John E. Trent
Centre on Governance, University of Ottawa
Prepared for IPSA Participation, July 2008

Introduction: This article summarizes the empirical evidence about issues, trends and perspectives in political science to be found in Research Committee 33’s book series entitled: The World of Political Science: Development of the Discipline.

For a decade now, via the Intermediary of RC 33 on the study of the discipline, the International Political Science Association (IPSA) has been working on a process for evaluating and developing political science. This is not just another "state-of-the-art" exercise. By 'development' we mean analysis and explanation: analysis (evaluation) of all the elements of the field including both its research output and infrastructure; explanation of why things are the way they are.

In other words, we want to foster a self-conscious, systematic, and common perspective toward explaining variance in the discipline and to explaining the various degrees of advancement, indigenization, and universalization. We want to move toward 'causal' understanding of our strengths and weaknesses so we can seek areas and means for improvement as we strive after elusive political generalizations. To do this we turn social science methods on our own discipline seeing it as a dependent variable for which we seek independent explanatory variables so that we can better analyse and prepare the development of our field.

A first step was “The World of Political Science: Development of the Discipline” project adopted by IPSA in 1998 to produce a book series of specialized studies on various sectors of the discipline. This research program funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and sponsored by IPSA Research Committee 33, formulated an analytical approach and research model that was offered to other Research Committees which desired to study their particular sub-field. To date the Series, edited by Michael Stein and John Trent, has produced six books with five more in preparation.

Dirk Berg-Schlosser (ed.) Democratization: the State of the Art, 2nd rev. ed., 2007
Linda Shepherd (ed.) Political Psychology, 2006
Rainer Eisfeld (ed.) Pluralism: Developments in the Theory and Practice of Democracy. 2006
David Coen & Wyn Grant (eds.) Business and Government: Methods and Practice, 2006
Harald Baldersheim & Hellmut Wollmann (eds.), The Comparative Study of Local Government &Politics, 2006
R.B. Jain (ed.) Governing Development across Cultures: Challenges and Dimensions of an Emerging Sub-Discipline in Political Science, 2007

All books are published by Barbara Budrich Publishers, Opladen, Germany

Subratra Mitra ( Political Sociology (RC 6)
Jean Tournon (ed.), Politics and Ethnicity, (RC 14)
Robert Agranoff (ed.) Comparative Federalism, (RC 28)
Jane Bayes (ed.) Women and Politics, (RC 7 & 19)
Al Somit and Steven Peterson, Biology and Politics, (RC 12)

The Findings:

What are the common threads that we can take from the first six books of the World of Political Science Book Series (a later article will cover all the books)?

Orientations and Trends

  1. Despite its supposed qualities of generality and parsimony, rational choice theory is of limited value unless incorporated in a broader analytical framework with more descriptive realism. Assumptions of rationality, full information and utility maximization are unrealistic and over-simplified.
  2. Political science requires greater relevance and more empirical theory and data.
  3. It is felt that the individual as actor and agent needs to be reintegrated into political science. This would include more attention to culture, identity, personality and human nature. At the same time, agents must be integrated in their institutional contexts to analyse contextual influence on behaviour.
  4. Researchers should pay more attention to multiple variables, multiple levels and multiple systems of influence on politics. Mention was made of the micro, meso and macro levels of analysis and the incorporation of influences not only from the economic, cultural and social sub-systems but from history and the international system.
  5. In practice, society has seen a reinforcement of the resources and power of business and a corresponding increase in economic, social and political inequality without it drawing the research interest it might.
  6. "Good governance" is unlikely to be achieved by political means without economic development, private sector support, and reduction of entrenched interests. As presently conceived the concept is ideological and naïve.


  1. All books have stressed the considerable growth of political science around the world (but not covering the world) and its great advances as regards comparative research, research techniques and information sources.
  2. We now have many more elaborate statistical models to understand voting, decision-making, conflict and negotiation.
  3. One of the major breakthroughs has been in the study of policy networks where we also have more empirical materials and explanatory models.
  4. There are now a considerable number of behavioural measurements and empirical evidence in the form of data sets, information banks, values surveys, barometers, indicators, audits, newsletters and websites.
  5. We recognize the need for better methods and theories on “identity groups”.
  6. We have a new appreciation of the multiple roles and impacts of globalization, including its complexity and multi-level, multi-actor openness to influence.

Problems, Criticism and Explanation

  1. Many of the calls for improvements in the section on “Orientations” are also problems of the discipline.
  2. There are continuing tensions between objective and normative approaches, scientific and political orientations, value neutrality and “doing good”, and causal certainty versus external validity and there are no simple solutions to these tensions. They require our abiding attention.
  3. There is a generalized lack of theoretical development and conceptual clarity.
  4. Political science still appears to be Western dominated.
  5. Rapid global changes have lessened our understanding of current politics and hence the relevance of our discipline.

In summary, despite great expansion and research development, political science is found to have problems with methods, theory, values, scope, context, and relevance.

Future Perspectives: Another commonality of the six books is that they all stress the significant influence of the end of the Cold War, the 9/11 attack on America, and the process of globalization on the political science agenda. There is an absolutely enormous scope of issues confronting modern society and, by extension, political science. One can safely claim there is no end in sight to challenges to security, the environment, equality, democracy and economic stability. Now the scope of issues is being augmented by simultaneous demands for more attention to human values, interdisciplinarity, a global vision, and interacting with policy makers.

What is the current perspective that political scientists will be able to deal with these challenges? Is there not a serious disconnect between politics and political science? Are we listening to politicians and the media and do they listen to us? With regard to our research, should we not go back to fundamentals and ask if it is possible we are having difficulties with our scientific methodology? The Book Series poses a number of questions for our discipline.

Disciplinarity: Does not a too narrow concentration on politics cut us off from fields of knowledge that are essential to our research? Are not the issues with which politics deals interdisciplinary by their very nature? As Parsons and Easton taught us, we have to develop methods that include the social, the economic, the psychological, the philosophical, and the international – not just one of these, but all of them in an integral manner As an example, Laurence Whitehead says in the book on Democratization that Guillermo O’Donnell’s work on “delegative democracy” “is a prime example of scholarship inspired by the turmoil of learned experience, rather than constrained by orthodox disciplinarity” (p. 131).

Scientific: Is the scientific method too constraining for the study of politics? As long as science means searching for the rigorous, viable and verifiable means to knowledge, it is an aid to the study of politics. But when it becomes pure methodologism, computerization and quantification does it not constrain the complex diversity that is politics and government? In the book on Political Psychology there is a fascinating article on computational, experimental (i.e. laboratory), and data set approaches to the study of foreign policy decision-making. While quite positive about the benefits of the studies, Sylvan and Strathman nevertheless also note that these models “tend to be labour intensive, are not parsimonious, do not generalize easily, do not directly address the “real world”, are largely a-theoretical, inductive and unable to distinguish causes, and cannot specifically predict strategies or behaviours within political situations.” After such a litany can we expect politicians to listen to us or pay for our work?

Empiricism: Have we not all been brought up in our graduate studies to recognize that strict adherence to empiricism can lead to conservative conclusions? Empirical research only deals with what exists and what is going on. It does not include what could be or what should be.

Value neutrality: Is it possible to explain political behaviour, policies or goals without taking into account human values? Linda Shepherd, editor of the volume on Political Psychology concludes that “The attempt to define the interplay between politics, morality, philosophy, and human nature can certainly animate a research agenda (p.133).

Tentativeness: Do we not teach our students to be very tentative about the results of their research and does this not stop them from taking the “leaps of faith” that might allow them to make contributions to the types of decisions that are necessary in complex and turbulent times? An excellent piece of empirical research at the ISA 2008 conference demonstrated conclusively that international organizations, and not governments, were responsible for more than 80 percent of treaties and conventions thereby single-handedly rejecting Bush’s claim the UN is irrelevant. And yet the study’s conclusions were framed in the sense of “suggestions” that “perhaps” a “relatively” large number solutions to international problems came from the much defamed international organizations.

All of this leads to the question: do our political science research methods not lead us to results that are too narrow, irrelevant and tentative to be taken seriously by those who should be consuming our product? In a recent volume (Shapiro et al. 2004) on Problems and Methods in the Study of Political Science, political science is portrayed as a battlefield of highly disparate agendas, worshipping conflicting ideals of scientific endeavour. The main conflict is between problem-driven research versus champions of methods- and theory-driven studies. Real world relevance and eclectic methods confront analytical rigour, explanatory elegance, and the goal of a unified science. In the same volume, Robert Dahl et al. opt for seeking “to help achieve good ends” rather than the goal of a unified science (pp. 378-81). In the Book Series volume on Local Government, Baldersheim and Wollmann propose an alternative approach that combines problems with theory orientation in a sort of return to Harold Lasswell’s famous program for “policy sciences” that are both scientifically sound and of practical relevance (Lasswell 1951).

Of course, I am not suggesting we throw out the baby with the bath water. The scientific method has helped us to think about rigorous knowledge. But it only helps us marginally with many domains such as philosophy, law, governance, democracy, nationalism, religion, morality, equity, values, goals, constitutions etc. etc. Do we not need a new form of analysis that allows us to deal rigorously with all the enormous issues that confront us in the 21st century? The authors in our Book Series have answered positively. O.P. Dwivedi (Governing Development) proclaims, “My view is that the new century demands a new thinking to face the greatest dilemma before humanity: how come a small group of nations keep on “progressing” while the majority remains poor and deprived? (p.184). Juan Linz (Democratization), states, “The task ahead is gigantic and a few cross-national surveys are far from sufficient for our needs.” (p.145). And Geraldo Munck adds, “Indeed, the future development of the research agenda on democratic transitions is likely to hinge on the ability of scholars to tackle some broad and fundamental challenges.” (p. 51).

I am not sure that any one of us alone or even working in our departments can come up with solutions to these fundamental problems. Political scientists have to learn to think collectively. So my last question is this: should our national political science associations and the IPSA not be setting up one or more commissions to study and evaluate the state of the discipline and propose techniques for its development?

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