Does “Political Science” Need Saving?

Normally, I tend to ignore how popular media outlets and general popular culture deals with and treats the concept of "political science" as such characterizations often appear to come from indifference, misunderstanding, or ignorant hostility.  However, as we are in the full swing of a political season, it appears that the term of political science, as some of us are practicing it, is being drug through the mud once again and is becoming increasingly confused with "politics".

More of a discussion follows the jump…

For example, I was alerted to this post recently at The Binghamton Vanguard, a local blog on a random set of political issues, that argues the following in a post call On Fascism:

One of the problems with political science is that the vast majority of people do not regard it as science at all. Unlike chemistry or biology or other “real” sciences, political science seems to require no formal training. Any idiot with access to a newspaper or cable TV can claim to be a political expert, regardless of his actual skills. Politics surrounds us, and is therefore difficult to escape. Whereas I can go through my adult life comfortably knowing virtually nothing of physics or neurology, some knowledge of political science is expected even among the plebeians. Unlike moles or joules or centimeters, the words we use in political science are everyday words even the most nonscientific among us use with presumed confidence.

The post goes on to discuss the misuse of fascism as a political label and the fault of the pervasiveness of political science.  Here is the where the analogy breaks down.  Every individual must deal with issues of both politics and physics without requiring to know either of the sciences behind them.  An individual may be forced to pay taxes without understanding political science just as they are forced to struggle against gravity, driving their car, or performing any set of daily activities and sports without knowing physics.  A more adept person may look up the political or physical process and learn a bit about politics or physics and then they become informed, but that does not make them a social or physical scientist.  Even if they choose to throw around labels and offer justifications for such labels, few people would accuse such a person as being a scientist.  An expert on politics, I would suggest, is not an expert on political science.

Finally, rigorous understanding of the scientific process, observation, hypothesizing, data collection, testing of formulated hypothesis, and theory generation makes an expert in political science.  Watching pundits on television or reading the latest opinion piece in an editorial does not. 

Thus, doing a Google blog search and having top results that report, for example, the following:

With the political season in full swing, I think it is time to actually define the college course titled “Political Science”

The new definition: Professors Orating Leftist Ideas Totally Indoctrinating Children As Liberals-Sowing Confusing Ideas Endangering Neophyte Conservative Embryos.

Does such misconceptions come from a broad field using multiple methods, issues of self-identification, or general vilification of college professors as liberal and, thus, their political biases must be driven by the political science department?  Such vicious attacks would justify aggressive funding cuts to politically-motivated projects and should be something that is avoided.   

Michael A. Allen

About Michael A. Allen

Michael is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Boise State University with a focus in International Relations, Comparative Politics, and Methodology (quantitative and formal). His work includes issues related to military basing abroad, asymmetric relations, cooperation, and conflict. He received his Ph.D from Binghamton University in 2011.

6 Replies to “Does “Political Science” Need Saving?”

  1. I think that the historical trajectory of the field of Political Science as an academic pursuit provides at least a little bit of the cause for the general misunderstanding of what we do. “Political Science,” as such, is a relatively recent development and it has overtaken most of the Politics and Government departments in the U.S. Some of the misunderstanding certainly stems, then, from the outdated beliefs about the actual, professional work of those who teach your standard American Government classes to undergrads. That class is the same, essentially, as it was 50 years ago, but the type of the work that the professor teaching it does has changed a whole lot.
    That leads into the other problem that generates misunderstandings of what we do. Though this is arguably changing in many U.S. colleges, the average undergraduate “Political Science” major is not typically exposed to what Political Science actually is. Rather, they are taught through cases and theory, with a focus on a sometimes normative analysis of history and current events. I would argue that this isn’t a bad way to introduce undergrads to the basic concepts of our field, but when the vast majority of the classes they take in that major take this same approach, they are lead to believe that this is what Political Science consists of. There are intro classes in every field that are not specifically related to the actual work of academics, but perhaps Political Science focuses a little too much on these basic concepts without getting into true analysis enough. Undergrads, however, probably prefer the slightly normative- or theory-tinged version of Political Science that they see, and their demand for such courses leads to our ensuring their supply.
    Also, I think that the difference between normative and positive analysis is just something that a lot of people fail to understand. Most subfields of Political Science certainly value positive analysis over normative debate, but this distinction is lost on the non-academic community. Thus, those who don’t spend a lot of time around Political Scientists can become confused about the goal of their work, especially since the roots of what we now call “Political Science” were inherently normative discussions about politics (relating to the first point above).
    Finally–and this is something that even academics who are not Political Scientists seem often confused about–most Political Science scholars do not consider themselves activists. Exceptions certainly exist, and most of us do have strong opinions about political issues, but our primary interests in academia are about understanding the world as it is and relating that to each other and to students; we tend to have little interest in promoting our own beliefs because, well, what good would it do to promote our beliefs about politics within academia? The university population is generally more liberal than the general population, but this arises through a process of self-selection, not because anyone is attempting to indoctrinate children. Frankly, it’s also a little insulting (and maybe a little scary) to assume that the best and brightest young minds of this country can be so easily brainwashed in just a semester or two. If that were our goal, I’d say we’re not doing a very good job of it, anyway.

  2. I should add that, upon my completion of a BA in Political Science at the University of North Texas, I had a pretty good understand of what Political Science really is, thanks to the dedication of the department to including undergrads in true Political Science research, rather than focusing undergrad courses simply on description. Faculty and grad student TA’s here at Binghamton University also make significant attempts to educate undergrads about the true work of Political Science.

  3. A University of St. Thomas prof recently posted this definition by P.J. O’Rourke of the Weekly Standard:
    “American political methodology is an ontological construct. No, I don’t know what I’m talking about, but it’s true anyway. Political “Science” — like that puppy from the same litter, the dismal science of Economics — is not science; it’s a branch of moral philosophy.”

  4. I don’t see any of my own work as a branch of moral philosophy. That might be a symptom of a deficit in philosophical training. If that is the case, I am more than willing to leave discussions of ontological constructs to the philosophy department until someone can demonstrate to me how such discussions 1) change the way I think about my work and/or 2) change the prospects of me being published. Actually, I overstate my feelings. I’m quite happy to spend hours discussing such matters even within the department. I just don’t see it producing much in the way of marketable/publishable insight–the key elements our department is interested in distilling.
    Back to the basic topic of the thread. The positivism in which everyone in our department is trained seems afield from the popular notions of PLSC you’ve referenced. Tangentially, I wonder who benefits from our research? It seems the public/polis doesn’t have a clue what current political research has contributed, in fact, there isn’t much beyond the barest ideas of Madison (Civics 101) that makes its ways into public knowledge. Yes, there may be a reference to Olson (an economist, mind you) in a NYT editorial. But these types of references are passing at best.
    Is this even a question (who benefits?) we ask ourselves anymore? Or are we conducting research for the purpose of fulfilling tenure requirements? Or are we merely self indulgent, doing research on things we train ourselves to be interested in (mentored by people who have trained themselves to be interested in things that whey were taught…)?
    When the producers of research become the sole consumers of research, what is the value of research?
    I was chatting with Cynthia, yesterday, and I said I prefer to be called a social scientist than a political scientist–partly because my work is quite different from popular notions of “politics” and partly because I am less interested in politics qua politics than in social behavior generally. I’m just as interested in market formation, private tort law, insurance schemes, and communication as I am in congressional institutions, the attitudinal model, political psychology, and the presidency.
    My question still stands: what is political science? And here is another one: what makes it different from economics, sociology, history, or public policy?

  5. Given O’Rourke’s hostility to the field, I hope it was clear that I disagree with him for both the reasons you stated and a few more -a discussion perhaps saved for another time. Given now that I have a better idea of what you are inquiring, I can put forth some ideas that can easily fall to a high level of scrutiny – after all, they are just ideas.
    The question “what is political science” is something that the field itself has struggled with for most of its existence and is part of the reason why I put the term, in the original post, in quotes. If pressed to give a working definition of it that I think is somewhat defensible, I would agree with your claim that it is a subset of social science, but not all social science is political science ~ there is some room for distinction and compartmentalization if necessary. A little more formally, it is the causal study of the distribution of power and benefits that occur in non- or extra-market capacities. Wikipedia tells me that it is the study of who gets what, when, where, and why. This latter definition may work if the “why” is a necessary and not an optional part of the study – that is, causal mechanisms are, in my estimation, an important part of the discipline and plays its part in political theory – formal and classical, qualitative empirical research, and quantitative studies. However, the Wikipedia definition equally applies to some economics.
    While scholars in political science certainly can and does deal with economic issues as cause, effect, or an endogenous combination of both, it is not solely economics. The field deals deeply in history – our formal models are derived with historic settings in mind (or examples that are modeled as generalizable) and our data is collected through the historic record when we lack appropriate laboratory approximations. If I could not distinguish between economics and political science, or political science and public policy, or history and political science, then there would be little reason to have separate departments and institutions; one can get their “social science” degree and move on. However, the department title gives a clue to what under the social science rubric we do. Interconnections in methodology does not make a unified whole or else we would just be mathematicians as linear purity scale suggests: (I can’t directly post the image here, but I encourage you check out the comic if you don’t already do so on a regular basis).
    The four non-political science interest areas you mention (tort law, etc.), while on face appearing to be market functions, are (in at least three of the four cases) involve how a political entity interacts, controls, or initiates the market and regulates individuals within the political and economic sphere. This does not mean that they are exclusively the realm of political science, but they do fall under that rubric and a political scientist could comfortably study those topics with the appropriate understanding of the existing literature in both fields. Additionally, there are times when disparate or integrated fields can come together as one. The Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research seems like a program that does this well for those interested in formal or empirical research.
    The questions you ask initially (who benefits? What is our purpose?) is not something I can answer on behalf of political science (nor can I answer any of the other questions with any authority) and some of them appear to be questions that either an individual must resolve his/her self or be answered by the body of political scientists. Though, I think the more commonly accepted theories do seep out and are consumed more than just the consumers – the democratic peace, in my estimation, is not something just know by world politics researchers, but something that has been internalized by politicians, popular press writers, others for better or for worse.

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