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More on the Irrelevance of Political (and Social) Science

- September 16, 2010

“Daniel Ziblatt”:http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~dziblatt/ sends along this piece (pdf), “Can Social Science Shape the Public Agenda?”, by “Harold Wilensky”:http://polisci.berkeley.edu/people/faculty/person_detail.php?person=248.

A couple points of note. First, Wilensky notes some factors associated with the influence of social science on policy:

bq. First, whether and how research influences policy depends on the political and economic context in which it is financed and used. Fragmented and decentralized political economies, such as that of the United States, foster isolated, single-issue research, typically focused on short-run effects and used as rhetorical weapons rather than policy planning input.

bq. In contrast, more centralized, “corporatist” systems, such as those of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Austria, and, partially, Germany, provide channels for more consistent expert and intellectual influence. If staff experts are at the table where at least moderately centralized governments bargain with broad-based labor federations, employer and trade associations, professional associations, political parties, and churches, they will have a more serious, sustained input to the policy process. If academic intellectuals also have a steady relationship with political elites, their knowledge will be used more often. In short, these centralized, coordinated groups serve as consensus-making
machines, fostering dialogue among researchers, bureaucrats, and politicians that connects a wider range of issues, considers longer-range effects, and more often uses research findings to plan and implement policy.

One could presumably use this comparative insight even within the United States, if there is variation across policy areas in the centralization or “corporatization” of the portion of any “system” that works on those areas.

Wilensky also suggests two ways in which social science does impact policy:

bq. It helps to specify what areas are most open to choice and maneuver, and what forces cannot be reversed by public policy, such as the aging of the population, the decline of fertility, and the emergence of gender equality.

bq. It brings to view new policy options and a wider range of possibilities. Consider health insurance: Although mass and elite opinion have been in favor of national health insurance since at least the Truman administration, never before have so many Americans understood the broad options that other modern democracies have adopted. Many folks in the congressional and executive branches have learned something about European and Canadian systems of finance and delivery—again knowledge rooted in long-term study by sociologists, political scientists, economists, and public policy analysts. In other words, social science serves the function of rational enlightenment.

For yet more thoughts on this topic, see Lee Drutman’s “post”:http://www.progressivefix.com/lessons-from-political-science. Henry’s “review”:http://crookedtimber.org/2010/09/15/review-jacob-hacker-and-paul-pierson-winner-take-all-politics/ of the new book by Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker has similar concerns at its core:

bq. …there is no field of American political economy. Economists have typically treated the economy as non-political. Political scientists have typically not concerned themselves with the American economy. There are recent efforts to change this…but they are still in their infancy. We do not have the kinds of detailed and systematic accounts of the relationship between political institutions and economic order for the US that we have for most mainland European countries. We will need a decade or more of research to build the foundations of one.