My little entry on the poliscijobrumors, on the thread:
Do political science depts even care about normative political theory anymore?
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.