Conversations on the Study of American Politics: An Introduction
LAWRENCE C. DODD CALVIN JILLSON
The study of American politics resembles nothing perhaps more closely than the American political system itself. Students of American politics almost universally point to the fragmentation of American governmental processes, the inadequate dialogue among our political actors and institutions, and the incoherence of American public policy. And so it is with American politics as a field of academic study, wherein we find a vast assortment of differing schools of thought and scholarly approaches, scholars of differing traditions who seldom converse with one another or listen to competing interpretations, and an incoherent body of knowledge that often appears in fundamental contradiction. As Theodore Lowi ( 1992) has remarked so astutely, we do truly become what we study.
And yet, just as the political system is capable of change, so too is the study of American politics. Thus, in the past several decades scholars have embraced sophisticated methods for the measurement and modeling of political behavior. Today virtually every conceivable aspect of our politics is weighed and measured, sifted and culled -- all with an eye to those statistical patterns and logical theorems that may give contemporary scholars a special insight into political processes denied their predecessors in a less technological age. Likewise, scholars have extended the scope of their inquiry, looking not only at contemporary politics but also increasingly at historical patterns, searching for dynamic regularities that may clarify contemporary politics and provide a broader understanding of political life. No longer are the founding era, antebellum politics, the progressive movement, or New Deal machinations solely the province of historians. Political scientists also see in earlier eras, and in patterns across eras, a unique opportunity for empirical discovery and theoretical learning.