[Paleopsych] CHE: Reality in Political Science

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Reality in Political Science
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.11.4
[Alert me if this is worth my reading.]


    If you were not one of them, you might think that political scientists
    follow political events, propose hypotheses designed to explain them,
    and collect data to test those hypotheses. Alas, or so argues Yale
    University's Ian Shapiro in his new book, The Flight From Reality in
    the Human Sciences (Princeton University Press, 2005), that is not
    always, not even often, the case. In most of the social sciences and
    humanities, but especially in political science, Shapiro writes,
    subject matter does not drive methodology; in all too many cases,
    method comes first, and subject matter is chosen to conform to it.

    Shapiro is not alone in his critique of the discipline. Another new
    book -- Perestroika! The Raucous Rebellion in Political Science (Yale
    University Press, 2005), edited by the University of California at
    Irvine's Kristen Renwick Monroe -- discusses the spontaneous effort
    that, in 2000, began to criticize the discipline for its unreadable
    and irrelevant journals, closed leadership structure, and, as the
    anonymous e-mail message that launched the movement put it, domination
    by "poor game theorists."

    If Shapiro and adherents of Perestroika are right, something is
    seriously amiss in the academic study of politics. How can a
    discipline presumably interested in understanding human behavior offer
    much insight if the real world of politics is treated as an

    It was not always thus. Leading political scientists of the post-World
    War II period typically anchored their research in political reality.
    V.O. Key Jr.'s Southern Politics in State and Nation (Knopf, 1949) was
    a classic in that regard; Key not only brought to life the sights and
    sounds of Alabama courthouses, he tied the South's peculiar political
    style to its preoccupation with race and dealt masterfully with the
    implications of one-party government for democratic rule. Equally
    magisterial was Robert A. Dahl's Who Governs? Democracy and Power in
    an American City (Yale University Press, 1961). In a case study of
    politics in New Haven, Conn., Dahl provided both a "thick description"
    of urban renewal and a major challenge to those who insisted that
    democracy was a sham because a "ruling class" made the major
    decisions. The American South no longer bears any resemblance to the
    one described by Key, yet his book remains in print and is widely used
    in college courses. Similarly the pluralism Dahl discovered in New
    Haven may no longer exist; even Dahl himself came to feel that
    American democracy was not as open to all as he had suggested. His
    book, however, is also still assigned across the country.

    The discipline of political science today contains more than its fair
    share of scholars who, like Key and Dahl, put reality first; my
    personal short list would include, among others, John J. DiIulio,
    Jacob S. Hacker, Jennifer L. Hochschild, Jane J. Mansbridge, Robert D.
    Putnam, James C. Scott, Theda Skocpol, and James Q. Wilson. Yet as
    well known as those scholars may be outside the discipline, they tend
    not to publish their work in academic journals, which are more devoted
    to hypothesis testing and model building than to analyzing real-world
    political institutions; a search through JSTOR, an online archive,
    reveals that only one of them, Skocpol, published a substantive
    article -- beyond reviews or, in Wilson's case, a presidential address
    to the association -- in The American Political Science Review, the
    discipline's flagship journal, between 1990 and 2001.

    Less well known to the public are political scientists like Bernard
    Grofman, Keith Krehbiel, and Peter C. Ordeshook. Between them, they
    published eight articles in the political-science journal between 1990
    and 2001. They are proponents of rational-choice theory, an approach
    that owes much to economics. Assuming that human beings are purposeful
    creatures who try to maximize their utility in any given situation,
    rational-choice theorists show, for example, how congressmen behave to
    improve their chances for re-election, or how voters sort through the
    messages sent their way. To its adherents, the theory offers political
    science the opportunity to become a true science based on a universal
    understanding of human behavior and girded by the rigor that
    accompanies deductive reasoning and mathematical formalism.

    Sanford F. Schram disagrees. In his essay in Monroe's book, he argues
    that rational-choice theory misuses the idea of science for which it
    presumably speaks. Human beings, in his view, adapt to the local
    circumstances around them. Any science of behavior must avoid
    universal laws and paradigms borrowed from the natural sciences and
    emphasize the role of contingency and context in human affairs.

    Shapiro is vehement on this point: "The scientific outlook requires a
    commitment to discovering what is actually going on in a given
    situation without prejudging what that is," he writes. Rational-choice
    theory already knows what it wants to prove. It is therefore "little
    more than thinly disguised curve-fitting"; the purpose of a typical
    rational-choice article is not to explain reality, but to find
    often-ingenious ways to twist reality to fit its predetermined

    A typical example of curve-fitting cited by Shapiro involves voting
    behavior. Given how little chance one voter has of influencing an
    election's outcome, it is irrational to vote. Yet many people vote
    anyway. The fact that they do suggests that rational calculation plays
    little role. Yet rational-choice theorists constantly look for
    calculable explanations of why people show up at the polls. Ordeshook,
    for example, along with William Riker, has argued that citizens feel a
    duty to vote, which they factor into their calculus. Shapiro sees
    little value in such speculation. A reality-driven science, in his
    view, would try to discover why some people vote and others do not.
    Only a methods-driven approach would instead debate what kinds of acts
    are rational and what kind are not.

    But if rational-choice theory rarely makes good science, it has spread
    to many of the discipline's most prestigious doctoral programs. For
    the critics in the Perestroika movement, method-driven research is
    only part of the problem facing the discipline. The American Political
    Science Review is biased in favor of mathematically based scholarship,
    claim David S. Pion-Berlin and Dan Cleary in the Monroe volume.
    Graduate education too often insists on the superiority of the same
    techniques, other contributors say. Many charge that rigorous debate
    within the profession about what kind of research is most appropriate
    has been hindered by the fact that the political-science association
    suffers from a lack of internal democracy.

    Both the association and its journal have been changing, critics
    concede. The association now sponsors a new journal, Perspectives on
    Politics, that tries to deal with current issues in the real world,
    and some of the methodological bias in the Review has abated in recent
    years. Still, one comes away from Monroe's book with a lingering
    feeling that the success of rational-choice theory may have more to do
    with how rewards are offered and careers shaped than with philosophies
    of science and the validity of methodologies.

    Although Shapiro's book deals primarily with debates over scientific
    method, it also focuses from time to time on mundane matters like
    careers. In a chapter called "Gross Concepts in Political Argument,"
    Shapiro notes that political theorists of many persuasions, in ways
    not dissimilar from rational-choice adherents, try to fit all reality
    into one huge explanatory concept. Such efforts are open to criticism
    because reality is complicated and rarely can be so reduced. Yet
    political scientists thrive on the resulting disputes. "The endless
    opposition of gross concepts might not be designed to serve academic
    careers," Shapiro writes, "but we may say without overstatement that
    it is in our collective professional interest that there be the
    relatively autonomous discourse of political theory which endures
    mainly by feeding off its own controversies because we depend on it
    for our livelihood."

    Putting reality first would not only make political science more
    interesting, it would also make it more scientific. There is, in
    Shapiro's view, nothing wrong with the ambition to predict (although,
    he quickly adds, one should not make a fetish out of it). Suppose, for
    example, we want to predict whether negotiations between historically
    hostile parties will produce an accord, or fail and result in war.
    Rather than search for universal laws, we are better off examining a
    concrete case -- for example, the negotiations that brought Nelson
    Mandela to power in South Africa -- and then seeing whether the
    conditions there are similar or different from those in, say, Northern
    Ireland or the Middle East. The real world contains a great deal of
    uncertainty, which makes perfect prediction impossible. But it also
    offers enough regularity to permit modest generalization, especially
    if we are willing to acknowledge the possibility of error and to
    revise our expectations accordingly.

    Political scientists are not that different from politicians, Shapiro
    concludes. Taking one grand idea and trying to stuff as much into it
    as you can -- the reigning way of doing political science -- bears an
    uncomfortable resemblance to developing a political ideology and
    interpreting everything in the world through it -- the dominant way of
    doing politics. Perhaps both political scientists and politicians can
    learn something from Shapiro's thoughtful reflections on the state of
    his discipline.

    Reality, in a word, is something of a tonic, as both Shapiro's and
    Monroe's books remind us; it tempers perfectionism, broadens
    understanding, and appreciates nuance. Someday politicians may decide
    that ideological warfare is not the best way to do politics, and may
    return to more traditional methods involving bipartisanship and
    compromise. If that happens, one can only hope that political
    scientists will decide to join them and go back to an era in which
    understanding reality was more important than advancing one's pet

    Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American
    Public Life and a professor of political science at Boston College. He
    is writing a book on whether democracy in America still works.

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