Political science gets political

There’s real politics. And then, there’s real political science.

Rogers Smith, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science, stirred up some disagreement amongst his peers when he wrote an essay defining what real political science research ought to be in the April 5 Chronicle of Higher Education. Department Chair Jack Nagel, himself somewhat stirred up, recognized a teaching moment, grabbed it, and called for a forum to air the issues. Graduate students turned out in force.

The dispute, held April 22 in Stiteler Hall, turned out to be no more than a series of small skirmishes. People who use numerical data and formal theories like mathematical logic and symbolic reasoning in their research arrayed themselves against Smith, who had written that their methods are currently overvalued. His position reflects the views of the Perestroika movement, a group within the American Political Science Association to which he belongs. Like former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika campaign, the poli sci movement calls for reform and restructuring.

Smith’s main point—but not his only point—was that overuse of mathematically precise research was taking the focus off the major issues, like racism and voting rights, that political science was all about.

The speakers began amicably, suggesting there was room for all kinds of research in political science. Assistant Professor Julia Lynch, the second speaker, only faintly defended quantitative research. Goal number one, she said, is explaining why what we do matters. “It’s easier if our methods…are not quantitative.”

The action began when Edward Mansfield, the Hum Rosen Professor of Political Science and speaker number four, dissented boldly with Smith’s proposition that substantive issues are being neglected in the rush to quantitative research. “There’s a great deal of methodologically rigorous work that has been conducted on big issues…war and peace, and democratization, and constitutional design, and voting issues and political participation, and the list goes on,” Mansfield said.

Then Assistant Professor David Rousseau challenged Smith’s pessimistic view that political science seemed to be making no progress. About 10 years ago, he said, he read some 1976 issues of World Politics cover-to-cover. “What was astounding to me…[was] there were bad qualitative articles, there were bad quantitative articles, making mistakes that we just wouldn’t make today. I think there is…progress in the field. It’s just that we have a hard time seeing it. It’s like watching your children grow.”

When Smith spoke in rebuttle, he at first said his position was in favor of substantive work, no matter the method. However, he added that if the current trend continued toward quantitative research on narrow topics, “then we’re never going to say anything about anything.”

The question-and-answer session focused on another of the points Smith had made in his essay—political scientists should not be doing the job of political consultants and should be aware of their influence on the body politic. Smith, referring back to how Woodrow Wilson’s and Theodore Roosevelt’s racist views were shaped by the political scientists they had read, said, “We should be concerned about political consequences.” But Walter H. Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences Joanne Gowa wondered about what political consequences her work had. “I would like to make the world a better place,” she said. “Do I think I can do that? No way.”

And graduate student Amel Ahmed complained that her interest in linking research to real-world problems was discouraged. She said she was warned, “‘You may as well hand out pamphlets on the sidewalk.’”

Associate Professor Robert Vitalis opined the loss of optimism since the 1960s: “The progressivist vision that we can do something for the world has changed.”

Originally published on May 9, 2002