Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Politicology? Um, No Thanks

Last month, I blasted a Political Scientist, or perhaps a Politicologist, Jacqueline Stevens, for her piece in the New York Times.  This past week, she took issue with her critics, including me.  So, the conversation continues.  I don't want to address everything in her latest post or in the entire debate, but I would like to clarify a few things and respond to a few things.

First, she takes a bit of umbrage at the title of my post: Self-Hating Political Scientist.  She points out that this is a phrase often used to Zionists against less passionate defenders of the Israel, and that was not my intent.*  However, I used the phrase not with Israel in mind but because I was already frustrated with the folks attacking political science from the Right with Representative Flake at the front of the battle, seeking to de-fund political science and only political science.  Why?  Because he had problems with our epistemology?  With our definition of our discipline is?  No, because political scientists are asking questions that make him and other reality-averse folks uncomfortable, like the quality of representation and the politics of climate change (these are the examples Flake raised: "So what kind of research is NSF charging to our credit card? $700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis; $600,000 to try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do.").
* Zionist ideologues are probably not huge fans of my posts (here or here), either, given that I consider Israel not to be the center of anyone's foreign policy universe except for Israel.  Oh, and conservatives are not so thrilled with me either.

Stevens wrote her piece criticizing the discipline in a particular time and place--this June in the NYT--essentially giving aid and comfort to the enemy.  The enemy?  That would be forces of ignorance--as the Flake Amendment, singling out political science, was aimed at reducing the funds available to do political inquiry.  By taking our intra-discipline squabble about what our discipline is to the editorial section of the NYT, Stevens was giving these folks more ammunition.  Hence my ire.  Hence my labeling her as a Self-Hating Political Scientist when I could have used other labels with right-wing associations as well--such as fellow traveler. In her most recent post, she quite clearly hates the label of political science, as I discuss below, so I don't think the title to my previous post was all that off the mark.  To be clear, I am not invoking the whole "I am sorry if you offended" non-apology because I am not apologizing, just clarifying.

Second, Stevens repeats the idea that some of our arguments and findings are not worth the investment of public dollars because they are "re-representing journalistic observations through equations and not producing new knowledge."  Journalists often get it right, but they often ascribe to events dynamics that are perhaps less than crucial.  For instance, heaps of coverage of political debates but most social science find these to be of marginal influence.  Newspapers report all kinds of stuff and some of our findings concur with the banal, everyday understandings.  But our work also (a) disagrees with much that is asserted in newspapers (see the hardly conservative views of media coverage by Chis & Will Call 'em Out); (b) covers stuff that media does not assert; and (c) adjudicates between the conflicting conventional wisdoms in the news media.  Since when have we seen security dilemmas raised in newspapers as the causes of arms races?  Speaking more closely to Stevens' area of interest: conventional newspaper accounts usually use ancient hatreds--that ethnic groups hate each other--as a central explanation of any civil war.  Does that mean we should ignore studies that show identity to be more complex than that?  I get back to identity further below.

Third, her discussion of my take on the two articles on civil war she cites--Fearon and Laitin vs Cederman et al--ignores the real problem in her article--that it used Cederman et al to suggest strongly that Fearon and Laitin were wrong for using quantitative methods when Cederman et al also do so.  This is reminiscent of when a student complains about a grade on a paper saying he meant x when the text does not say x.  Stevens' piece was quite deceptive on this point--other folks noted this as well.  This time, she diminishes Cederman et al for using numbers to prove what the marginalized population already knew--that inequality is bad.  Well, marginalized populations say a lot, of course, and have many complaints and grievances.  Which ones are the ones that drive mobilization?  Just accepting their claims might be cheaper, no need for costly datasets, but perhaps not all of their claims resonate equally?  We can use data to ascertain whether it is the reality of economic inequality or acts of political discrimination by government (perhaps voter fraud fraud) or denial of exercise of religion.  The debate of greed/opportunity vs. grievances has caused us to overlook one of the original intents of the Minorities at Risk project and other datasets--grievances are many--which ones matter the most?

Fourth, "magic variables and formulas"?**  I am often confused when reading what Stevens writes: is she hostile to quantitative work or to political science as it aspires to be scientific.  That is, as it seeks to create generalizable understandings of political behavior through the development and testing of hypotheses via various means (which include quantitative analyses, but also qualitative analyses, experiments, formal modeling, etc.).*** 
** In her remarks, Stevens displays that she is as ignorant of my work as I am of hers.  More of my stuff is qualitative than is quantitative.  Sure, I do both, as I believe that the question generally chooses the method.  I always find it strange when I am cast as an arch-numbers guy or when I am defending quantitative work. 
*** Yes, this is my view of what is political science.  It is not universally shared but it is widely shared, I think.

Finally, we get to Political SCIENCE.  She wonders why we call ourselves political scientists.  This is where we say Aha!  Because she is not happy with how she is identified--as part of a group aspiring to do political science.  She mentions other social sciences (who, by the way, identify themselves as belonging to that group--social sciences [well, except for the Historians, I guess]) who do not include science in their names.  Why not call ourselves the American Politics Political or Politicological Association?  The three alternatives suck, of course. The first two can easily be confused with a group that is not studying politics but participate in it most directly.  The third just does not exist.  This is all funny, because there has been plenty of scholarship about identity, which poses a few answers to why we cannot, despite the dreams of Stevens, change our names.

A) Path dependence: the choice made long ago shapes all the alternatives today.  We cannot deviate from this path easily without costs.  She underplays the obstacles of the "habits associated with ordinary use."  How many departments would have to revise their names in order to change the ordinary use?  Just changing the association's name would be of little impact as most people encounter political science programs in the US (with some departments of politics and of governments).  Such efforts would create big battles as many folks do not see things the way Stevens sees them.  Indeed, I would guess, given my experiences in various departments and meetings over the years, that she is in the distinct minority.  So, how do we magically change the name?

B) Social construction: our identity is not really in our own hands.  It is socially constructed via our interactions over time with the world--with our students, with the media, with politicians, and everyone else.  Perhaps Stevens can spawn a social movement that ultimately changes how those who study politics are seen.  But the funny thing is that social constructions often end up being far more fixed than asserted to be. 

C) Democracy sucks for the losers.  We had this kind of battle before--about what our Association is.  And Stevens's side won some things but lost the big battle.  Well, lost the big battles.  Sure, they can fight again and again, but I am pretty sure that the vast majority of the membership of the American Political Science Association is fine with the current name.  While the Perestroika movement as it was known in the 1990s got some movement on the journals, it never fought for a new name for the APSA.  Why?  Because the many groups that banded together as part of this movement did not share that goal at all.  Some did, perhaps, but not all.

Anyhow, this is probably more than anyone wants to read, but I tend to be easy to bait.  Troll me and I will tend to reply.  Try to change my identity, and I will scoff.  I am very happy to be a Political Scientist even as I am aware that the name is more of an aspiration or ambition than a reality.  The stuff we study is messy, so we have some challenges that do not face physicians (isn't that what we call someone who studies physics?)  I do think that the systematic study of politics (through a variety of methods) is actually a pretty coherent discipline, that taking our differences seriously is important, that some of us (not all of us) should spend time thinking about our discipline-ness.  I just don't think we ought to air our dirty linens in a way that assist outsiders who would seek to diminish us materially (with less grant money) or symbolically (as the only social science not to get federal funding).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"...will likely claim that political scientists with lots of gigobytes need to sweep in and use their magic variables and formulas..."

That was pretty much where I stopped paying attention. When you are reduced to that sort of middle school sarcasm, you have run out of arguments and need to move on. Whatever one thinks of variables and formulas, they are the very opposite of magical, and celebrating one's ignorance is not an attractive trait. And, Steve, if you are truly harboring "lots of gigobytes", please don't forget to share.