Political science is being held back as a discipline by its failure to sufficiently engage in issues of race and inequality, and by the homogeneity of its faculty members, according to a report released Friday by the American Political Science Association.
The report analyzed the research and teaching roles of political scientists in light of the changing demographics of American higher education, in which more and more students are women and/or members of minority groups. Generally the report gave political scientists good grades for engaging all kinds of undergraduates.
But the report finds many more problems when examining the research agenda and the demographics of the profession, faulting political science for being too slow to change -- and urging a reconsideration of attitudes that have delayed change. The report was produced by a special task force appointed by Dianne Pinderhughes, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, when she was president of the APSA in 2008. The panel she appointed was led by Luis R. Fraga of the University of Washington and Terri Givens of the University of Texas at Austin. (Givens is a columnist for Inside Higher Ed.)
The section of the report on research says that political science is "often ill-equipped to address in a sustained way why many of the most marginal members of political communities around the world are often unable to have their needs effectively addressed by governments." Further, the report says that political science "is also ill-equipped to develop explanations for the social, political and economic processes that lead to groups’ marginalization."
Over the years, there have been various debates within political science about the best methodological approaches, with scholars dividing over such topics as the relative merits of area studies, game modeling as a predictive tool, and the extent to which political science should rely on data. While the report takes care not to simply revive such debates, it also suggests that when political science values certain approaches over others, the discipline may as a result be more or less relevant to issues involving ethnicity and inequality.
"[Political science tends not to be self-reflective about the analytical limitations of many of its traditional methodological approaches," the report says. "The tendency to accept its approaches as 'objective' science, for example, tends to inhibit the development of a more critical debate about the potential phenomenological bases of much empirical social science."
Research, the report notes, is “the Holy Grail” in academe, determining career advancement and the prestige of professors and departments. And when research is evaluated on quantity and impact, "rarely does the discussion" focus on such questions as "alleviating inequality or advancing the cause of social justice," the report says.
The report notes several studies that have found that the flagship journals in political science publish relatively few articles about issues of race, ethnicity and gender, and that introductory political science textbooks are relatively minimalist on such issues.
These issues should be of concern in a world in which white men do not constitute the sole demographic (and in which American students are an increasingly diverse group), the report says. The report’s authors stress that they are not seeking "diversity for diversity’s sake." Rather, the report says, its authors see a relationship between "who does the research" and what that research constitutes. "The presumption that a group of individuals of mostly the same background … can comprehensively study the politics of those positionalities is deeply flawed and can limit the accuracy and relevance of the resulting work."
The report notes that while there have been gains in diversifying the political science faculty in the last few decades, the profession remains largely white and male, and has not come close to the relative parity evident in some other disciplines. The proportion of full-time political science faculty members who are women was 28.6 percent in 2010, up from 10.3 percent in 1980. The proportion of full-time faculty members in the field who are white was 86.6 percent in 2010, down from 93.4 percent in 1980.
Political science has traditionally been divided into various subfields such as political theory, international relations, comparative politics and so forth. While political scientists debate which categories deserve subfields (overall or within their departments), issues of race and inequality are not generally included, the report says.
The APSA task force analyzed 15 of the most highly ranked political science departments and three minority-serving institutions that award Ph.D.s in political science to determine how many of these programs have race and ethnicity subfields, and the inclusions of these issues in the programs. The committee found that only 4 of the 18 (Duke, Howard and Ohio State Universities as well as the University of California at Los Angeles) have a subfield in race, ethnicity, gender or inequality. One other program -- at the University of Michigan -- allowed for the creation of such a subfield. In examining seminar offerings and the topics covered in American politics seminars, the task force found relatively little mention of these issues.
More of an emphasis was found at the three minority-serving institutions studied: those at Howard and Clark Atlanta Universities (both historically black) and at the University of California at Riverside (a Hispanic-serving institution).
"Our analysis suggests that issues of race in American politics, for example, are not considered an essential part of what a student specializing in that subfield needs to know. While some departments offer electives that deal with these issues, few incorporate them into the core curriculum," the report says.
The task force seems to anticipate criticism that it might receive from those who argue that the discipline needs to just follow scientific principles, and not worry about who is studied or does the studying. The task force states explicitly that it is possible to be more inclusive without abandoning scientific traditions.
"[T]his discussion is not meant to be a repeat of the same qualitative versus quantitative debate that is decades old within the political science discipline," the report says. "The critique is not of empiricism per se, of science, or of quantitative methods write large, but rather of scientifically oriented research that is not sensitive to the ways in which an emphasis on objectivity sometimes obfuscates the normative assumptions implicit in how a study is framed, carried out, and analyzed."
The report adds: "The question is: Why are sociology and anthropology, both social sciences with familiar emphases on ‘science,’ nevertheless able to be more inclusive in terms of their research agendas and their faculties?"