A Conversation with Jack Citrin

Jack Citrin
July 11, 2017

Jack Citrin is a Professor of the Graduate School, Department of Political Science and Director Emeritus, Institute of Governmental Studies. 

What are some of the larger themes and questions that inform your work?

My work has always been informed by one major theme: the bonds - or lack thereof - between citizens and government. My earliest work was about trust in government and political disaffection, which I started working on during a period where trust in American government began its long 50-year slide. How do you inspire trust in the people you rule? I have studied this in a number of different contexts both in the US and in Europe. So that was the first phase of work, studying the general phenomenon of trust in government.

Then, I had a 3-4 year focus on the tax revolt, which I regarded as a manifestation of mistrust of government. Related to that was the role of direct democracy as a vehicle through which people and groups get around government because they are dissatisfied with the function of representative institutions.

Then, the last period of my work - which is one of the most interesting to me – has been focused on the study of national identity in the US and Europe. I continued this work while I was at IGS. These questions of identity became more acute in the context of the changing composition of the US and Europe due to immigration.

Who have been some intellectual influences and how have you developed your own methodology?

The first were actually two of my professors in graduate school: Herbert McClosky and Ernie Haas. McClosky was mainly interested in the psychology of people’s attitudes and beliefs. His methodology and survey research, and building measures of these attitudes, is something that I adopted. Haas was a student of nationalism. I took a class from him on nationalism and imperialism and it remains influential to this day.

Another very important person was my colleague, social psychologist, David Sears. Through him, I became more interested in explaining political phenomena. I also learned to be a very careful researcher.

I had a pretty good classical liberal education and I also go back to some of the great social theorists: Max Weber, Durkheim, later on Daniel Bell. Just learning from those magisterial thinkers – the idea of taking on big problems has always been appealing to me.

What have been the interesting findings and contributions in your past work?

The historical process of the assimilation of immigrants in the United States continues, which was not necessarily the dominant intuition. Another one of my early findings on the impact of mistrusting government was that people are stimulated into action supporting change, rather than withdrawing their participation.

Another finding, that has become part of an ongoing debate in political science, is how much self-interest dominates people’s political responses. One of my contributions, along with David Sears, was to delineate the context in which individual self-interest is potent, as opposed to times when people make political choices on based on broader attitudes and values.

What do you enjoy the most about the work that you do?

I like the identification of a topic and a problem; it’s a kind of a feeling that this is worth answering. So I try to structure research around that. And then, I like to write. I pride myself on being a good writer. I like to write as lucidly as possible. I also like to throw in some slightly sardonic comments, which my co-authors often insist on eliminating. I’ve written with a lot of former students and they always say my métier is the title and the opening line.

Do you have any other forthcoming work that you want to mention?

I am writing a couple of papers now with my former students who are now professors – Cara Wong and Morris Levy – on language politics, which fits into themes of national identity and integration. I am starting to think about the assault on free speech in, among other places, universities. I want to do one more thing – I would like to write a version of my work on national identity, and geared to a more general audience in a way where more people will read it.

Can you speak about the IGS community? What are some accomplishments that you are most proud of as Director?

It was a wonderful period in my career. I always say it is one of these jobs where most of the time you can just say “yes” to projects, to faculty and to graduate students. You have an opportunity to encourage and support people, and build new things.

If I take a dispassionate look back on what we accomplished at IGS while I was Director, it has been quite considerable. We have created four valuable and diverse intellectual seminars. We have had a lot of public outreach with conference on women in politics, on immigration, the perils of polling and so on. Many of these conferences have led to academic publications. We’ve built a solid basis of financial support for the Institute in a time of declining state support, which has been critical.

Three other things. We ventured into an important new area of public opinion polling on California issues, which created a vehicle for faculty and graduate student research. Secondly, we have been able to physically transform the Institute. We created the Matsui Center, which has been fundamental. The number of opportunities for students have grown and students have become a part of IGS in a way they had not before. Finally, we broadened the intellectual content of IGS with major grants for EGAP and AASP, and involved different people from different parts of campus. On the intellectual front, these have been areas of growth.

The last thing I’ll say – my father was forced by historical circumstance to become a businessman rather than pursue his career as an engineer, but it suited him and he was able to build a successful business in Japan. He had about 20 employees; all but one were Japanese. And yet it was a family business not just in the sense that one family owned it but in how it functioned. My dad would guarantee mortgages for the staff and help pay for weddings and things like that. I like to think of IGS as a family business and that the staff were, for me, more than just staff. We developed an ethos of comradery and a teamwork. That has been my philosophy and part of the reason I feel personally fulfilled to have had this opportunity.