into neat disciplinary boundaries — to address them requires a wide variety of methods and approaches,” Locke said. “The Center for Philosophy, Politics and Economics is uniquely situated to tackle these complicated and persistent issues, because it is designed to enable collaboration between humanists and social scientists with diverse backgrounds and subject expertise. And because its home is at Brown — where our approach is already highly collaborative — it is destined to become a leading hub for PPE study and research.”

Center Director David Skarbek said that the importance of PPE in addressing contemporary questions is inspired in part by the timeless works of 19th century political economists and philosophers. Thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville were scholarly omnivores, he said, making original arguments in writings and debates by uniting principles of philosophy, political science and economic science. 

“In the world of 19th-century social science, the scope of analysis was much broader; today, multi–disciplinary research often falls through the cracks because scholars’ individual disciplines are the central nodes of conversation,” said Skarbek, an associate professor of political science and political economy at Brown. “The PPE Center offers the opportunity for scholars to come together and build a broader set of analytical tools. Integrating principles from multiple disciplines can help scholars include a normative approach to problem-solving, focusing not only on what is happening, but also on what should be happening to build better societies.”

Without understanding principles from all three disciplines, Skarbek said, it can be difficult to understand and confront complex societal problems. For example, today’s economists tend to prioritize efficiency when they recommend policy interventions — but valuing efficiency above all else could chip away at the fairness or justice of the intervention.

“I think this is the heart of the PPE Center, and of Brown more broadly — bringing people with different values, perspectives and methods into conversation so we can all learn from each other,” Skarbek said.

A democratic approach to research

A collaborative spirit pervades the full slate of planned projects and programming at the PPE Center, Skarbek said — from teaching and student-led projects to public events and research. Nascent research projects will explore global supply chain issues, political violence and more.

One research collaboration has already taken off: the Democracy Project, co-directed by Bonnie Honig, Juliet Hooker and Melvin Rogers, three political scientists at Brown.

Dedicated to promoting the study of democratic values, norms and practices across the globe, the Democracy Project will bring scholarly experts to Brown for public talks and will host regular seminars where scholars can discuss and debate in-progress research. Its research arm is likely to probe questions about how media and culture shapes community members’ sense of belonging, how news reporters can prioritize truth over “both sides” neutrality, and how to protect the public amenities and shared spaces that define American democratic life.

“ When people bring different values, perspectives and methods to the table for a conversation, they learn from each other. ”

David Skarbek PPE Center Director

Fittingly, the project’s co-directors are taking a democratic approach to choosing which topics they’ll address through talks, events and research: In Fall 2023, they will convene groups of students and leaders of other “democracy projects” across the nation for discussions on which democracy-related issues are most important to confront.

Honig, a professor of modern culture and media and political science, said she was inspired to propose a collaboration with Hooker and Rogers after all three participated in “Race & Democracy in America,” a 2020 panel discussion hosted by Brown’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.

“The PPE Center’s new beginning seemed like a great time to think about new beginnings for democracy, which has been subjected to so many stress tests in recent years,” Honig said. “There’s an opportunity to have conversations about what we share as citizens of a democracy as we take on deeply divisive questions about issues like privatization and abortion. What unites us is a commitment to democracy. If we are not fundamentally committed to democracy, there’s nothing else to talk about.”

Rogers, an associate professor of political science and the PPE Center’s associate director, said Brown is an ideal place to start conversations about how to preserve and protect democracy, due not only to the campus community’s strong social consciousness but also to the wide variety of perspectives and areas of scholarly expertise among faculty and students.

“When you study the persistence of racial discrimination, for example, you discover quickly that it’s not just a political problem, or an economics problem, or a moral problem — it cuts across multiple disciplines,” Rogers said. “So in order to solve racial discrimination, we have to remain alive to a variety of methods and approaches. Luckily for us, faculty at Brown are thinking about race from the perspective of a multitude of disciplines.”

Students, too, are sure to bring fresh perspectives to the table, said Hooker, a professor of political science. Involving undergraduates, graduates and postdocs in conversations and research initiatives will not only prove crucial to the Democracy Project’s success but will also ensure a brighter democratic future for all, she predicted.

“We hope we will inspire students at Brown to think of themselves as citizens who can make change in the world,” Hooker said. “The Democracy Project will be a place where students can think through the challenges of this difficult time, and rather than despair that there’s nothing they can do about them, come out feeling empowered to make their communities better and more democratic.”

One center, many initiatives

The PPE Center isn’t just a new research hub, Skarbek said — it’s also the host of exciting public events, a home for dynamic courses and student conversations, and the base for a growing number of graduate and faculty fellows.

“The PPE Center seeks to both nurture undergraduate conversations and also support newly minted Ph.D. graduates who are trying to find their research legs and spring into future careers,” Skarbek said. “It’s not only facilitating the thoughtful, open exchange of ideas between faculty but also keeping its doors open to the broader Brown and Providence communities so they can engage with great thinkers. We have an ambitious mission to foster rigorous research and conversations in many different forms and venues. We hope people from across campus and from across the state will take part.”

Beginning in late Fall 2022, the center is hosting a robust lineup of public conversations with a focus on civil discourse — building on a tradition started by Brown’s prior Political Theory Project, which for years organized popular talks and student-centered research projects.

Skarbek said that PTP programs including the Janus Forum lecture series — which has brought prominent public figures of all political persuasions to College Hill to debate the merits of divesting from the coal industry and the drivers of gun violence, among other topics — will continue under the PPE Center’s umbrella.

On top of the Janus Forum series throughout the academic year, Skarbek said, the PPE Center also hosts an Odyssey Lecture series, where influential scholars from across the globe come to Brown to take audiences on an extended adventure over new and unexpected intellectual terrain. Previous Odyssey Lectures have tackled topics such as the “war on truth” and the Attica uprising of 1971. In addition, the PPE Workshop invites leading scholars to present their in-progress research to Brown faculty and graduate students for feedback, pushback and direction, advancing new insights and fostering the development of new research projects and partnerships.

Students at Brown will have a chance to take a growing number of PPE-affiliated courses that run the subject gamut, from the analysis of political behavior to the history of economic thought. Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Political Economy Ryan Doody’s course “Choice, Commerce and Conflict” provides an ideal introduction to PPE by inviting students to discuss how theoretical topics such as game theory and distributive justice apply to climate change, universal basic income and other contemporary topics. In the coming years, PPE courses may be taught jointly by faculty from disparate fields, giving students the chance to learn more than one academic perspective. And there’s potential, Skarbek said, for a future PPE concentration to be offered to students at Brown.

Students will also be able to engage with the PPE Center through a variety of student organizations — including the Brown Political Review, a student-run journal; the PPE Society, a student reading and discussion group committed to ideological pluralism; and the new Journal of Philosophy, Politics and Economics, an academic publication that will highlight undergraduate and graduate student scholarship internationally.

Much of that published research will come from the center’s growing ranks of postdoctoral and graduate fellows. Since 2003, a postdoctoral research fellowship program has hosted more than 40 scholars whose research has touched on national security, political psychology and other thought-provoking topics; moving forward, the PPE Center program will welcome recent Ph.D. graduates from a wider array of humanities and social sciences fields to diversify areas of expertise among cohorts. Similarly, Skarbek said, a planned graduate student fellowship program is expected to enrich the center’s research landscape; regular graduate seminars will allow students representing a wide variety of academic traditions to learn new principles and perspectives from one another.

Finally, the PPE Center’s body of affiliated faculty will grow over the next few years, Skarbek said, given plans to create two to three endowed chair positions and a faculty fellows program.

Ultimately, the PPE Center, like Brown more broadly, exists to cultivate creative thinking by encouraging collaboration between groups of people who see things differently — whether because they come from different academic backgrounds or because they’ve had different life experiences. Because when people with different perspectives work together, Skarbek said, they often generate unique solutions to society’s complex problems.

“Offering events that showcase a diverse range of perspectives, kickstarting research that challenges the status quo — I think that’s at the heart of higher education,” Skarbek said. “When people bring different values, perspectives and methods to the table for a conversation, they learn from each other.”