The Battle for Control of Political Science Education

The Battle for Control of Political Science Education

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The Battle for Control of Political Science Education


Quantitative analysis, formal modeling, and other forms of hard science dominate the leading journals and research institutions of American political science. To justify a hard scientific approach to the study of politics demands elaborate philosophical argument. In particular, it demands answers to three questions: What is the character of political life (the ontological question)? How and what can we know about politics (the epistemological question)? What purpose should political knowledge serve (the normative question)? Yet few of today’s hard scientists offer sophisticated answers to these questions because one by-product of their hegemony in the discipline has been the banishment of political philosophy to the margins of the curriculum. Indeed, political philosophy is the most distinguished victim of today’s “normal science.” This essay offers graduate students a program by which to test the claims of hard science in a radical manner. It demonstrates how reflection on personal experience, the study of history, and the study of philosophy offer different ways of scrutinizing the ideology of hard science. Each raises formidable challenges to the hard-scientific project.

Some see the current conflict in American political science as little more than a battle over occupational resources. It is a battle over who gets hired, who gets published, and who leads our professional associations. What meager response the current “Perestroika” protest movement has elicited from hard scientists has focused on these issues.

The conflict is partly a battle over scarce resources, but the protesters have also presented a radical critique of hard science as a means to study politics. Hard scientists have met this critique with silence. The protest will not disappear with a more equitable division of occupational spoils. Its substantive challenge, too, demands a response.

The focus of the debate is the definition of “science” as it is applied to the study of human beings. Today’s protest movement is not anti-scientific, as some adherents of the hard-scientific establishment have tried to stigmatize it. Unlike post-modern thinkers, most protesters associated with Perestroika think of themselves as scientists. But what sort of science is possible when the object of study is a human society? Science has always been a contested concept, even in the realm of the physical sciences, and it remains so today.

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The Perestroika critique revolves around three questions related to the reach of “science” in the study of politics:

First, what is the character of political life? This is the ontological question. In particular, does politics exhibit the high degree of consistency and regularity demanded by hard science, or do choice, complexity, and accident limit its regularities? Formal theorists and quantitative researchers seek a political science comparable in precision and breadth to the natural sciences, but does the character of politics resemble or differ from the character of physical nature?

Second, how and what can we know about politics? This is the epistemological question. Given the character of political life, what sort of knowledge about it is possible? Does the character of politics lend itself to the equilibria of formal theory? Are most significant aspects of politics meaningfully convertible into numbers? Moreover, to what extent can scholars transcend their personal interests and their position in society and history to offer an objective, comprehensive, and thus scientific account of the social world?

Finally, what purpose should political knowledge serve? This is the normative question. What good follows from the study of politics? What ends should guide our work? How might we integrate research on the mechanical features of politics with reasoning about its proper ends?

In short, what is out there, what can we know about it, and why should we want to? Perestroika questions hard science on these radical grounds. The answers to the ontological, epistemological, and normative questions are complex, yet no one should enter this profession without addressing them. How could one become a respectable scholar of politics without thinking through the character of political life, the obstacles to knowing about it, and the purpose of political knowledge?

Nonetheless, graduate education today largely ignores these core questions.

Instead, it offers students a sterile training in hard scientific methodology that embodies what C. Wright Mills long ago disparaged as “the ethos of the technicians.” Once upon a time, philosophers of social science thought they possessed a set of persuasive answers to the fundamental questions, but these have now proved unsustainable. In response, most practitioners of social science, rather than altering the way they conduct research, have simply dropped these questions from the curriculum.

How should those entering the profession of political science investigate the ontological, epistemological, and normative questions related to politics? This essay directs graduate students to three sources for help, and it explains briefly why my answers to these questions have led me to adopt a more humble conception of social science than that which dominates the discipline today.

1. The first place to seek answers to the basic questions is in your personal experience. Examine your life. Evaluate your character. How would you explain where you are today? Has your life conformed to rational choice equilibria? Could the significant elements in your life be meaningfully reduced to numbers? What does your self-reflection tell you about the nature of human beings and their politics?

Although this is the easiest place to turn for insight into the core questions, most scholars decline to take their personal experience seriously as a standard for evaluating their research. They behave as if social science constituted an abstract world of truths that existed independently of the experiences of the social scientist. Consequently, young people considering political science as a profession typically make no effort to increase their range of life experiences in preparation, and scholarly books rarely tell us anything about their authors.

I will share some reflections on my experience here, not because they are of inherent interest, but merely to illustrate what a person’s self-analysis might look like, and to explain how mine has led me to reject the claims of hard science.

My fascination with politics began at age 11, when I decided that I would become a diplomat. Being born into the American middle-class, I had a better chance to control my life’s course than most people. But today I am a scholar of Japanese politics, and both my becoming a scholar and my focus on Japan occurred more by accident than on purpose.

When I graduated from college in 1971, I thought I would be drafted into the military. But, thanks to chance, I was not called to serve. No choices on my part caused that to happen. I had made no other plans beyond graduation, so I did menial jobs for awhile. I then met a Japanese teacher visiting my home town of Los Angeles—another accident. He taught English to children at a private academy in Japan, and he was looking for an American to teach there. I took him to my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner and to the USC-UCLA football game, and he offered me the job. When I got the offer, I looked to locate Japan on a map. I had never taken a course on Japan as a college student. Had I been hired to teach in Nigeria, Bolivia, or Malaysia, I would have been just as happy. Teaching English in Japan, I met my wife and began to study Japanese, and my life moved in a different direction.

A few years later, while doing an internship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, I took the U.S. Foreign Service exam to enter the diplomatic corps, but I failed the oral part of the test. Afterwards, I mentioned this to one of the VIPs in the Department of State whom I had been interviewing as part of my work at Carnegie, and he said, “Greg, if only you had told me!” He didn’t put it in so many words, but he was the Inspector General of the Foreign Service at the time, and it was clear that he could have put in the fix for me. Not making a phone call to him before that test cost me a career in diplomacy, something I had aspired to for 15 years. A phone call—and I would have dealt with Gorbachev’s Perestroika rather than our modest academic version.

When I examine my character, I find inconsistencies. I find acts of courage alongside acts of cowardice, periods of commitment alongside periods of procrastination. In short, my life has not conformed to anything like a hard-scientific theory of human behavior. There are certain regularities, to be sure, but they coexist with elements of chance and unpredictability. In this, I suspect, I am not alone. Howard Becker cites one study of social scientists which found that despite their commitment to “highly deterministic models of social causation” in their research, all resisted the application of these same models when discussing their own lives.

Examine your life not only to grasp the nature of social life, but also to ponder the epistemological and normative questions. How clearly are you able to see into the souls of the people you know? Looking at the people you interact with every day, do you know how they got where they are? Could you describe the crucial junctures in their lives? What does that tell you about your ability to explain the decisions of millions of voters, or the life of a great leader whom you have never met?

In what respects does your experience suggest the good ends that political knowledge might serve? What injustices have you experienced that this knowledge might set aright? My research interest in war springs partly from the immense consequences of the Vietnam War for my life and the lives of my friends, even though I never fought in it.

At this point, you may be thinking, “Greg, who really gives a hoot about your puny little life? Why should one person’s experience be the measure of anything? Isn’t the whole idea of ‘science’ to look beyond one’s experience to discover the general experience?”

This challenge sounds reasonable, but when I read theories of politics that obviously do not apply to the life of the scholar who concocted them, I become suspicious. As a graduate student, I spent a one-semester reading course on Hobbes’ Leviathan. The introduction bothered me because it appeared utterly unscientific and out of character with the rest of the book. There Hobbes wrote that readers would ultimately have to consult their experience to determine if what he had written was the truth.

[R]ead thyself . . . for the similitude of the thoughts and passions of one man, to the thoughts and passions of another, whosoever looketh into himself, and considereth what he doth, when he does think, opine, reason, hope, fear, &c. and upon what grounds; he shall thereby read and know, what are the thoughts and passions of all other men on like occasions. . . . [T]he characters of man’s heart, blotted and confounded as they are with dissembling, lying, counterfeiting, and erroneous doctrines, are legible only to him that searcheth hearts. And though by men’s actions we do discover their design sometimes; yet to do it without comparing them with our own . . . is to decipher without a key, and be for the most part deceived, . . . [W]hen I shall have set down my own reading orderly, and perspicuously, the pains left another, will be only to consider, if he also find not the same in himself. For this kind of doctrine admitteth no other demonstration.

At the time, this struck me as a half-baked way to introduce a book of rigidly formal modeling. Now, I think Hobbes’ preface was profound.

Scholars who offer theories of politics that do not apply to them are deceiving themselves and deceiving others. If your political views and actions are not guided mainly by material interests, why should you imagine that the views of others will be? If your life has not followed rational choices or mathematical equations, why should that be true of others? Let your experience and self-reflection as a human being be your first guide as you seek to answer the basic questions about politics.

The moment you begin to take your experience seriously as a source of knowledge, you will start to think differently about the character of your education. Scholars who spend countless hours in the library or in front of a computer in the land of nerd-dom are infamous for their lack of experience of the world outside. If experience matters to our work, it follows that we should seek to expand our range of experiences, and also to embrace those research methods that combine direct experience with other ways to acquire knowledge. Ethnographic methods and field work are designed to incorporate experience into research. In his ingenious exposition of the Aristotelian concept of phronesis, Bent Flyvbjerg has reformulated our notion of political wisdom to include the lessons of experience.

To learn from your experience, you must trust yourself. Do not accept the assertions of your mentors if these clash with the lessons of your life. It might be advisable to question such assertions by asking your professors if what they are preaching accords with their life experience. My experience and self-reflection lead me to conclude that formal theories and quantitative research would be poor tools for explaining most of my life, so I will not use them to explain most of yours. How can an explanation be true of everyone that is not true of anyone?

2. A second way to grapple with the big questions about politics is to reflect upon the lives of others, that is, to study history. People in history departments do many types of scholarship. What I mean by history is old-fashioned, narrative-descriptive-chronological history. This is the type of history found in books with titles like George Washington: The Early Years, or The Peasants of Alsace, 1665-1885. Such work enables a person to experience vicariously the lives of others. It allows you to see if other people have lived life the way you have, and it gives you a broader basis upon which to judge the claims of hard science.

The reading of history is a humbling experience for most social scientists. In graduate school, I spent a summer reading about the French Revolution. It seemed a worthwhile thing to do, since the French Revolution inaugurated modern politics. We have been fighting over its themes of democracy, equality, and liberty ever since. Regional nobles started the revolution to regain privileges they had lost to the crown, but the revolution ended with the urban rabble putting those nobles to death and elevating a populist demagogue in their place. None of those who started the revolution could have foreseen or desired its end.

Another piece of history I know well is that of the Peruvian military regime that took power in 1968. The initial junta had revolutionary aims, but more conservative generals took control in a counter-coup in 1975. Political scientists alleged many systemic reasons for the counter-coup: economic conditions, the prior junta’s failure at popular mobilization, in short, variables open to theoretical argument. But years later, after the military had returned power to civilians, a Peruvian journalist named María del Pilar Tello interviewed the officers who had led the regime. They had arranged a peaceful transition from the first president to the second. Some uncertainty always attends such arrangements, but there was never a plan to launch a counter-coup. One night a few months before the scheduled transition, several generals got drunk at a party, and in that state they telephoned local military garrisons and ordered them to march on the presidential palace. At the time, they believed that the chosen successor would continue the regime’s revolutionary program. He surprised them all a few months later by changing course. So just as the failure to make a phone call cost me a career in the diplomatic corps, so a drunken phone call toppled a government in Peru. Its consequences were no clearer to most of the perpetrators than were those of the French Revolution to its aristocratic sponsors.

I do not find history to be completely haphazard, but it resembles my life in that chance and inconsistency are sometimes decisive. There is room for theoretical explanation, but only of a limited, qualified sort, not for the grand, elegant explanations required by hard science.

There are other lessons to be learned from history in regard to the big questions. When you study a topic like the French Revolution, about which historians and social scientists have written for two centuries, you will find differences in their accounts. They rely on different sources; they highlight different aspects of the same events; they use different concepts to explain what happened. This will sensitize you to the problems we confront when we attempt to transcend our place in society and history to analyze events from a neutral, objective perspective. In struggling to explain why scholars have written and interpreted history so differently, you will become more aware of your own limitations as an objective observer of politics. Too often what practitioners try to market as an objective, universal theoretical outlook turns out to be a culture-bound and time-bound perspective, like rational choice theory. But you may not become aware of it unless you study the development of ideas in their historical context. The results of historical processes also enable you to reflect on the normative outcomes of political action and some of the ways that the political knowledge you seek might make good outcomes more likely.

3. A third way to educate yourself about the basic ontological, epistemological, and normative questions is to read political philosophy. Indeed, one might define political philosophy as the effort to grapple with these core questions. The great philosophers are those who have produced important, original insights into these matters. When I was a graduate student, I took semester-long seminars on Plato’s Laws, the Frankfurt School of Marxism, Nietszche’s Beyond Good and Evil, and Hobbes’ Leviathan, as I mentioned. If you want to enter the Perestroika debate at a high level, start by reading Machiavelli and Hobbes. Machiavelli, who attributed much of politics to fortuna, would be a Perestroikan today, whereas Hobbes originated many of the hard-scientific notions that I now rail against. My course work also required extensive reading in the philosophy of science, covering writers like Karl Popper, Abraham Kaplan, Peter Winch, and Alan Ryan. These scholars knew the major philosophical traditions and discussed the scientific project in that larger context. The study of political philosophy is the most sophisticated way to explore the basic questions of what is out there, what we can know about it, and why we should want to.

Alas, the graduate education we offer today, crafted in the interests of hard science, does not encourage you to ponder these big questions. Nor does it offer you many courses in political history or philosophy that you would have to take in order to grapple with them. The opportunity to examine political history used to come in courses with titles like “The Politics of the Soviet Union” or “The Politics of Mexico.” Such courses were once the backbone of the curriculum in comparative politics, but they are few these days. Most courses focus instead on ahistorical, theoretical topics.

Hard science has practically driven political philosophy from the curriculum. A two-semester sequence in political philosophy used to be a common requirement, but philosophy is rarely required at all now. Except for students intending to write dissertations in the field, most of you will probably not take a single class. I once required Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte when I taught the graduate survey in comparative politics. It is an important work, the source of many current arguments about state autonomy, but I dropped it because students did not have the historical or philosophical background to understand it. Many departments now handle the big questions perfunctorily in one-semester classes that purport to be “introductions to political science.” The purpose of excluding philosophy from the curriculum is to crush dissent, for it offers the most profound critique of the dominant trends in the discipline. Most students today do not even read extensively in the philosophy of science. If they did, they would find that there is little philosophical foundation for the assumptions that guide today’s hard-scientific research.

Why are you saddled with such an impoverished education? Hard scientists seek to forge what Thomas Kuhn called a “normal science” of politics. Kuhn argued that progress occurred in the natural sciences when the scientific community agreed on the basic questions and devoted itself to applied research. Only in rare moments of scientific revolution would the big questions return to the table. In an effort to turn the study of politics into such a normal science, today’s hard scientists of politics ignore the basic questions about the nature of our enterprise.

They assume away the “what is out there?” question by simply equating politics with general patterns of social action. This removes from the table all those troubling questions about the nature of the social world, such as, how much of it actually conforms to patterns? By definition, a “scientist” is one who unearths patterns. Do not worry about the rest; the history department will handle it.

Hard scientists assume away the “how do you know?” question by focusing all of your attention on methods. This is the fatal perversion of today’s political science: the methodology fetish. The idea is that if you follow your methods textbooks to the letter, the result will be a perfectly objective contribution to scientific knowledge. This illusion of perfect-objectivity-through-method means that there is no need to consult your experience. Master the latest form of regression analysis, and you need not worry about how your values or your social position might color your work. (As if the bureaucratic mindset inherent in the methods fetish were not a “value” in itself!) Reducing politics to the language of mathematics, you will not have to supply a single adjective. You are out of the picture.

And as for the normative goals of political knowledge, why, they are assumed away, too. Democracy and human rights pretty much cover the field. If you entertain any doubts about this, no need for concern, because values do not really matter anyway. Our goal is not to make politics better; it is to produce grand, elegant theories that explain why politics is as it is, to find those patterns that we assume are ubiquitous out there. The fact that political leaders make stupid decisions is not a problem we need to solve. Our business is only to develop a theory that explains why they do so on such a consistent basis.

There is an intricate set of professional norms that lock the prevailing outlook into place. These norms are now so institutionalized that most scholars accept them without thinking. Academic journals, for instance, impose a conventional format on the articles they carry. The article must start with a review of the literature on a given topic, indicating a gap or a problem in previous research. The article then fills that gap or solves that problem with new data, preferably expressed in unnecessarily complicated mathematical equations with an addendum on some arcane question of methodology. The article then concludes by noting some new gaps or problems that it has brought to light, so that the next seminarian can get his research published.

Dissertations take the same format. Depart from it, and the gatekeepers of the establishment will slam the door in your face. The journal’s referees will reject your work for not citing the relevant literature, and the faculty considering your job application will reject it with the comment that “this research does not speak to the theoretical literature I know on this subject.” The format in which you are forced to write is designed to keep your work within the bounds of “normal science.” This format rewards derivative research, while the dismissal of truly original ideas brings to mind the Japanese expression that “the nail that sticks out will be hammered down.”

Another institutional trait that protects the existing dogma of hard science is the lack of outlets for expressing dissent in the profession. The American Political Science Association does not hold regular, competitive elections for its officers, so there is normally no electoral campaign in which one might raise issues about the profession. Nothing illustrates better the complete disconnect between what political scientists teach and write, and their personal experience. Transitions to democracy have been the foremost research topic in the discipline for the last 15 years, yet we cannot seem to manage a transition to democracy in our own professional association. After all, what has all that research to do with us?

Except for PS: Political Science and Politics, there is no journal in political science that regularly welcomes articles on controversies within the discipline. Given the severe page limits on articles in PS, this means that most pieces on the topics addressed in this essay go begging for a publisher. Even our newest journal, Perspectives on Politics, whose mission is to restore the relevance of political science to the real world, systematically excludes essays that might explain how political science became divorced from the real world in the first place. There has never been a conference of the American Political Science Association or an issue of the American Political Science Review devoted to the subject of what should be the proper role of mathematics in the study of politics. Consequently, the shift to hard science has occurred without an open discussion of the relevant issues. If you are unaware of the alternatives to today’s hard science, it is not because hard science has proven its superiority, but because professional norms and institutions lock the prevailing outlook into place.

What sort of soul emerges from today’s graduate education in hard science? Its star product is the research technician, whose scholarly life revolves around quantitative methodology. C.W. Mills wrote of this type:

I have seldom seen one of these young men . . . in a condition of genuine intellectual puzzlement. And I have never seen any passionate curiosity about a great problem, the sort of curiosity that compels the mind to travel anywhere and by any means, to re-make itself if necessary, in order to find out. These young men are less restless than methodical; less imaginative than patient; above all, they are dogmatic. . . . They have taken up social research as a career; they have come early to an extreme specialization, and they have acquired an indifference or a contempt for ‘social philosophy’. . . Listening to their conversations, trying to gauge the quality of their curiosity, one finds a deadly limitation of mind. The social worlds about which so many scholars feel ignorant do not puzzle them. . . . [E]xplicitly coded methods, readily available to the technicians, are the major keys to success. . . . once a young man has spent three or four years at this sort of thing, you cannot really talk to him about the problems of studying modern society. His position and career, his ambition and his very self-esteem, are based in large part upon this one perspective, this one vocabulary, this one set of techniques. In truth, he does not know anything else.

Perestroika’s battle with hard science is not only or even mainly about occupational resources. It is about the basic ontological, epistemological, and normative questions that lie at the heart of the scholarly enterprise. To this more profound challenge, the hard scientists have not responded. We are met with the silence of the wolves.

The reason, I suspect, is that most hard scientists, like most of you, entered their graduate education as though jumping on a moving train. They had no idea of the train’s origins or ultimate destination, and their abiding concern was only to reach the next station. They did this by immediately going to work on some theory in some sub-field of political science, blindly following their methodology textbooks, and striving to publish an article or two that might get them a job. Nowhere along the line—not in class, not in the methods texts, not in the editorial screening of the journals—did anyone bother them with the big questions. Their eyes have been focused on the next station . . . and the next, ever since.

Never having asked themselves the big questions about political life and political knowledge, hard scientists have no idea how to respond to the radical challenge that Perestroika poses. So they ignore it and hope that by throwing some resources our way, a few articles in the APSR perhaps, they will satisfy us.

I do not imply that those who investigate the big questions will all reach the same conclusions I have. Some, like John Dewey and Richard Rorty, have come to question the project of positivistic science altogether, while others, from Auguste Comte to Ludwig Wittgenstein, have investigated those questions and produced answers more supportive of hard science. A pluralistic discipline must accommodate a variety of philosophical perspectives.

The problem that confronts us today is that most hard scientists would not know Comte from their aerobics instructor. Today’s hard-scientific orthodoxy is a prejudice, not the reasoned product of self-reflection, historical study, and the reading of philosophy. To sustain that prejudice, the big questions about politics have been expunged from your education. Welcome to “normal science.”

The reform of graduate education is a primary goal of the Perestroika movement. Until we achieve it, students will continue to find themselves in a difficult situation. It is a discouraging admission for me to make, but to become a scholar worthy of respect these days, to a great degree you will have to educate yourselves.
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