Sunday, June 24, 2012

Family squabbles

The political science blogosphere (hey, there is one!) has been atwitter about Jacqueline Stevens NYT Op-Ed on political science. I agree with most of what has been said, and have even said some of it myself in the past.

But I'd like to make a slightly different observation. It's worth noting that Stevens' piece is really about a divide within political science. Political scientists spend a good bit of time arguing about what kind of evidence we should accept. This divide is more significant than it is in many other disciplines (e.g. economics, physics), but it's not completely unique and it's not necessarily a bad thing.

We are a diverse discipline. I like to say that the difference between say economists and sociologists is that both study pretty much any human behavior, but each discipline has its own set of theoretical approaches, questions and methods. Sometimes they talk past each other. Political scientists, on the other hand, study a narrower band of human behavior -- the political -- but we approach it from every direction. We draw from economics, sociology, history, biology, anthropology, literary criticism, philosophy, etc. And that is a good thing, even if only because it means we have to think carefully about the standards we are using.

There is nothing wrong with "airing this dirty laundry" for the rest of the world to see. It shouldn't be a secret that we have interdisciplinary disagreements, and talking about it might be the only way to get past naive mischaracterizations of social science as not a science. But it should be recognized for what it is. It's a debate within the discipline. Stevens' claim is ultimately that those who are interested in prediction (who are very few), or in quantitative analysis (a much larger group), are too powerful in the discipline, and that those who do work like hers are not as powerful as they should be. Others disagree about both where the power lies, and who should and should not be powerful.

What does this have to do with the NSF? Well, if quantitative analysis is favored by the NSF, then the debate about what makes for good social science has had a different outcome there than Stevens would like. Some of us actually like the kind of work that is being funded, but it's legitimate to challenge it. This ought to be different than deciding whether we fund anything, though. That we sometimes disagree on what makes for good work does not mean that there is no good work, or that a roll of the dice is the way to determine which work gets done.

1 comment:

  1. For what it's worth, I get the strong sense that our divide is much narrower than that within many anthropology departments. Not being plugged into that world, I don't have much to base this on other that hearsay, but it seems to be a commonly held belief.

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