Beyond Bed and Bath

by Henry Farrell on March 1, 2011 · 1 comment

in Methodology,Political Science and Journalism

Just as a side-note to Katherine Cramer Walsh’s wonderful post below, old time Monkey Cage readers may remember Matt Bai’s famous indictment of political science.

At this point, it’s only fair for me to say a word about political scientists and political journalists, who generally regard one another with the same low-grade disdain that probably characterizes the relationship between, say, legal scholars and urban prosecutors. Academics who study politics often consider those of us who write about the field to be superficial, simple-minded and-the greatest indictment of all- unscientific . We interview three people in an Iowa diner and act as if we have penetrated the very soul of America. (Such allegations are, sadly, true enough.) … Generally speaking, political writers don’t think so much of political scientists, either, mostly because anyone who has ever actually worked in or covered politics can tell you that, whatever else it may be, a science isn’t one of them. … My dinnertime conversation with three Iowans may not add up to a reliable portrait of the national consensus, but it’s often more illuminating than the dissertations of academics whose idea of seeing America is a trip to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond.

I don’t want to pile on Bai again – he has gotten enough grief for this comment already. But I suspect that there are not many journalists who realize that many political scientists do just this kind of painstaking qualitative work finding out what it is that citizens think – and that they have a lot more of the requisite time and patience (as well as grasp of sampling techniques) than journalists. If you have the choice between opinion poll evidence and interview evidence from a few people, the latter may certainly tell you some stuff that you are unlikely to learn from the former, even if you want to be careful about how you extrapolate from the interviews. But if you have a choice between a one-shot conversation with three Iowans and repeated interviews with carefully sampled groups representing a wide body of opinion, it’s a no-brainer.

Obviously, this is not to say that political scientists do the job of journalists better than journalists themselves. They want to find out very different things – and if a journalist is pressed to come up with material for a tight deadline, then she obviously won’t be able to conduct careful samples etc. But there is political science out there which (a) passes the ‘Bed, Bath and Beyond’ test far better than the hurried conversation with three Iowans, and which (b) has important things to tell us about the deeper forces underlying current events. There isn’t as much of this material in Americanist political science as there should be (comparativists and, to a lesser extent, IR scholars, tend to be much more interested in qualitative methods). But there is a fair amount of it nonetheless.

{ 1 comment }

chris March 2, 2011 at 3:41 pm

if a journalist is pressed to come up with material for a tight deadline, then she obviously won’t be able to conduct careful samples etc.

But if they want to come up with material *that is accurate*, then they may have to conduct careful samples and let the deadlines fall where they may. Quickly saying something false, misleading, or ill-grounded isn’t obviously better than finding the truth slowly, or even not speaking at all.

The temptation to sacrifice accuracy for speed in journalism is often present, but there’s good reasons to resist it and not make excuses for it.

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