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Drezner on political science methodology and Walt/Mearsheimer

- February 21, 2008

Dan Drezner writes in the _Chronicle_ about political science methodology and Walt/Mearsheimer.

Does the public understand how political science works? Or are political scientists the ones who need re-educating? Those questions have been running through my mind in light of the drubbing that John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt received in the American news media for their 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy … From a political-science perspective, what’s interesting about those reviews is that they are largely grounded in methodological critiques — which rarely break into the public sphere. What’s disturbing is that the methodologies used in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy are hardly unique to Mearsheimer and Walt. Are the indictments of their book overblown, or do they expose the methodological flaws of the discipline in general?

The most persistent public criticism of Mearsheimer and Walt has been their failure to empirically buttress their argument with interviews. … To the general reader, such critiques must sound damning. International-relations scholars know full well, however, that innumerable peer-reviewed articles and university-press books utilize the same kind of empirical sources that appear in The Israel Lobby. Most case studies in international relations rely on news-conference transcripts, official documents, newspaper reportage, think-tank analyses, other scholarly works, etc. It is not that political scientists never interview policy makers — they do (and Mearsheimer and Walt aver that they have as well). However, with a few splendid exceptions, interviews are not the bread and butter of most international-relations scholarship. (This kind of fieldwork is much more common in comparative politics.)

… the claim that political scientists can’t write about policy without talking to policy makers borders on the absurd. The first rule about policy makers is that they always have agendas — even in interviews with social scientists. … Further, most empirical work in political science is concerned with actions, not words … Other methodological critiques are more difficult to dismiss. … Mead enumerates several methodological sins, in particular the imprecise manner in which the “Israel Lobby” is defined in the book. … Many of the reviews of the book highlight two flaws that, disturbingly, are more pervasive in academic political science. The first is the failure to compare the case in question to other cases. …

Discussions of the substance of Walt/Mearsheimer often degenerate rapidly in quite unpleasant ways, so I’ll note my agreement with Scott McLemee’s “statement”:http://www.newsday.com/features/booksmags/ny-bktopleft5371653sep16,0,1172999.story that “[their] book has one thing in common with the state of Israel: Before any progress can be made, it is necessary to affirm its right to exist,” and move on to the methodological issues that Dan discusses. I’m less lenient than he is on the question of their lack of explicit interview data, perhaps because my initial training is as a comparativist rather than an international relations scholar. Interviewees surely lie or shade the truth, but when you are trying to get at something as difficult to measure as the influence of a body that putatively does most of its work behind closed doors, you need to get some sort of sense of the world of shared understandings that policy makers work within. Interview evidence or (even better) participant/observer analysis are usually the only real ways properly to get at these understandings.

More broadly though, it seems to me that there _is_ a characteristic flaw of much international relations scholarship in particular that pervades their work, and that is identified in this “post”:http://jacobtlevy.blogspot.com/2006_04_02_jacobtlevy_archive.html#114437688320082488 by Jacob Levy on their original paper. When they say in an aside that:

bq. The mere existence of the Lobby suggests that unconditional support for Israel is not in the American national interest. If it was, one would not need an organized special interest to bring it about.

they reveal themselves to be operating with a particular and systemic (in more than one sense) set of biases. As structural realists, neither Walt and Mearsheimer really believe domestic explanations for state behaviour. This means that they don’t understand very well how domestic politics operates, arguing in effect that national interests are somehow so self-evident that they don’t need to be defended, and that domestic interest politics are at the very best a source of distortion and error in state policy making. This, to put it mildly, jars with the kinds of assumptions and arguments that more domestically inclined political scientists (including, in fairness, some IR scholars) find necessary to a proper understanding of how politics works. Not all international relations scholars are systems theorists, let alone Waltzians, but the effect of systems theorists on the thought of IR scholars is pervasive. Even when, as in this case, it obscures far more than it reveals.