Should Political Scientists Care More About Politics?

Archon Fung says yes in his review of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner Take All Politics for the Boston Review, and name-checks Lee Sigelman.

One might think that the counterweight would come from the ranks of political scientists and sociologists at American Universities, but few academics have come forward. In an article that commemorates the centennial of the American Political Science Review, Lee Sigelman surveys the kinds of articles that have been published in the Review. Sigelman isolates several categories including “policy prescription or criticism” and “policy prescription or criticism with presentation of empirical results.” During the intellectual ferment of the Progressive Era and New Deal period, 20 percent of articles fell into the two categories. Since 1967, however, only six of 1,526 articles in the Review fit in the two categories. Sigelman writes:

If ‘speaking truth to power’ and contributing directly to public dialogue about the merits and demerits of various courses of action were still numbered among the functions of the profession, one would not have known it from leafing through its leading journal.

Political science may displace economics as the dismal science at just the time when we need new visions of political possibilities. Given this broader trend toward disengagement, we all owe Hacker and Pierson a huge debt. They are forging an important path in the field by working on problems that are of urgent concern to all Americans, by trying to understand how and why we got here, and by putting us in a position to imagine how we can do better.

7 Responses to Should Political Scientists Care More About Politics?

  1. Brad May 13, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

    “If ‘speaking truth to power’ and contributing directly to public dialogue about the merits and demerits of various courses of action were still numbered among the functions of the profession, one would not have known it from leafing through its leading journal.”

    Good thing “speaking truth to power” was never really one of our functions. And good thing we’re all apparently supposed to study the contemporary US, and thus be able to engage in dialogue about “various courses of action.”

    Snooze.

  2. eric May 13, 2011 at 11:07 pm #

    There seems to be some consensus that our government is not functioning very well (see the previous post concerning Congressman Cooper’s pleas for change). I would think that the academic community responsible for studying and explaining government should also be responsible for coming up with ways to fix our broken system (if it is, in fact, broken). Other social sciences seem to consider themselves responsible for coming up with ways to improve the things they study.

  3. PJR May 14, 2011 at 1:43 am #

    Yes political scientists should engage more on politics, and Hacker and Pierson deserve praise. But I recommending a degree of honesty and humility that many top economists seem to have lacked for many years now. Honesty includes stating what values and goals are directing analysis and advice. Humility includes stating where and how far prescriptions depart from solid evidence and theory and enter the realm of hopes and dreams (or even religion). With that caveat, I think political scientists potentially have much to contribute to policy and politics.

  4. Adam May 14, 2011 at 3:55 am #

    I think most people outside of academia believe that this is what political scientists do. The most common response I heard from people when I told them I was getting a PhD in political science was: “Oh, so you want to be a politician. I’d vote for you.”

  5. Lorenzo from Oz May 15, 2011 at 3:55 am #

    On what political scientists should be interested in, I am struck that Canada has had a national election with a somewhat unexpected result and this blog seems to treat it as if it is a complete non event. One is used to American parochialism, but really! Ask a Canadian colleague to comment perhaps?

  6. John Sides May 16, 2011 at 1:19 am #

    Lorenzo: In addition to the post that eric notes, there were (I think) 3 others, the majority of which featured the perspectives of Canadian academic colleagues. Search on the blog for “Canadian” and you’ll probably find them.