Monday, June 25, 2012

Political Science as a Vocation, 2012 edition

Since Hans, Seth, Henry Farrell, and others have posted excellent responses to Dr. Stevens's attack on NSF funding for political science, I will focus my attention on another point: why one becomes a political scientist. Stevens's followup on her op-ed explains why she wrote the column:

Q.  Why did you write this?A.  Because  a couple weeks ago I returned from a day in Judge Fletcher Sam's court in Griffin, Georgia and listened to an impassioned speech just outside his court room by Sernita Trice, a one-time political science major at Penn State, that began, "There is no justice here.  No one cares about us."   The details are not relevant here, but she was right and I was embarrassed for my discipline for ignoring a myriad of politically and intellectually gripping questions that are in cities like Griffin and counties like Spaulding and states like Georgia throughout our country.
 As I understand this account, Stevens would prefer that political scientists focus their efforts on overt political activism, presumably with scholarship that complements this function. Anne Norton's book chapter, "Political Science as a Vocation," summarizes this view in more general terms:
[Some scholars contend that] we ought to be scholar activists, conscious of our political roles, and performing those roles conscientiously, in accordance with our political principles. We ought to seek to refine our political understandings and theories, develop political strategies and tactics, and pursue particular political objectives. We ought to keep the faith. We ought to serve. (2004, from Problems and Methods in the Study of Politics)
I predict that, if the entire discipline of political science were to adopt scholar-activism as its mode of behavior, it would result in a sharp decline in NSF funding, public prestige, political science majors, and public understanding of politics and international relations.

When I was a teen, I spent too much time watching "Crossfire" on CNN. Two hosts--conservative and liberal--and two guests--conservative and liberal--would spew talking points past each other in loud voices for thirty minutes minus commercials. Nothing was resolved or conceded. "Crossfire" was eventually cancelled but the broader political discourse that it sampled is alive and well: choosing a position before considering the evidence, repetition of talking points coordinated with allies, assertions that are only loosely based on fact. When I was a Congressional staffer the epitome of the Crossfire style was the House's "morning hour" of one-minute philippics, alternated by party, and it continues today in the evening hours of Fox News and MSNBC commentary.

When I left the Hill, I understood that I was leaving the game of politics in order to study it from a distance, like a quarterback moving into the broadcast booth. I did not do so because I don't care about politics or society, but because I believed that I could make a bigger contribution through objective (or as-objective-as-I-can) empirical research than by attempting to participate in ordinary political discourse. There are general patterns, big questions, and institutions that underlie our political system that no reporter, pundit, or politician is equipped to explain, although that doesn't stop them from trying. These include growing economic inequality, partisan polarization, and the declining effectiveness of Congress as a policy-making body. No matter how much we Crossfire-debate these questions (and many others), we will get no closer to answers unless we try something different.


That "something different" is science, which Robert Keohane defines as "a publicly known set of procedures designed to make and evaluate descriptive and causal inferences on the basis of the self-conscious
application of methods that are themselves subject to public evaluation" ("Political Science as a Vocation," PS, April 2009). I would add to this definition some form of empirical basis for testing arguments: my claims are not true because I say so, but because (and to the extent) that they are grounded in an analysis of human behavior. 


Political scientists make real contributions to the extent that their research helps to explain political behavior and institutions. Our research may be used to evaluate institutions (e.g. electoral rules, legislative procedures) or at least to clarify the expected impact of proposed reforms. It can also be used to predict, with the caveat that the human element in political processes ensures that past behavior does not necessarily predict future outcomes. The laws of politics are not as stable as the laws of physics; apples falling from trees don't get to rewrite the rules of gravity, but political actors do get to reshape their rules and strategies. 


Being a scientist does not mean that one is disengaged from politics. As Keohane explains, 
In our particular investigations we need to seek objectivity—a goal that is never realized but that we should strive for—because otherwise people with other preferences, or who do not know what our values are, will have no reason to take our findings seriously. In the absence of a serious culture of objectivity, no cumulative increases in knowledge can take place. But the overall enterprise should never be value-neutral. We should choose normatively important problems because we care about improving human behavior, we should explain these choices to our students and readers, and we should not apologize for making value-laden choices even as we seek to search unflinchingly for the truth, as unpleasant or unpopular as that may be.
The payoff to the hard work of research, however, is that political scientists can do more than engage in Crossfire politics; they can provide a more informed public debate (e.g. by explaining political science research to reporters or summarizing their research for wider audiences) or guide policymakers as they weigh alternatives.

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