Posts Tagged ‘Social Science’
A legalistic heritage and a democratic ideology have predisposed American political science to search outside the Washington community for explanations of behavior in that community—legalism looking to the Constitution as a determinative influence, and democratic ideology looking to public opinion and constituency ‘pressures’ as determinative influences upon the conduct of men in office….Political science has yet to confront squarely the proposition that the governing group in Washington…has an inner life of its own—a special culture which carries with it prescriptions and cues for behavior that may be far more explicit than those originating outside the group and no less consequential for the conduct of government.
James S. Young, The Washington Community, 1800-1828, quoted in
Donald R. Matthews and James Stimson, “Decision-Making by U.S. Representatives: A Preliminary Model.”
The incomplete incorporation of nonparty groups into explanations of the dynamics of democratic politics has many and complicated causes. One of them, however, probably lies in the nineteenth-century heritage, largely English, that the study of politics shares with economics. In crude terms the classical theories in both fields implicitly or explicitly started from the isolated individual. Both economic man and political man, it was assumed, exercised rational choice and acted independently for the maximization of individual advantage. No one man, behaving in this fashion, could affect significantly the general result, whether it was a governmental policy or a price in the market; only the aggregate of individual behaviors was determining. Deviations from these behaviors were increasingly recognized by both economists and political scientists, but for a long time they were treated as pathology rather than as evidence that the underlying theory did not account for the observed facts. The values associated with these theories were heavily loaded with emotion, and modification was therefore both a slow and a painful process. The reconstruction of classic explanations to accommodate group behavior [i.e. mediating institutions] has been common in recent years, however, to both economics and politics, although in the latter field it has proceeded rather slowly.
David Truman, The Governmental Process: Political Interests and Public Opinion
I’ve been thinking a bit about areas studies and it’s role in the field of political science, in part as an analogy for judicial politics (forthcoming) and it led me back to this piece by the late great anti-imperialist Chalmers Johnson, defending area studies and the verstehen on which they are built against the academic imperialism of rational choice. It’s unfortunate to me that many dissenters within the field are willing to concede the science mantle to standard approaches, and it’s always good to see someone challenge it on these terms. Even better to note the political underpinnings of these approaches whose proponents insist that they and alone are apolitical.
It has been rightly said theory, if not received at the door of an empirical discipline, comes in through the chimney like a ghost and upsets the furniture. But it is no less true that history, if not received at the door of a theoretical discipline dealing with the same set of phenomena, creeps into the cellar like a horde of mice and undermines the groundwork.
Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts.
From the outgoing editors of the American Political Science Review. I largely agree, and have since the first time I looked at the journal in the mid-1990s.
On the negative side, we have two main observations. First, although the discipline as a whole is less fragmented than we had feared (noted earlier), some subfields—and you know who you are—continue to be riven by ideological or methodological conflict. Too often, a paper in one of those fields draws recommendations of “reject,” “minor revision,” and “accept” from three equally esteemed referees. When reviewers diverge so greatly, the editorial team’s judgmental burden increases significantly, compelling editors to discount some expert advice (if possible, without antagonizing reviewers) in order to provide coherent advice to authors. We have no answer to this puzzle, but simply note a pattern accurately described by one co-editor: increasing engagement across sub-disciplines, sustained fratricide within some.
Second, we have become painfully aware of how badly (or how little) some of our colleagues read. Articles are too often cited, by authors and by referees, as making the exact opposite of the argument they actually advanced. Long books are noted, with a wave of the rhetorical hand but without the mundane encumbrance of specific page or even chapter references; and highly relevant literatures, even in leading political science journals, are frequently ignored. We may have fallen victim to an occupational disease of editors, but we have often found ourselves moaning, “Doesn’t anybody read anymore?” It is cold comfort that this sloppiness extends well beyond political science. A recent study has shown that, even in “gold standard” medical research, articles that clearly refute earlier findings are frequently ignored, or even cited subsequently as supporting the conclusion they demolished.
So we advise our successors to maintain, and even expand, vigilance against jargon and murkiness; and we advise authors, referees, and readers generally to further and broaden the conversation, not least by reading seriously what has been, and is being, written.
(This reminds me that I was thinking of writing a post that discussed books that seem as though most people only knew their title, and how they were misrepresented as a result.)
I have two additional thoughts One is that the solution to the problem noted in the first quoted paragraph isn’t very hard. It is that when someone is clear about what they are doing, the important question is how well they do it. This is generally expected of those who come from a more heterodox perspective (like me), but the expectation should be that everyone should. That you prefer a different theoretical or methodological approach is, at times, irrelevant. Part of the problem is that so much of American political science takes so much for granted that it can’t usefully discuss these issues. Only foregrounding them, and discussing them, can allow us to move forward.
The other thing is about the lack of reading. It’s a matter of faith among many orthodox social scientists that the cluster of work that involves case studies, qualitative research, non-positivist methods, etc., does not lead to advances in knowledge because they don’t build on each other. (There are other objections too, but that’s for another day). But the whole conceit of hypothesis testing actually fails to make clear the central role of reading what others have already said. According to Karl Popper, where hypotheses come from is irrelevant. The rhetoric of hypothesis testing suggests that a single test can lead to the rejection of a theory, when in reality it’s difficult to find any theory (in political science at least) that has been rejected because it failed one or even a series of hypothesis tests. Of course a case study is partial, but so is any study. The important question is not whether one study can settle anything on its own (it can’t) but rather what it, along with what is already known, can tell us. The scientific method does not include reading and writing, even though all research begins and ends with these things, and usually involves it along the way. Graduate training organized around statistical techniques obscures this. An approach that more self consciously and explicitly situates our research within the work of others is necessary to solve this problem.
Of course, it’s unlikely the editors would agree with all that.
Unfortunately, I doubt this will have much impact. For years the APSA presidential addresses have included trenchant criticisms of the discipline. But individual beliefs and values do not drives social outcomes, despite what orthodox political science would have you believe.
I learned that from reading.
Via Chris Blattman.
This footnote, from Lisa Stampnitzky’s excellent article Disciplining an Unruly Field: Terrorism Experts and Theories of Scientific/Intellectual Production (pdf), deserves some additional attention in its own right, beyond the specifics of the field or terrorism studies:
As I worked on this project, two questions have been posed to me repeatedly: What is terrorism? And who is a terrorism expert? One set of askers takes these questions as the presumed conclusion to my study: what is terrorism, really? And who are (really) terrorism experts? The second set of interlocutors, meanwhile, takes these questions as necessary preliminaries to the study: how do I assign values to these concepts, so that they might be measured and analyzed? The goal of this project is indeed to investigate terrorism, but not in either of the ways presumed above. Rather, the study takes as its object these very questions, asking how and why they have become meaningful. To clarify, I do not seek to determine who is “really” an expert; the processes through which this question is contested are, rather, the core of what I observe and try to explain. When I speak of “experts,” I refer to the pool of those treated as experts and those hoping/trying to be treated as experts; with “expertise” being the products, findings, knowledge, statements of these populations. [my emphases]
I can relate. My dissertation research focused on how reformers sought to achieve reform, and how those seeking reform and those seeking to block it contested the boundaries between law and politics in order to legitimate their own positions and delegitimate the other side’s positions. But what others often either interpreted me as asking, or presumed I should have been asking, was how such efforts impacted judicial decision-making. This was all the more odd since ultimately the litigation was resolved through settlements, which is the norm. That framework organized much of our thinking about politics, and it’s difficult to break free of it. (I’ve also argued decision-making as a concept is incoherent and undefended, but I’ll save that for another post.)
I think including a statement about how, if at all, your project has been misunderstood would be a valuable thing in books or articles presenting scholarly work that challenges conventional ways of thinking.