The Poesis of a Disciplinary Metamorphosis: Rhetoric and Ambition in American Political Science after World War Ii

By Keedus, Liisi | Trames, March 2018 | Go to article overview

The Poesis of a Disciplinary Metamorphosis: Rhetoric and Ambition in American Political Science after World War Ii


Keedus, Liisi, Trames


1. Introduction

The emergence of political science as a rigorously and self-consciously 'scientific' discipline is most commonly dated back to its remaking in the United States after World War II. This narrative has since its beginning been accompanied by a counter-narrative that places the theoretical and methodological innovations of the time in the context of Cold War anxieties, the challenges posed by the new global leadership of the United States, and opportunities arising from skyrocketing social science research funding (Crick 1959, Gunnell 1993, Cravens 2012). Yet what is conspicuously missing in historical research on this mid-century disciplinary remake--associated mostly even if somewhat inaccurately with the emergence of political behavioralism (1)--is an account of its rhetorical and discursive dimensions that, this essay sets out to argue, played by no means an insignificant role, either for its audience, or for the morale of the innovators themselves. Evidence for the boosting role of wordcraft can be found in many texts, but is particularly overt in hortatory texts such as speeches, introductions and conclusions, statements of research agendas and proposals, and, above all, in texts addressed to and circulated within funding agencies. These sources rarely figure in accounts of the remaking of the discipline, while they express a crucial facet of the scientific-political imagination of the period.

To unravel the discursive and rhetorical strategies and reflect on their implications is important at least in three ways. First, the proponents of behavioralism after WW II explicitly aimed at rooting out all the so-called unscientific elements from the making of science, and highlighting the prominence of rhetorical imagination in this endeavour means to point at a tension at its very heart. Yet 'rhetoric' in this essay is not understood in the pejorative sense of deliberate deception or misleading of the audience. Instead, following research most notably in economics, sociology and psychology, I will discuss rhetoric in this context as ways in which scientific writing uses extensively common rhetorical strategies such as construction of ethos, authoritative point of view, style, metaphor, etc., as to maximise its potential to persuade (McCloskey 1985, McCloskey 1994, Gusfield 1992). Hence, rather than deeming these interconnected efforts of persuasion as discrediting, the ultimate aim of the essay is to criticise naive and implicit disciplinary rhetoric, as opposed to a more self-aware, learned and explicit wordcraft.

Secondly, these efforts to strengthen one's scientific case with wordcraft in the case of mid-century political science were entwined with a number of other ways in which researchers sought to forcefully and persuasively open up the scientific --but also the public--political imagination. Two among the most explicit examples are, as the essay argues, the utterances regarding interdisciplinary fantasies and the socio-political ambitions of the newly 'rigorous'' political science. These two, especially in their appeal to their imagined scientific and social engineering potential, similarly functioned as strategies of persuasion. The highly exaggerated expectations, polemical character and at times problematic implications of these fantasies and ambitions was, interestingly, later acknowledged by some of the innovators themselves--and these reflections are the focus of the final section of the article.

Thirdly, this account of how politics became more of a science not only methodologically and theoretically, but also narratively, is not only relevant to the nature of the social sciences in the United States after World War II. For it was at this time that American political science gained a leading position in the world, with its ideas, language and goals being diffused and increasingly adopted in many other countries, especially those of Northern Europe (Newton and Valles 1991). …

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