Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Reading is Fundamental: The State of the Discipline of Political Science

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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.

Written by David Kaib

September 14, 2012 at 5:09 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I can’t help but laugh when reading their first paragraph quoted given my experience. So they, in part, worry about too much editorial influence but don’t send some rigorous work out??.

    Read? Who reads Olson?


    September 15, 2012 at 12:20 pm

  2. […] 2) Reading is Fundamental: The State of the Discipline of Political Science: In which I agree, in part, with the editors of the American Political Science Review.  The hypothesis testing approach to social science leads to lack of reading, which impedes knowledge building – despite what convention wisdom says. This problem has been well-recognized (if poorly diagnosed) but won’t get better because institutions, not atomized individuals, drive social outcomes. […]

  3. Very interesting topic , appreciate it for posting . The friendship that can cease has never been real. by Saint Jerome. gkkfedbfkeke


    June 4, 2014 at 12:00 pm

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