09 September 2010

Why I am Not a Political Scientist

I have a PhD in political science, but no political science department would ever hire me (I was last at an APSA meeting in 1994).  The main reason for this is that I do policy research with an eye to being relevant.  Policy research has never ranked highly in the axiology of political science.

It is consequently no surprise that I am a professor in an environmental studies program that focuses on policy.  Of course, in many universities policy programs are administratively and intellectually distinct from political science (or other relevant disciplines).  Many social scientists (not just political scientists) see themselves doing "basic research" of the sort that their kin in the natural sciences are doing -- adding to knowledge but not directly addressing societal problems.  Thus, policy research often finds itself in an interdisciplinary zone, focused on practical questions rather than on theory or prediction.  It is no wonder that there are at times paradigm disputes.

Inside Higher Ed has an interesting article about the hand wringing going on in the discipline of political science about doing relevant research:
Political scientists are too focused on developing theories about government, ignoring the huge impact -- a life-and-death impact, he noted -- that government has. Tens of thousands of people die each year because they can't get safe water or health care from corrupt governments, but political scientists prefer to theorize about the governments rather than thinking about how to change them with the goal of getting them to provide their people with water and health care.

As an example, [Bo] Rothstein [the August Röhss Professor of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden] cited a session [at the American Political Science Association] he attended on "clientelism" in Africa, a form of corruption that is widespread and damaging. Rothstein said he asked the presenters about comparisons to countries that have moved past clientelism, and that they had no answers. "The discipline is organized" such that African area studies scholars will simply compare various forms of the practice and "never ask how you can get out of clientelism," since that would require looking outside their region and focusing on solutions, he said.

"The discipline is organized to avoid interesting comparisons of issues," rather than "on actual people."
The article also quotes Sven Steinmo, currently at the European University Institute, who also happens to be the first professor that I ever took a political science course from when I was an undergraduate:
Steinmo said he thinks that political scientists have a bit of "physics envy," in which they would like to be able to come up with theories that could predict the state of the world. Likewise, he said that they have "economics envy," in which they wish that powerful people would call them up and ask for advice. But there is a reason that they don't call, he said. "They don't want to hear, 'It kind of depends' and, 'It depends on the context,' " Steinmo said. "I do want policy makers to ask us what to do," he said, but "it's an honest dilemma" whether political scientists should change their style enough so that their phones start to ring.
While it is nice to see the discipline of political science grapple with questions of relevance, the reality is that there are already many interdisciplinary social and natural scientists who do policy research seeking to inform decision making.  Many of these scholars inhabit institutions with track records of doing relevant work.  For political scientists wanting to be relevant, there is no need to alter the nature of their discipline, as there are plenty of opportunities for such work.


  1. There was a saying that got pulled out every so often when I was in (science) grad school: There is no science in Social Science. Every so often, we went to the Anthropology or Psychology departments to hear a speaker discuss a topic relevant to us (evolution), and it was always embarrassing to the point of cringing. I can't imagine what Political Science would be like. Physics envy indeed - these people can't put three ordered thoughts together without fainting.

  2. The Social Sciences have a heck of a time keeping ideology and research separate. Witness the extreme hostility to the very idea of applying evolution, the unifying theory of biology, to human cognition.

    A major part of the problem is that Social Science's original goals had nothing to do with understanding humanity. They use the methods of science but fail to grasp its spirit.

  3. Mrs Thatcher declared war on political/social science departments. They certainly do have an effect on students if not the rest of the world. They were purveyors of fairly extreme socialism during that time.

    Britain's Green Party leader and first green MP, Caroline Lucas is predictably a former academic. Her thesis was entitled 'Writing for Women: a study of woman as reader in Elizabethan romance, in particular the carbon footprint of Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing'.

    Straight to the point !

    Only joking about the carbon footprint, the rest is true. !

  4. Arguably the bravest speech in parliament in the last 30 years. This is political reality (video).

    Labour MP Tom Watson condemns Parliament for its fear of tabloids

    9 September 2010

    They have no predators.

    The Labour MP for West Bromwich, Tom Watson, used the Commons debate on phone hacking to accuse fellow members of cowardice in the face of Britain's tabloid newspapers. He said the chief executive of News International Rebekah Brooks and other tabloid owners had more power than any politician in Parliament.


    He means Rupert Murdoch. Richard Branson (Virgin) told the BBC that Murdoch chooses the British prime minister.


  5. It seems as if even policy advocates (policysts?)are getting the back of the hand these days: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/10/white-house-puts-off-solar-enthusiasts/

    White House Puts Off Solar Enthusiasts

    The “ Put Solar On It” team of activists and Unity College students reached the White House today (actually the Old Executive Office Building) and was politely rebuffed after stating their case for putting solar panels back on the White House roof.
    ===end quote===

  6. "Physics envy" is an old story in the history of the social sciences, and I'm kind of hoping we could move past it. There's plenty of ways to be rigorous, but a couple of centuries of failed attempts should attest to the fact that physics is not the appropriate ideal (I've also heard that physics is no longer the model science considering the messy and perplexing state of its latest theories, but instead the "lesser" sciences are now looking up to molecular biology).
    The article does point out some important misalignments between the standards of scientific practice vs what is desired for policy advice, of which the difference in pacing is probably the hardest to solve, but there's certainly ways around all these problems.
    So much riskier than navel-gazing though - life is easier when all your associates speak the same language.