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Are Political Scientists Becoming Too Scholastic?

- July 7, 2010

Picking up from Henry’s latest blog, Lawrence Mead has an article in the most recent issue of Perspectives on Politics on the increased “scholasticism” of political science. While I agree with some of what Mead has to say, I concur with Dan Drezner’s assessment that “there’s less there than meets the eye” to the analysis itself. Moreover, Mead’s proposed solution goes against what I think the Monkey Cage stands for: providing political science analysis to a “real world” audience not by compromising on rigor but by improving channels of communication.

Mead defines scholasticism as a “tendency for research to become overspecialized and ingrown.” He argues that while scholasticism increases rigor it moves political scientists away from “real world issues.” Mead essentially makes two claims about trends in political science. First, he shows that the number of political science journals and the number of sections of the American Political Science Association (APSA) as well as the number of participants in APSA’s Annual Meetings have increased over time. As Drezner argues, this documents the growth of the profession, which obviously allows for more specialization. Aside from Drezner’s fine points, I’d like to add that the degree of specialization and real world importance is not a linear one. In order to provide meaningful answers to many (if not most) real world questions a considerable degree of specialization is required. How much specialization is “overspecialization” then becomes a matter of debate and Mead doesn’t provide much guidance on this question.

Second, Mead documents changes in the character of articles published in the discipline’s flagship journal: the American Political Science Review. Mead codes each article in five years from different decades for whether the article fit in one of his four indicators of scholasticism: specialization, methodologism, nonempiricism, and literature focus. One could quarrel with these indicators and the manner by which Mead classifies article but what most struck me was that there is just very little evidence of a trend. One would expect any discipline that has grown as much as political science to display increased degrees of specialization and literature focus but even on those indicators the temporal shifts are modest and appear to have declined from 1997 to 2008. In a different graph, he calculates the percentage of quantitative and rational choice articles: about 40% of the APSR articles in 1968 were quantitative and that still seems to be true in 2007.

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Let me stress that I share Mead’s concern with the inward focus of much of political science. I can’t tell how often I have told graduate students that they shouldn’t motivate their work with a desire to “fill a gap in the literature,” an inclination they obviously pick up from reading the literature. Yet, I vigorously disagree with Mead’s insistence that there is an inherent trade-off between the rigor that political scientists apply in their methods and the relevance that their research has to “the real world.” Mead writes in the abstract:

Scholasticism serves values of rigor. To restrain it will require reemphasizing relevance to real-world issues and audiences. To do this should also help restore morale among political scientists.

I very much like political scientists to write more about real-world issues and communicate their research better to “real world” audiences. That is our mission at the Cage. But we should do so without sacrificing rigor. Understanding methodology, theory, and the literature is precisely what sets people trained in political science apart from the many other observers of politics. We should use these very real advantages in shaping public debate rather than set them aside so people may better understand us. If this leaves some political scientists disillusioned, then so be it.