Political science

Jeff Isaac on the NSF and Political Science

Mar 29 '13

Jeff Isaac has an “essay”:http://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/public-inquiry-and-democracy-should-the-national-science-foundation-fund-political-science-research at _Dissent._

bq. I join with my colleagues in opposing the Coburn amendment, and I am behind the efforts of APSA to support NSF-funded political science research. And I positively embrace one powerful line of argument that is being advanced against the amendment: that by recognizing only the values of national security and economic growth, the amendment disparages the most important public value of a free society—the value of democracy itself. As my colleagues rightly argue, citizens and leaders who take democracy seriously ought not simply to refrain from attacking political science; they ought to enthusiastically support political science, which more than any academic discipline centers its research and its teaching on the dynamics and challenges of democratic governance. Is this research and teaching of “use” to American citizens? Only those hostile to democracy, and to the relationship between democracy and public inquiry, could even seriously pose this question.

bq. There are at least three ways that the narrative of the seamless connection of political science and the NSF with democracy is problematic. … For Coburn, real science is an enterprise that generates the kinds of predictive knowledge that allows us to productively transform our world … Political science ought to be judged in terms of its distinctive civic contributions, my colleagues insist. And they are right. … But … for many decades the “official position” of those political scientists who have been closest to the NSF and have received NSF funding has been that the social sciences are “real sciences” in precisely the sense of physics and chemistry. … This perspective has often generated research publications that are unintelligible to many fellow political scientists, much less the broader reading public that might be considered “informed.” … many very distinguished political scientists do not accept this model and in recent years have presented a great many alternatives to it. Instead of merely defending current practice in political science, they raise a set of broader questions about the ways that the “public relevance” of political science might be considered, discussed, and debated by _political scientists,_ both in the broader public domain and within the discipline itself. Many political science colleagues, particularly those drawn to “hard science” approaches, are understandably annoyed by the posing of these questions in this way, which they do not consider a very important or “productive” enterprise. … Instead of merely defending current practice in political science, they raise a set of broader questions about the ways that the “public relevance” of political science might be considered, discussed, and debated by political scientists, both in the broader public domain and within the discipline itself. Many political science colleagues, particularly those drawn to “hard science” approaches, are understandably annoyed by the posing of these questions in this way, which they do not consider a very important or “productive” enterprise.

bq. My colleagues who are experiencing Schadenfreude at the Coburn amendment see little value in the “high tech” work funded by the NSF, because this work is typically pretty remote from the work that they do, and they experience no direct and palpable advantages from it. But in fact this NSF-funded work is an important part of broader inquiry in political science … At the same time, my colleagues who are simply outraged over the Coburn amendment, and who imagine that every decent political scientist ought to rush to the barricades in “defense of political science,” often fail to appreciate that the political science they are calling on their colleagues to defend often relegates many of these colleagues to second-class status in the discipline.

There’s a lot that I agree with in this essay. However, my perception (which may perhaps be shaped by the fact that I work in a department where quantitatively and qualitatively inclined people work together happily, read and comment on each other’s work and so on), is that this problem is not only resolvable but is being resolved over time. Over the last number of years, there has been a palpable shift on both the quantitative and qualitative sides of the profession, towards greater public engagement with interesting public questions rather than engaging in arcane internal disputes. One of the reasons that I thought that the Jacqueline Stevens op-ed was so unfortunate was because it seemed intended to drag us back to the bitterness and divisiveness of the 1990s (I don’t think it was a coincidence that the specific paper she targeted was co-authored by David Laitin, who was one of the major figures in these disputes).

This isn’t to deny for a moment that an _enormous_ amount still needs to be done. I take Jeff’s main point to be that political science shouldn’t simply respond to the threat to NSF funding with shock and outrage, but instead to think about how it is managing its own shop, and in particular in how it can encourage research that has clearer public relevance. However I think (and I suspect Jeff agrees) that the best way to do this is through pragmatic engagement with a broader public agenda. One interesting example of how this might work is the emerging field of what might be dubbed American political economy, where “previously well justified complaints”:http://tmc.local/2008/10/08/americanists_and_political_eco/ are giving way to a real engagement between quantitative and qualitative political scientists. My instinct is that the creation of a broader ‘public sphere’ of the kind that _Perspectives_ is trying to build (alongside blogs such as this one) will help both to make political science part of broader public argument _and_ to help resolve internal disciplinary factionalism, as methodological disputes give way to more substantive disagreements.