Saturday, July 7, 2012

Political Science Vs. Conservative Folks

One of the reactions to my post on how negatively viewed politicalscience is these days focused on party identification or ideology—that political science is negatively viewed by conservatives because political science ridicules conservatives.

And then I ridiculed conservatives.  Damn.  Let me try to do two things here:
1) Explain my view of contemporary “conservatives” and why I find it hard not to be very critical of them.
2) Explain why political science is inherently neutral but also inherently controversial.*
* I have loved the word inherent since facing it on my first Intro to IR paper.  Pardon me if I over-use it.
In my tweeted reaction, I basically suggested that conservatives should not have a problem with political science if they were the folks I remember from the 1980s rather than the contemporary conservatives.  Why is that?  Today, that label has lost a heap of its meaning in my less than humble opinion.  When the folks who were seen as right wing two decades ago (Bob Dole) are now seen as on the left fringe of the party, that raises questions.  If people calling themselves conservatives today cannot recognize the rightward shift of the Republican Party and of the standard bearers of the conservative movement, then we may have an unbridgeable gap in perceptions.

Vehemence and refusal to compromise are not Conservative values even if they are required to be considered conservative today.  I have always thought of Conservative as meaning preservation of the status quo and/or a desire to return to some previous status quo that was seen as being better, say the 1950s.  Today’s loudest but perhaps not most representative conservatives do not really harken back to a post-World War II time that might be felt as better than the present day.  Instead, they seek to move things much further backwards to a reality that either existed in the late 1800’s or not at all.  As a result, I have a hard time arguing with these folks or taking them seriously if they are represented by Perry, Bachman, Palin, Paul, or Gingrich.  When folks argued that they would rather see Obama fail than have him and the country succeed, well, that is Radical, not Conservative. 

So, there is my bias.  But that is separate, I think, from my views of how political science can be, more or less, ideology neutral.  I do think that people’s ideologies shape the kinds of questions they ask.  For instance, one can consider the threat of failed states to human security or one can ask whether state failure facilitates terrorism.  Ideology might shape one’s disposition towards focusing on the former or the latter.  Which set of theories one finds most attractive will also be shaped by one’s political outlook.  Chances are that Marxist type theories will appeal more to those on the left,** for example, and public choice ones might appeal to those on the right.  The real key is this: no matter what your biases are, if one is doing political science as it is ordinarily conceived in the US (and parts of Canada and less consistently in the rest of the world—that is a positivist approach), one is compelled by the evidence.  That is, you can have whatever theory you want, but if it does not hold up against the evidence (experiments, surveys, quantitative analyses, simulations, case studies), then you are going to have to address that.
** However, one of my favorite books, Gilpin's War and Change, was very much Marxist in the way it juxtaposed the distribution of power (akin to the class structures) with the rules of the game/institutions (the superstructure), creating tensions that inevitably lead to ... war and change.  Gilpin was hardly a Marxist ... or was he?
When it comes to International Relations, things get surprisingly clearer because the theories themselves (with some exceptions) do not line up with the Conservative/Liberal, Right/Left split.  Are Realists Conservatives?  Well, the most prominent ones (Walt, Mearsheimer) are most frustrated by and opposed to Neo-Conservativism.  However, Realists often take stances that traditional Conservatives would like—that the pursuit of national interest should be unfettered by humanitarian impulse.  The left hated Kissinger who was the most avowedly Realist scholar/policy-maker (of course, the far right hated him as well).  Likewise, Liberalism may seem to be most compatible with the Liberal end of the American political spectrum, but that is not necessarily the case.  Liberal IR theory focuses on the competition among groups within countries to define interests and then the effort by countries to pursue such interests when they conflict or overlap with others.  The interests involved may or may not be those that folks on the left-wing would find appealing.  The content of those interests that win may make American conservatives weep or sing.  Until recently, most constructivism was pretty much driven by left of center impulses--to understand how not to use nuclear weapons, to understand where environmental movements come from, to figure out when humanitarian norms matter.  But as constructivism became more mainstream, I think that political outlook mattered much less.
Much of IR is none of these but “non-paradigmatic” or mid-range theory, focused on addressing puzzles.  Again, these puzzles may be of interest due to the scholar’s ideological dispositions or due to where the grant money is buried, but the answers they get are those that are the product of the analyses.  We may want to find x, but the data may tell us y.  If we are doing “science”, then we are stuck with the results we find.  Yes, we can lie with statistics, but most of us worry about being found out and most of us have some integrity, so most of the time, the results will tell the tale. 
Consequently, political scientists tend to be pains in everyone’s rears because we report what we find, and what we find may not be what people want to hear. 

I do think political scientists as a breed are more annoying to contemporary Conservatives since our work is reality-based.  We deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.  When political scientists speculate about the future without basing it on the real world, we produce stuff that might be wildly popular but shaky at best, such as the Clash of Civilizations.  And we call that “Bad social science.”

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