Friday, December 17, 2004

Ruminations on Political Science II

(continued from this)

For all the "teaching" activities I discussed yesterday, there are two aspects: the CONTENT of the knowledge being transferred, and the techniques or methods of transferral.

I want to make three particular claims, each a bit stronger and more stark than what I actually believe, for the sake of...well, for fun.

1. There is less agreement on the CONTENT of learning that constitutes mastery of political science than for any other social science discipline, and far less than for any science discipline. This lack of intellectual coherence is a great advantage of the discipline, in that it is ecumenical. But the unwillingness of most departments to confront artificial separations in what we think of as the CONTENT of political science works to the detriment of our teaching, particularly in the way that we teach graduate students (who must choose, and be catechized, in one or another schismatic denomination. Political Science is the BAPTISTS of academic disciplines). If you were to do a survey of political scientists, the disagreement over what is an "interesting question" would differ markedly. The thing that is most surprising to me is the very visceral reaction people have to questions that are NOT interesting. In describing a research program to my colleagues at Duke, describing a research program of a young person I thought was pretty impressive, the reaction of my Duke colleagues (a pretty open place!) is sometimes (I can quote it): "Yuck! That's awful." In other social sciences, it would be more likely, "I don't know much about that," or perhaps, "That's interesting; I wouldn't have thought of that." That yuck reaction is a problem: I would go so far as to claim that there is more interest in "interdisciplinary" work (uniting one branch of political science with an external discipline) than there is in crossing intradisciplinary membranes.

2. There is wide diversity in the method or technique of transferral, and this again is a potential strength. There are many ways that Political Science is taught, and there are many good ways to teach it. Furthermore, at Duke as I'm sure is true at many of your institutions, there is a tradition of commitment to teaching the in Political Science department. But I wonder whether we have substituted form for substance. Teaching, and taking, Political Science classes is fun. But what is that is being accomplished? Our subject is intrinsically more interesting than studying economics, or sociology, or psychology, yet the insights of learning those other approaches, because they are more coherent AS approaches, are more lasting. Are the intellectual rewards of learning what we call Political Science, in your undergraduate classrooms, ephemeral? Is our focus on technique, rather than content, simply described by MacBeth's "tale told by an idiot: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?" At your universities, is Political Science a ghetto? Your best students are very good, sure. But are your worst students simply refugees from other departments, turned away by those departments because they insisted on learning and long study?

3. The chief schism in political science is between what we might call normative approaches and positivist/empirical approaches. The grand tradition of political science is its normative foundation: what is the nature of the good society? Have we lost sight of these great questions? And why is it that students of normative theory are allowed, and even by many faculty encouraged, to conduct their cultic study off in some windowless room, without reference to the real questions of relation of means to ends, and without study of the engineering principles formal theory and institutional theory could teach them? Why is it that formal theory and empirically oriented students peer through their kaleidescopes into political worlds that are, or that might be, without any interest in asking whether those worlds might be good? As an outsider, trained in another discipline, but now for 20 years a resident of Political Science, I find the magnitude and temper of the split between normative and positive or empirical approaches to be incomprehensible. Not only do normative theorists think formal theorists are wrong, they often think they are evil. Not only do formal theorists think normative theorists are useless, they think they are pre-modern cultists. We are not well served by schism. But from where might come a rejoining, a commitment to a new synthesis, bringing political science back to its roots as both a study of the good society and means of bringing it about?


Anonymous said...

Political scientists are also afraid to teach their discipline to undergraduates for fear of being too difficult (maybe reducing the number of "refugees"--> reducing the number of majors-->Dean no longer pays attention)

There is a core every student in every subfield should know. You should not leave a undergraduate major in political science without: _______. I would say a course in normative theory (not a normative theorist), learning the difference between schools of studying political phenomena (i.e. Rochester vs Michigan), different approaches to IR.

In economics, it's a given that faculty will have to teach the gut courses that do not focus on their interests. We're much more likely to simply teach our interests giving little regard to coherence.


Mungowitz said...

That may be.

Personally, I do NOT find Poli Sci more interesting than economics; quite the contrary. But maybe that is why I have questions about the way Poli Sci is taught in the first place.

I just meant: look at changes in enrollments, nationwide, over the past five years. Poli Sci way up, Econ moderately down.

Chris Lawrence said...

"Not only do normative theorists think formal theorists are wrong, they often think they are evil. Not only do formal theorists think normative theorists are useless, they think they are pre-modern cultists."

And, of course, the best part is that neither group thinks much of empiricists, a feeling which is generally reciprocated among many of my fellow behaviorists.

I tend to agree that for the most part, political science fails to teach much of what our scholarly inquiry is in to undergraduates. Most "introduction to American politics" texts strike me as high school civics books dressed up with nicer footnotes and better pictures; updated editions don't add new scholarship, but instead substitute new anecdotes and election returns for old ones. You could walk into an American government class in August and walk out in December, get an A, and not have the faintest clue what political scientists actually do. Compare that to "intro to sociology" or "intro to psychology," where (any other faults aside) the A student actually knows something about the discipline by the time they pass the final.

Mungowitz said...

Chris, me'lad: To normative theorists, empirical people ARE formal theorists.

You use equations, man.

Anonymous said...

Your analysis is right on point, but I fear you may be tipping at windmills if you are looking at common ground.

The reality is perhaps that each sub-discipline of political science is actually a sub-discipline of another field of study entirely. The only common link is that they are in some way focused on politics: normative theory is the philosophy of politics and oppressed people; IR the sociology of nation-states; comparative is the study of history of warm nations that grad students can visit; empirical/formal the study of federal grant writing and applying statistics to political events/organizations with a large "N". The result is that your effort to find common ground is Herculean given the make up of political science as it now stands. Which brings up the endevour of politics as a science.

If the goal of a scientific endevour is to find universal "laws" to explain phenomena, then political science is in deep trouble. Clearly normative theory will have nothing to contribute (other than the study of the "good life" stuff, which unfortunately for them doesn't involve numbers). IR has contributed the McDonald's law, but it appears that they missed the stats class which covered the difference between correlation and causation. Comparative does use numbers from time to time, and do a great job explain "what" happened in the past, but nothing regarding why or when in the future. That leaves formal theory, which after decades of NSF funding has yet to "discover" a law of political science. (I assume that supply and demand was discovered in another discipline, and probably without NSF funding). The result is that the "science" part of politics is a fools errand, or a Sisyphisian task, depending on your background in normative theory.

Which leads to your endeavor to bring them back towards one another. First you would have to find common ground among the sub-disciplines in their "political" focus, rather than research methods which have more in common with other fields of study. Then you would need to reconcile the concept of science and the lack of any laws regarding politics. This might be an avenue to finding common ground, but my guess is that adherents to the respective sub-disciplines would just point to others as examples of failures and why they should receive NSF funding instead. Good luck! (That isn't meant to sound sarcastic).

PS- an icon to your caution concerning teaching but not writing: