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Special Lecture:”Protean Power: Exploring the Uncertain and Unexpected in World Politics”

On April 20 2018,  the TGU Center for Positive/Empirical Analysis of Political Economy , Waseda University Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies (WIAPS) and  Waseda Institute of Political Economy (WINPEC) co-hosted a seminar by Professor Peter Katzenstein (the Walter S. Carpenter Jr. Professor of International Studies at Cornell University) introduced the concept of “protean power,” drawn from his new co-edited book of the same title, published in 2018 by Cambridge University Press. Professor Katzenstein opened the talk by dedicating it to the late Lucia Seybert, the book’s co-editor, who passed away after a long illness several weeks ago.

Distinguishing the concept from “control power,” Professor Katzenstein argued that protean power should be understood not as something that social actors possess, but rather something the emerges in a world of uncertainty and possibility. He used several metaphors — including the differences between the “control power” of marching band music and the “protean power” of jazz, as well as between the deterministic logic of Newtonian physics and the protean, open-ended world of quantum physics – to illustrate how wide sets of possibilities crystallize through human choice and agency into a singular outcome that is rendered post facto as necessary or inevitable.

Professor Katzenstein remarked on how the concept challenges central tenets of contemporary political science, particularly in the way in which it underscores uncertainty. Like economists, political scientists are accustomed to theorizing about risk: how political actors plan for and hedge against possibilities that they can calculate and imagine. The book Protean Power, however, takes uncertainty itself as a central feature of political life, theorizing about how political actors from state leaders through bankers and transnational migrants can make choices that actualize outcomes that might, through accident or luck, have turned out quite differently. Professor Katzenstein explained that the limits of our understanding of protean power, or the power embedded in a shape-shifting social reality, have made it difficult for political economists to explain major events like the Fall of the Berlin Wall or the 2007/2008 financial crisis, both of which were seen as so implausible that they fell outside of the risk planning of virtually all political-economic actors.

As Professor Katzenstein noted, the nearly 100 attendees represented a surprisingly large crowds for a late Friday afternoon lecture, and the discussion after his talk was lively and engaged. Participants asked how protean power might be used in subsequent research, about how power is narrativized after its unexpected actualization, and about the role of historical contingency as an element in political analysis. Professor Katzenstein demurred on prescribing how other scholars ought to do their research, instead emphasizing that considering a world of protean power that complements control power might allow scholars to ask different kinds of questions that can illuminate the roles of uncertainty in global politics.

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