The Perestroikan Challenge to Social Science
David D. Laitin
The specter of an insurgency haunts political science. Under the leadership of a “Mr. Perestroika,” a wide group of political scientists has abandoned the project of a scientific discipline.1 It would be convenient to write off this quasi-coordinated attack on the scientific turn in the study of society, calling its proponents Luddites. Indeed, their abhorrence of all things mathematical—and their typical but useless conflation of statistical and formal reasoning—reveals a fear of the modern. It would be equally convenient to write off this attack for its lack of any manifesto offering an alternative view of the discipline. Mostly we hear a desire for pluralism, rather than a defense of best practices. But I think it would be prudent to respond, to defend what may well be a Sisyphean project in seeking a science of social life.
While there is no intellectual manifesto that lays down the gauntlet, a recently published book by Bent Flyvbjerg captures many of the core themes in Mr. Perestroika's insurgency (Flyvbjerg 2001). And thus this book offers an intellectual target for those who wish to confront the perestroikan challenge intellectually (White 2002). For in this clever, succinct, and readable book, Flyvbjerg portrays the quest for a social science as quixotic at best and self-defeating at worst. The social world, he argues, is sufficiently different from the natural world that any hopes for a Galilean conquest over the unknown in social science will forever remain unrealized. (Flyvbjerg equivocates throughout the book on the question of whether scientific work has any merit in the study of the social world. Compare Flyvbjerg 2001, 25, 76 49, 87.2) He does not provide evidence on the degree to which natural science research meets his standards. Social scientists, in order to sidestep the scorn that is regularly heaped on them