Civil War in the Social Sciences: A Survey of Recent Articles

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Civil War in the Social Sciences: A Survey of Recent Articles


Leafing through the pages of the American Political Science Review, a reader might be forgiven for thinking he had stumbled upon an engineering journal, so thick are the pages with abstruse mathematics. Many political scientists have had the same reaction themselves. Indeed, there's now a civil war raging over the question, Is there too much "science" in contemporary political science--or, as those who would remove the quotation marks say, too little? In economics, a similar struggle over the meaning and role of science in the discipline has been underway for years.

Gathered trader the inclusive (if, to outsiders, less than stirring) banner of "methodological pluralism," hundreds of political scientists have recently formed a "perestroika" movement to resist the ascendancy of the advocates of "hard science"--"rational choice" theorists, game theorists, and devotees of statistical analysis.

"These quantitative types, say perestroikans, exert hegemonic tendencies, ignoring or dismissing research that they don't consider 'scientific'--for example, interpretative research by area specialists ... based on fieldwork in a specific country or among a specific people, or theoretical work [that] relies on a few carefully chosen case studies and historical context to prove a point," observes Sharla A. Stewart, an associate editor of University of Chicago Magazine (June 2003), in an overview of the controversy.

It's tempting to call the perestroikans Luddites, says David D. Laitin, a political scientist at Stanford University and a rational-choice proponent. "Indeed, their abhorrence of all things mathematical--and their typical but useless conflation of statistical and formal reasoning--reveals a fear of the modern." While admitting that "seeking a science of social lift" may well be "a Sisyphean project," be rises to defend it in Politics & Society (March 2003).

Laitin sees a role for "narrative" in political science, but only in conjunction with "statistical and formal analysis" and within a "scientific frame." Responding to the perestroikan argument for letting "a hundred flowers bloom" in the discipline, Laitin contends that "formal and statistical research" are not just two flowers among many, and that some lesser flowers should not be allowed to bloom: "If theoretical logic or scientific evidence finds a theory or procedure to be fallacious, that procedure's flower bed should no longer be cultivated within the discipline. There can be no hope of cumulation [of scientific knowledge] if we insist that all methods, and all procedures, must be protected."

It is precisely that "hegemonic ambition" that Gregory Kaska, a political scientist at Indiana University, and other perestroikans find objectionable. In zealous pursuit of it, "some hard scientists have corrupted decision making on hiring, promotion, curriculum, and publication," he writes in PS: Political Science and Politics (September 2001). "Many seek to indoctrinate graduate students instead of teaching them to think for themselves." Hard-scientific scholarship, Kaska contends, "is increasingly irrelevant to the normative and practical problems of real polities." It gives moral questions short shrift, pushes classical political philosophy to the margins, and strips what empirical facts it recognizes of context so thoroughly that it renders the theories it constructs largely irrelevant.

The insurgents have had some success. Leading perestroikan Suzanne Rudolph, of the University of Chicago, is now serving a one-year term as president of the American Political Science Association, and American Political Science Review, APSA's flagship journal, has been including more "qualitative" research. …

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