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Should Political Science Be Relevant?

September 7, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Gerry Stoker shared "a wicked thought" he had when planning a session held Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. What if he called as many senior figures in political science as he could reach and asked them "if they had ever said anything relevant in their entire careers"?

Stoker, professor of politics and governance at Britain's University of Southampton, didn't embarrass his discipline's luminaries by asking them one by one for any examples of relevance. (The laughter in the room, however, suggested some might not have fared well if asked.)

But the panel he put together on the field's relevance was one of several that explored the topic, revealing uncertainty among political scientists about their mission. Should they worry about whether their work is used or even considered by those who make policy? Would aiming for relevance result in ideas being dumbed down or in a long-overdue shift in focus? Does a lack of relevance hurt the discipline when administrators are thinking about budget priorities?

Debates about whether political science is controlled by the wrong scholarly factions are of course nothing new to the field. The "perestroika" movement in the field -- set off by an anonymous e-mail in 2000 -- called for more methodological pluralism, and less dominance by quantitative scholars. One critique of the quantitative approach concerned its relevance to the real world, but the criticisms offered at the APSA annual meeting this weekend suggested concerns about relevance in political science work of a variety of methodologies.

Stoker said it was important for the discipline to grapple with the criticism that it has become irrelevant, but he also said that there were "tricky issues" that made it difficult for scholars to become more relevant without sacrificing key values.

"Truth and evidence and reasoning are not in the forefront of political decision making," he said, and yet political scientists revere those things. In the political sphere, "we are competing with ideology, pragmatism, interests," he said. Further, the policy world operates in "a very time-specific" way with "a window of opportunity" in which to influence key people. The traditional time frames for scholarly publishing, he said, simply don't work when it comes to policy. Many scholars produce great work "two years late," he said.

And Stoker also said that the discipline doesn't reward relevance. A young scholar is more likely to be promoted for "the novelty of methodological contribution" than for "research that actually has an impact."

Sven Steinmo, a political scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, currently on leave and teaching at the European University Institute, said that he sees the discipline conflicted over relevance. Holding up the thick conference program, Steinmo said he found many relevant sessions but also many whose titles suggested that they would be "tremendously boring and irrelevant." The relevance discussion, he said, may be positive, but shouldn't be limiting. He said that "I shouldn't be the one to decide" which research is relevant.

Steinmo said he thinks that political scientists have a bit of "physics envy," in which they would like to be able to come up with theories that could predict the state of the world. Likewise, he said that they have "economics envy," in which they wish that powerful people would call them up and ask for advice. But there is a reason that they don't call, he said. "They don't want to hear, 'It kind of depends' and, 'It depends on the context,' " Steinmo said. "I do want policy makers to ask us what to do," he said, but "it's an honest dilemma" whether political scientists should change their style enough so that their phones start to ring.

One of the most biting critiques came from Bo Rothstein, the August Röhss Professor of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden. Rothstein, who noted that this was his 20th APSA meeting and who has held visiting professorships at several leading universities in the United States, said that maybe the problem to discuss isn't whether political science is relevant, but whether American political science is relevant.

"If you want to be relevant as a discipline," he said, "you have to recruit people who want to be relevant." And in this respect, he said, American political science departments are not doing well. He described his experiences teaching at Harvard University, where he was tremendously impressed with the 20 seniors in his seminar on comparative politics. One day he asked how many were planning to go to graduate school in political science and was "stunned" to find out that the students -- many of them idealistic about changing the world -- had to a person ruled that out in favor of law school. Their view was that "to be relevant, you have to have a law degree."

In Sweden, Rothstein said, this would be viewed as a terrible thing. "No such persons" like those Harvard seniors he taught "would dream of going to law school," which they would see as "boring and technical." But while American universities tell those who want to change the world to go to law school, they attract other kinds of students to grad school. "I was not at all impressed by the graduate students" at Harvard, he said. "They wanted to stay away from anything relevant."

Political scientists are too focused on developing theories about government, ignoring the huge impact -- a life-and-death impact, he noted -- that government has. Tens of thousands of people die each year because they can't get safe water or health care from corrupt governments, but political scientists prefer to theorize about the governments rather than thinking about how to change them with the goal of getting them to provide their people with water and health care.

As an example, Rothstein cited a session he attended on "clientelism" in Africa, a form of corruption that is widespread and damaging. Rothstein said he asked the presenters about comparisons to countries that have moved past clientelism, and that they had no answers. "The discipline is organized" such that African area studies scholars will simply compare various forms of the practice and "never ask how you can get out of clientelism," since that would require looking outside their region and focusing on solutions, he said.

"The discipline is organized to avoid interesting comparisons of issues," rather than "on actual people." If a dominant factor in thinking about clientelism was wanting to get rid of it, research projects wouldn't just compare the strategies by which clientelism-dominated countries function, he said.

Elinor Ostrom agreed that the key was to focus on real problems and real solutions that could help people. Ostrom, the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science at Indiana University and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University, said that early in her career, political scientists "thought I was a dope" because she focused her research on such questions as asking people around the world how they got or why they failed to get water or food.

Clearly Ostrom is no dope -- she won the Nobel in economics last year for "demonstrating how local property can be successfully managed by local commons without any regulation by central authorities or privatization." In her remarks here, she stressed that her research never ignored political institutions and that she doesn't want the discipline to do so now. But she said that political scientists shouldn't study political institutions in isolation, but should think about "the study of institutions as they affect humans."

She added that the problem for the discipline was that "we have focused more on politicians and not on people."

A Plan for 'Political Science in the 21st Century'

Relevance was also discussed in several other sessions, including one on the work of a Task Force on Political Science in the 21st Century. The panel has been examining how the discipline should change, in teaching, research and career paths, in light of the changing demographics of American society. While the committee did not release a report here (a draft is being refined), a session featured three past presidents of the APSA who were asked to critique the draft and suggest ways it might be improved. In different ways, all three argued that the panel needed to be bolder in urging change for the discipline.

Lucius J. Barker, the William Bennett Munro Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stanford University, urged the committee to be more explicit in its report about the priority needed for study of issues of race and ethnicity -- and for publishing the results "in language that policy makers and the public can understand." He urged political scientists to study how race has affected the Obama presidency in ways that go far beyond legitimate differences of opinion with his views, and questioned why more political scientists aren't talking about the "morally outrageous" way Obama is being attacked.

Theda Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard, said that part of making political science "attractive to a full range of undergraduates" is in fact to think about relevance. She said that the discipline "needs to be engaged in the most exciting real world issues" and must show that "we are doing something other than navel gazing and talking to ourselves."

She suggested that political scientists need to start applying the "explain it to your aunt at Thanksgiving" test and start doing more research whose significance they could communicate to a non-political scientist at a family gathering. Too many scholars, she said, fail that test.

Robert Putnam, the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard, agreed. He said that the "most important" reform for the discipline is to focus "on things that the rest of the citizens of our country are concerned about" and on research that relates to issues that "ordinary Americans think are important."

Along those lines, he urged the panel writing the report to focus on issues of class as well as race and ethnicity. Political scientists, he said, have "become too comfortable in discussions of race and gender" (without solving issues related to race and gender) but "haven't done nearly enough" research on issues related to class.

Trying to explain relevance may not be easy, Putnam warned, because so many scholarly traditions reject such an emphasis. He said he recently submitted a journal article in which he tried to apply the "explain it to your aunt" idea -- and included sentences in various points of the article to do just that. He said that when he got back the edits on the piece, every single one of those sentences had been removed by the journal's editors.

 

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