In a recent Policy Options article, Will Jennings and Martin Lodge, two British political scientists, lament the state of the global political science discipline, especially in light of recent failures of prediction (especially in the Trump election and the Brexit outcome).
To be sure, political science, along with academia more generally, is facing considerable pressures in almost every way. Funding is drying up in many jurisdictions, PhD graduates are struggling to find gainful employment, and many departments are handcuffed by internal debates that are, well, political. These pressures are, without question, challenging the ability of many political science departments to pursue good-quality political science research.
Yet, for all the challenges political science faces, Jennings and Lodge’s critical approach to the discipline largely misses the mark. In many ways, the authors are creating solutions to problems that are overblown, not the fault of political scientists or, at times, contrived. They point to four principal issues.
The authors begin by suggesting that political scientists missed the cue on the Trump victory, just as they failed to detect the likely outcome of the Brexit vote. The authors ask what the purpose of political science could be if it is so wildly off the mark with such significant world events. This seems like a rather large burden to place on a discipline making up a fraction of the academic world, not to mention the broader population.
If the role of political scientists is to forecast major global events, we have categorically failed. Countless wars and revolutions caught the discipline by surprise, much as they dumbfounded the entire world. However, not all political scientists are interested in prediction. Scholars generally view the goal of their work as either predictive or explanatory.
For scholars in the predictive tradition, theory and modelling are the main tools in their arsenal. In recent decades, the shift toward quantification and big data (which the authors rightly note) has been kind to predictive scholars when it comes time for tenure and performance review. It is no secret, nor is it without concern, that most marquee vehicles of the scholarly press have become chief proponents and gatekeepers of this research. It has become a running gag among PhD students and early-career professors that a single publication in the American Journal of Political Science is the golden ticket to career riches (if not pecuniary riches).
For many political scientists, though, the quantitative-data-driven death of the discipline has been greatly exaggerated. Let us not forget about the great number of political scientists who work in the areas of political philosophy, not to mention those who simply do not have a quantitative dimension to their work. Explanatory political scientists are not interested in making bold political predictions, nor do they throw the discipline into an existential crisis when such predictions go (horribly) wrong. The vast majority of political scientists did not wade into the debate or analysis of Trump, Brexit and similar phenomena. The vast majority never will.
Another principal issue for Jennings and Lodge is the role of scholars in the public realm. On one hand, they are critical of political scientists’ failure to engage with local communities in which they work. On the other hand, they lambaste the increasing media presence of political scientists.
Their chief concern centres on the way political scientists have been pressured to “hype findings, condense them into the confines of a tweet, or offer analysis to meet the demands of short-term news cycles rather than posing more critical questions about the nature of social and political change.” Such trends are indeed far from desirable for academics, whose work is minimized by condensing. But I know of no scholar who spends anywhere near as much time in front of a camera as she does in front of a lecture hall or writing for academic journals.
Perhaps it would be more appropriate for the authors to criticize the role of the media, rather than the small role of political scientists within it. Mercifully, when scholars are interviewed or engage with the media, aspects of their research are omitted (long-winded literature reviews and methodological appendices come to mind). It might very well be the case, then, that being forced into a short-form, parsimonious delivery of their research is actually one of the most positive results of drawing scholars off their campuses. If political science research is to serve a public good — and many agree with this purpose — engagement with the broader media is a sine qua non.
Public policy schools are the next target on the authors’ whirlwind tour of the current state of political science. Jennings and Lodge suggest that “critical questioning is unlikely to feature on such programmes given that learning outcomes are about enhancing ‘rationality,’” adding that these schools are incompatible with “post-factual argumentation.” The authors are, in effect, arguing that post-truth politics cannot coexist with rationality. In fact, the very opposite could be true. It seems quite plausible that the rhetoric and tactics of Trump and Farage, for example, were actually very rational (aiming to unite their supporters around a common enemy), though their actions might very well have been irrational. This, however, misses a larger point.
Public policy schools provide, in many ways, a political science MBA. The main group that schools seek to recruit is policy professionals, and the programs are a favourite choice for bureaucrats seeking to move up the ladder. To integrate public policy schools into a broader political science discussion is, in many ways, disingenuous. The students, many with years of policy experience, are not interested in epistemological or ontological debates, and certainly not in grandiose theory; they are interested in how to advance their public policy careers. Much like an MBA, a public policy degree is a professional degree.
Finally, the authors highlight the role that political scientists “should play in promoting the normative foundations of liberal democracy.” Here, they engage in fantasy. If liberal democracy were under siege in the US or UK (as it certainly is elsewhere), are we really to believe that political scientists are the panacea?
Will Jennings and Martin Lodge raise some valid concerns about the state of political science. From time to time, the discipline endures periods of wide-scale introspection, existential questioning and even self-loathing. This is not such an episode. While there are certainly current (and often long-standing) issues, most challenges the authors raise address non-existent problems. We should not deny the several valid points the authors put forward, but we should also exercise considerable caution about embracing their message wholesale.
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