Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Theory Theory

My little entry on the poliscijobrumors, on the thread:

Do political science depts even care about normative political theory anymore?

My response:

This is certainly a legitimate question, though wading through the dross and cleverness of many posters is difficult.

Economics went through something of the same debate, though there it was cast more in terms of the (non)centrality of "History of Thought." And with the exception of the a few rearguard actions (including Duke, at the History of Political Economy program), History of Thought has been relegated to something outside economics, simply a part of intellectual history.

I think that the place of Theory in Poli Sci is something more than intellectual history. At least, it should be. Ideas matter, or they MAY matter. Even the most doctrinaire Marxist historian thinks that the particular ideological superstructure erected around evolving economic relations matters for how the society functions. So, even if self-interest and materialist forces of weather, resources, and population movements are the driving forces behind history, ideas matter.

Grad students at Duke have to take at least one Theory course. Sometimes it works (students feel it is valuable), sometimes it doesn't. But I certainly find it useful to have a Theory group of faculty to talk to. (Two of our theory faculty are formally joint with our very good Philosophy Dept., btw, for those who think Political Theory is Philosophy, Poor Done). There are many questions that have troubled human societies for thousands of years. Sure, we have no definitive answer, but knowledge of the history of the arguments is something any educated person should have.

And, the consideration of the basis, and validity, of rights claims lies at the heart of many of the key questions in economics and political science. What is the dividing line between what is mine, and what is ours? How might we decide? How could we think of deciding such questions without a knowledge of Rousseau, Marx, Hume, Locke, Rawls, Nozick, and (I could obviously go on, but....)

I do think that the growing irrelevance of Theory that many here seem to perceive results from the willful, and self-conscious, distancing of SOME Theorists from the social choice literature, and the formal theory of institutions. Claims about good, or just, or moral, political institutions have to be founded on a set of principles of what is possible, and how institutional features interact. Unguided speculation about outcomes one finds appealing, on some abstract justice claim, are not very interesting as guidance for designing a constitution.

Many (not all, not even most, but many) Theorists are proud of their ignorance of the institutions literature. And, frankly, they have a lot to be proud of. So, Theory would be more relevant to Poli Sci if all Theorists would actually STUDY Poli Sci.

To me, the Political Scientologist who has never heard of Rawls, or Walzer, is no better than the Poltical Theorist who has never heard of Arrow, or Zaller. A pox on both of you.

Mike Munger
Duke University


Paul Gowder said...

Hear, hear!

James Bourke said...

I like the cut of your jib here, but why single out institutions and social choice as THE relevant literatures for theorists to know? Certainly there is a lot of legitimate empirical political science that is not centrally concerned with these literatures. Why can't theorists be in conversation with this stuff? Moreover, it's hardly the case that all or even most theorists engage in thinking about institutional design, even from a normative perspective. So shouldn't the body of political science literature that they concern themselves with be tailored to their particular questions? I for one am a second field IR guy, and I have a real interest in IR theories and in international security. A lot of this IR work is not done from a social choice perspective. And frankly, I don't have the background, especially not in methods, to engage social choice thinkers at anything like a high level (Arrow being a case in point--although at least I know who he is!). But I do talk to my IR brethren in terms that we both understand, and I even do work at the intersection of IR and theory (Christine Lee and I are currently coauthoring a paper on normativity in realist theory). So I feel justified in saying I'm at least making an effort not to be part of "the problem" in relations between theorists and non-theorists, but I do it without much engagement with social choice stuff. Isn't this legitimate?

Mungowitz said...

Um....I meant "institutions OR social choice."

And you are studying institutions, IMHO.

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