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Scholasticism in political science redux

- July 19, 2010

Since Erik has already “covered Mead’s article”:https://themonkeycage.org/2010/07/are_political_scientists_becom.html, I just want to amplify one of Erik’s points. He says:

bq. 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’s critique deplores the decline of ‘journalistic’ research among political scientists which conducts interviews, observes what happens in the field etc. He suggests that quantitative data – while perhaps more rigorous – contains “no more than a fraction of the information conveyed by direct contact with politics or government.” He also laments the failure of political science research to emulate think tank wonks by directly engaging with government.

bq. In policy research, in my experience, there is also pressure toward scholasticism, but it is weaker than in academic disciplines. Work published by scholars at think tanks in Washington is markedly less scholastic than what appears in academic journals. Typically, it is rich in information, simple in method. That probably is because policy researchers care about government. They seek a hearing in Washington or state capitals. Thus, they are willing to accept problem definitions that come from the political world, rather than from academic specialties. Most also are willing to present their work in forms accessible to nonacademic audiences. They also are not forced to publish in the journals. All these differences strengthen the values of relevance. Recent APSA efforts to speak to public issues thus help lead us away from scholasticism.

There are chunks of Mead’s argument that I agree with. In my no doubt biased opinion, much political science is narrow and insulated. It doesn’t seek to talk to wider public debates, or to be useful in any very general sense. However, even apart from the problems that Erik identifies, Mead’s claims are oversweeping and his proposed solution not very attractive. When I read him saying that political scientists are averse to interviews and field work, I see someone who really seems to be thinking about Americanist political science, and not other parts of the discipline. Comparative politics has always had a strong emphasis on qualitative analysis. So too, large chunks of IR, although there have been some real battles, and non-quantitative research methods are still undertaught. Even so – the shibboleth of graduate student training these days is multi-methods. While this has only penetrated Americanist political science around the margins, I suspect that it is going to do better over time.

Second, and much more importantly – I don’t buy into Mead’s suggestion that we should seek to emulate the relevance of think tank scholars.

First, because ‘relevance’ in the way that think tanks define it, is not necessarily a wonderful quality to have. Tom Medvetz’ “analysis”:http://www.socialsciences.cornell.edu/0609/Medvetz.hybrid.pdf of the sociology of think tanks is useful here. It forces these scholars to finesse rigorous thought with perceived influence on the policy process, as measured by op-eds, short policy pieces and the like. I’ve occasionally engaged with the think tank world, and found it stimulating and interesting. But it’s also made me happy that I don’t have to do it as my day job.

Second – because it isn’t necessarily a very good way of engaging with broader public debates. I strongly believe that social science academics need to justify their existence through some sort of useful public role. But to the extent that such a role is emerging (and it _is_ emerging), it is not because political scientists are abandoning their emphasis on rigor, good data (whether quantitative or quantitative) and the like. It’s because there’s a growing constituency of journalists and others who are actually interested in this kind of analysis and can use it. The reason that we got involved in the Monkey Cage isn’t because we wanted to become journalists, and the reason why journalists read us is emphatically not because we have better journalistic chops than they do. It’s because we have a specific set of skills and perspectives that we can bring to bear on public issues, which stem from our training, our interest in structural factors of explanation rather than ephemera etc. If political scientists want a space in public debate they’re best advised to look for one as _political scientists._ Political scientists who are interested in communicating with a broader public, writing in non-technical ways and all that jazz. But still, political scientists.