09 September 2010

Why I am Not a Political Scientist

I have a PhD in political science, but no political science department would ever hire me (I was last at an APSA meeting in 1994).  The main reason for this is that I do policy research with an eye to being relevant.  Policy research has never ranked highly in the axiology of political science.

It is consequently no surprise that I am a professor in an environmental studies program that focuses on policy.  Of course, in many universities policy programs are administratively and intellectually distinct from political science (or other relevant disciplines).  Many social scientists (not just political scientists) see themselves doing "basic research" of the sort that their kin in the natural sciences are doing -- adding to knowledge but not directly addressing societal problems.  Thus, policy research often finds itself in an interdisciplinary zone, focused on practical questions rather than on theory or prediction.  It is no wonder that there are at times paradigm disputes.

Inside Higher Ed has an interesting article about the hand wringing going on in the discipline of political science about doing relevant research:
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, [Bo] Rothstein [the August Röhss Professor of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden] cited a session [at the American Political Science Association] 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."
The article also quotes Sven Steinmo, currently at the European University Institute, who also happens to be the first professor that I ever took a political science course from when I was an undergraduate:
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.
While it is nice to see the discipline of political science grapple with questions of relevance, the reality is that there are already many interdisciplinary social and natural scientists who do policy research seeking to inform decision making.  Many of these scholars inhabit institutions with track records of doing relevant work.  For political scientists wanting to be relevant, there is no need to alter the nature of their discipline, as there are plenty of opportunities for such work.