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Some quibbles with David Glenn’s piece on fieldwork in political science

- September 22, 2009

Henry’s post today in response to David Glenn’s piece in the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education put me in mind of some reactions I had while reading the piece yesterday. My reactions don’t speak to Henry’s point. Indeed, they’re peripheral to Glenn’s point, too, which I take to be that political science would be in a better place if more of us did intensive fieldwork. I note them here nonetheless.

First, Glenn begins by introducing Timothy Pachirat, who did fieldwork for his doctoral dissertation on the “politics of sight” by working for five and a half months in a slaughterhouse (yecch). Glenn continues:

bq. In plunging into the slaughterhouse, Pachirat was acting more like Margaret Mead than Larry Sabato — that is, more like an anthropologist than a typical number-crunching political scientist.

I understand what Glenn is trying to say here, but I’m afraid that he’s shot himself in the foot. Larry Sabato simply doesn’t qualify as “a typical number-crunching political scientist” because he isn’t a quantitatively-oriented political scientist and doesn’t profess to be. I don’t say this to defame Sabato, who is quite proficient at what he does. But he just doesn’t do quantitative political science. He does cite survey results (e.g., “54% for the Republican, 46% for the Democrat,” but that’s as far as he goes. I suspect he would laugh at the very idea that he’s being held up as the poster boy for political science number-crunchers. I also suspect that if a war were to break out between the political science quantoids and the anti-quantoids, he would be in the trenches for the antis.

This, I grant, is just a quibble. But I must say that when I read that passage in Glenn’s article, my immediate reaction was “Does David Glenn know much about political science?” Maybe he does, but my confidence wasn’t bolstered by that particular sentence.

A few paragraphs later, Glenn says:

bq. Most political science departments remain dominated by formal modeling and quantitative analysis …

To that, my reaction was “Really?” If he had said “Many leading political science graduate programs are dominated by formal modeling and quantitative analysis,” I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it. But “most political science departments” cuts a wide swath — so wide, I’m confident, that the statement as given just isn’t true. More accurate, I think, would be “Most political science departments have never been dominated by formal and quantitative approaches, but those approaches do play a much greater role than they did prior to the 1970s.”

Third, I would remind Glenn — and for that matter many of my political science colleagues — that in at least one very sizable sector of our far-flung discipline, comparative politics, fieldwork-based research was long dominant and I strongly suspect that it still is. Yes, the quantitative and formal approaches have made headway there, but I’m willing to bet that if we were to line up recent doctoral dissertations in comparative politics or recent books published by comparativists, we’d find that at least a plurality and maybe a majority of them have a strong fieldwork component. Anybody aware of evidence on this point?

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