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Meet the editor of... Political Power and Social Theory


An interview with: Julian Go
Interview by: Margaret Adolphus

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Photo: Michael Minkov.Julian Go is associate professor of sociology at Boston University, where he is also a faculty affiliate in both the Asian Studies and the American Studies and New England Studies programme.

Previously, after receiving his PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago, he was an academy scholar at Harvard University's Academy for International and Area Studies. He is chair-elect of the Comparative-Historical Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association, and winner of the American Sociological Association's Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book in Culture Section, for his book American Empire and the Politics of Meaning (2008).

About the book series

Political Power and Social Theory is an annual review committed to advancing the interdisciplinary understanding of the linkages between class relations, political power and historical development. It offers a permanent forum for distinguished scholars who wish to engage with the process of social transformation, and seeks to represent a wide body of comparative and historical scholarship.

Series mission and format

MA: How would you describe the series mission and editorial objectives?

JG: Simply put, the series aims to bring critical social science perspectives to bear on issues relating to politics and power relations. While this may sound like political science, the difference is that Political Power and Social Theory (PPST) defines "politics" very broadly (rather than just, say, elections); and it aims for more interdisciplinarity than mainstream political science.

MA: On the book series information page you state that the series fills the gap between a quarterly and a monograph. What do you mean by this?

JG: One of the nice features of PPST is that, unlike a quarterly, we publish longer social science essays. The flagship quarterlies are very restrictive in terms of word length; PPST is one of the few journals in sociology and political science that will publish essays over 12,000 words! This is what makes it closer to a book monograph. But unlike a book monograph, PPST is not always devoted to a single narrow theme. Instead, many volumes have essays that represent a wide range of topics. Sometimes PPST does have focused themes, more like a book monograph, but PPST remains committed to breadth in coverage and aims to provide a snapshot of the latest critical social science research on a variety of topics.

Audience and impact

MA: From what sorts of disciplines/policy areas are your authors/audiences drawn?

JG: PPST strives to be interdisciplinary; we publish by and for sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists and historians.

MA: What sort of impact do you aim to have beyond academia, for example on policy and practice?

JG: If PPST aims to have an impact on the non-academic world at all, it is largely indirectly. PPST is a scholarly book series that hopefully informs students and practitioners in their thinking, but we do not propose policies or always engage policy questions. The goal is to provide students and practitioners with analytic tools, insights, and coverage of research that may guide, inform, inspire, provoke, question and compel; but not dictate or prescribe.


MA: I believe you deliberately set out to be eclectic geographically – your contributions show an admirable span of continents and cultures – and to include perspectives from historical sociology, to counter the ethnocentrism of US social science?

JG: Yes, PPST aims to be "global" or at least international in that regard; and the editors before me, Diane Davis and Howard Kimeldorf, and the founder and founding editor Maurice Zeitlin, had that focus from the outset. As a new editor, I hope to continue that tradition.

MA: How do you decide on the overall theme, or themes, for the volume, and how do you structure it?

JG: PPST is actually very organic: we receive submissions from scholars, their essays go through a peer review process, and if they "survive" then they are published. PPST also has some themed sections: these come from me, from members of the editorial board, or outside scholars who propose themes directly.

MA: What will be the subject or subjects of the next issue?

JG: I'm excited that the next volume is devoted entirely to assessing the administration of US President Barack Obama. The volume is titled Rethinking Obama and will cover questions of Obama and race relations, Obama and the Tea Party, and Obama and "civil religion". After that, PPST will publish a themed volume on post-colonial sociologies.

Courting controversy

MA: You also state that you like to publish research which challenges conventional assumptions. Can you elaborate on this?

JG: One of the conventional assumptions in a discipline such as sociology or political science is that thoughtful analysis can come in under 12,000 words. That's one conventional assumption that PPST challenges by publishing longer manuscripts. Of course, thoughtful analysis is not the same as lengthy manuscripts; and certainly we publish short essays that remain insightful and rigorous, but PPST often deviates from these sorts of conventions in the mainstream of academic social science.

Another example is the "Scholarly Controversy" section where we publish a provocative thought piece from a leading scholar and gather responses from peers, leading to a debate. Most mainstream journals/series are hesitant to do this. They sometimes publish debates but they rarely publish essays that are speculative and exploratory. The "Scholarly Controversy" section is all about giving scholars some space to venture risks of unfinished thoughts or write about their projects at an early stage of production.

In addition to challenging assumptions about what academic social science journals are supposed to do and not to do, PPST also challenges conventional substantive social scientific assumptions too. It tries to publish theoretically-informed research that deliberately confronts and questions existing paradigms in social science.

One example is the recent section on the middle classes in developing countries, guest edited by Gay Seidman of Wisconsin (Volume 21). It has been a long-standing assumption, in academic discourse and policy discourse alike, that the growth of the middle classes the so-called developing world is a good thing; that it creates the foundations for strong liberal democracies. If you do the standard approach to this question – such as running a quantitative analysis – you may indeed find some sort of correlation. But the essays in that section of PPST do qualitative case studies and, in their different ways, put that assumption into question. Some of the essays also put into question the very definition of "middle class" in the first place! So, that's the sort of work that PPST strives to publish. But in this sense, I don't think PPST is that special. In my view, it's just what good social science should do.

MA: How do you select a topic for, and organize, your "Scholarly Controversy" section?

JG: The "Scholarly Controversy" section is organic too. From word of mouth, networks, or solicitation we find a scholar who is looking to publish their thoughts and provoke debate; and so the specific "controversy" emerges from whatever that scholar happens to be thinking about or researching at the time.

MA: The section has never shied away from real live controversial issues such as the Iraq War. Over the next 18 months, can you foresee any other similar major issues which you might home in on?

JG: The special issue on Obama surely touches a controversial issue; some of the essays there seriously question the idea that Obama represents some kind of racial advance in the USA. Also, given the financial state of the globe, I foresee some essays addressing financialization or economic crises in future volumes.

Your editorial role

MA: How did you come to be editor, why did you take on the role, and what plans do you have for the series over the next few years?

JG: Diane Davis of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had been in charge of PPST for years, but she decided to step down and contacted me after consulting the editorial board. I was deeply honoured. And, I had been a fan of PPST so I accepted the offer. As for future plans, my immediate goal is to just continue to meet the standards and mission of my predecessors. Diane was a fantastic editor and I want to ensure that PPST will remain a top book series for critical social science. As for future plans, one thing I do plan to do is turn PPST into a biannual. Right now it's only published once a year, which has had its benefits, but turning it into a biannual will have benefits too. I'll probably end up devoting one of the yearly volumes into a special themed volume.

And finally ...

MA: You've undertaken research in American imperialism, and a couple of your books feature the Philippines. What has drawn you to these subjects?

JG: The short story is biography: I was born and raised in the American empire, and my parents were born and raised in a former American colony (the Philippines). How could I not be interested in these subjects? The longer story has to do with sociology, my discipline. In the 1990s, when I was studying historical sociology at the University of Chicago, I noticed historical sociologists were talking about revolutions and social movements and things like that, but no one was talking about empire or colonialism – much less the US empire – even as those topics were increasingly of interest to historians and others. Something new was needed, and I thought I might as well give it a go.


Go, J. (2008), American Empire and the Politics of Meaning: Elite Political Cultures in the Philippines and Puerto Rico during US Colonialism (Politics, History, and Culture), Duke University Press.

Publisher's note:

Julian Go was interviewed in August 2011

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