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Seeking a New Political Studies Paradigm

John E. Trent

For presentation at the “International Workshop on
Study and Research of Political Science in a Comparative Perspective”

Mexico City, 7-8 November, 2013

Abstract: This paper is introduced by consideration of some of the factors currently influencing political studies.  The presentation itself is based on a multi-year analysis of studies of the discipline of political science – global, national and sectorial – undertaken within Research Committee 33 of the International Political Science Association. The initial, empirical section reports on what these studies tell us about the development of political science around the globe circa 1990-2012. The second, conjectural part uses this empirical base to seek to respond to key questions concerning the challenges posed to political research and education as it seeks alternate paradigms to scientific methodology. Essentially, my studies have shown that with regard to teaching, political science has become increasingly effective, global, standardized and professional. As regards research output, I find the discipline has become increasingly irrelevant to public opinion and the political class, governments, public debates and the media. The main culprits are our scientific and quantitative pretentions and the ensuing disconnected specializations that characterize our heavily Westernized political science today. These criticisms are not new. To surmount these problems we need to rethink our approaches and methodologies and spread our wings to include new populations, global complexities and pluralistic communities. Proposals are made…

Biographical Notes  John E. Trent, jtrent@uottawa.ca

John Trent is a Senior Fellow of the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa where he was formerly a professor and chair of the university’s Department of Political Science.  His current work concentrates on the reform of international institutions, the development of the discipline of political science, and on federalism and French-English relations in Canada.  His career has had a triple orientation, each of them overlapping: as a university professor, as a manager of academic associations, and as a social activist – all of them becoming international.  Recent publications include: Federalism for the Future: Essential Reforms (with Gérald-A. Beaudoin, Joseph Magnet, Benoît Pelletier & Gordon Robertson), Modernization of the United Nations System (2007,  www.barbara-budrich.net ; www.renoufbooks.com in Canada), and (with Michael Stein) The World of Political Science: A Critical Overview of the Development of Political Studies around the Globe: 1990-2012, Opladen, Barbara Budrich Publishers.  He is past Chair of Research Committee 33 on the Study of the Discipline in the International Political Science Association (IPSA) where, with Michael Stein, he is Co-editor of the 12 volume international book series, The World of Political Science: the Development of the Discipline. Professor Trent is the former Secretary General of the International Political Science Association, Executive Director of the Social Science Federation of Canada, founding Vice-President of the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS) and past-president of the Société québécoise de Science politique.

11 Williamson Rd., Chelsea, Qc, Canada, J9B1Z4. Website johntrent.ca


Seeking a New Political Studies Paradigm

John E. Trent

Introduction: In its first part, this essay starts by presenting the empirical evidence about the present state of advances in global political science education. It arises from the synthesis of trends, issues and perspectives in political science to be found in the International Political Science Association’s (IPSA) Research Committee 33 book series entitled: The World of Political Science: Development of the Discipline and the papers presented at the 2008 Montreal Conference of the IPSA on New Theoretical and Regional Perspectives on International Political Science. This project led me to study what other leading political scientists are saying about the discipline so this essay is also informed by a reading of additional critical literature on the discipline and post-secondary education. After presenting the evidence, I then go on to make proposals about the ‘next generation of political studies’. The question that is posed is whether political studies are to be “relevant or irrelevant”? In the second part, this time dealing with the topic of research, I repeat the same process of providing information on the state of research in our discipline today before going on to offer proposals for making it more relevant to the interested public.

The significance of this empirical background is that the conclusions I now present are not simply based on my personal “speculations” as one author has suggested (Kaase, 2011: 226). Rather they stem from the research and opinions of more than 100 political scientists located around the world and backed up by other leading international scholars. Until such time as we may have a “systematic, longitudinal analysis of the discipline” this collective cross-section represents one of the best informed sets of information and opinion about the discipline that has so far been put together.

This study of the discipline is no mere academic conjecture. Historically, only princes and priests thought about politics. The result was despotic regimes. Political debate was part of the democratic revolution. Part of our task as political scientists is to help make that debate informed and meaningful. If we fail to make our studies relevant to the public, we are missing one of our primary obligations.

Nevertheless, it must be kept in mind that this information and these opinions about the discipline of political science are selective. It is not a scientific survey of the whole discipline. Some fields and scholars are emphasized more than others. Thus, when I speak of “political science” it is a short hand. It does not and cannot refer to everyone in the whole discipline. I like to think the base of material from which I have taken these findings is representative of a large swath of the discipline – but, of course, not all political scientists can be painted with the same brush. Finally, If you see me switching back and forth between the terms ‘political science’ and ‘political studies’ it is because I want you to get used to the suggestions I will be making later in the essay for dropping the term ‘science’ in favor of ‘political studies’ and replacing ‘political scientists’ with ‘politists’.

That being said, the overall impression one gains is that the discipline has been developing in an incremental manner during the last decades of the 20th century and the first of the 21st century. There has been a steady expansion of political science around the world; an increase in its depth as a collective enterprise and profession; improvements in empirical methodology; and a flowering of research models. Nevertheless, political science around the world still seems to be looking for itself. A new overview of political studies says, “Those who study politics disagree about the definition of political and other core concepts, about how political phenomena are best studied, and about what sorts of assumptions about human nature should underlie analyses in the human sciences.” (Pyrcz, 2011: 3).

What has been said of international relations seems to apply to all of political science: the community has rejected “great debates” and settled down for Kuhnian “normal science”, each researcher “self-encapsulated” within one of a broad range of coexisting theoretical perspectives. It has been called “analytical eclecticism” based on a self-consciously “agnostic methodological stance”. The basic impression is still one of a discipline in search of its soul and out of touch with the real world of politics. Nor are the discipline’s critics limited to the authors in my sample. Already in 2004, Giovanni Sartori, one of the fathers of the modern discipline, was dissatisfied enough to write that American style quantitative political science “is going nowhere … Practice-wise, it is a largely useless science that does not supply knowledge for use” (Sartori 2004: 286). More recently, the leading American practitioner/scholar, Joseph Nye, added that we are moving in the direction of “saying more and more about less and less” (Eisfeld 2012:27). Is it possible we can re-balance political science? The game is worth the candle. We would not like to follow the fate of mediaeval monks who were sarcastically asked if they had discovered how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Maybe we are nearly there! On 5 November 2009, the U.S. Senate voted on Sen. Thomas Coburn’s amendment to the 2010 Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Act that would have prohibited the National Science Foundation, “from wasting federal research funding on political science projects”. In his reasons for the amendment he said he felt scarce funds should be spent on endeavours “yielding breakthroughs and discoveries that can improve the human condition”. His amendment received the approval of a third of the senators (Eisfeld 2012:27). Political scientists should be forewarned.

Let us now turn to what we have learned about political scientists and education.

1a) The Development of Political Science circa 2012: Evidence with Regard to Advances in Political Science Education

Geographically, there has been a steady expansion of political science around the world – but not covering the world as many authoritarian regimes are opposed to the study of politics.  Max Kaase, past President of IPSA, estimates there are more than 40,000 of us around the world producing 1,000 political science journals. Major expansion has taken place in former communist countries and in the Third World but also in Europe. The International Political Science Association (IPSA) now numbers more than 50 national members most of which can claim a critical mass of political scientists who are adequately institutionalized. In most of these countries, political science is reaching “adulthood” with the steady expansion of departments, associations, journals, professors and students.

The discipline has become a collective enterprise, a profession, with well-defined standards for training and employment, based institutionally in national university systems. Systematic empirical knowledge is growing apace. The profession has established a common language, standards of activity, means of critical assessment, and generally well-established professional communities including research networks. Internationalization through associations, exchanges, publications, and research projects and networks has led both to better professional standards and homogenization. We have a new appreciation of the impacts of globalization, including its complexity and multi-level, multi-actor influence.

There are also a number of common tendencies concerning content. The core components of the political science curriculum that Klingemann attributes to Europe, apply more broadly across the world. They include: political theory and history of political ideas; political system of one’s country and the region; public administration and policy analysis; political economy and political sociology; comparative politics; international relations; and methodology. However, different epistemological positions surface when it comes to methodological skills: one camp stressing analytic theory and quantitative data analysis while the other prefers a philosophical/historical approach and hermeneutics.

Convergences in journals is towards: internationalization of authors and contents; thematic and specialized journals with fewer generalized ones; less influence for non-English journals; more methodological and empirical maturity and complexity of content; less parochialism, more comparativism and international studies.

In summation, political science has become a worldwide profession, well aware of the forces of globalisation, displaying a common curriculum, standards, institutions, and international communication networks, with shared systematic empirical knowledge and methodologies. In principle, then, political scientists have become like engineers, nurses and doctors: they can practice anywhere.

A quick glance at recent media articles confirms that not only political science but    higher education, in general, is becoming a globalized enterprise. The search for university presidents and other top administrators is now often international and even outside academia (Globe and Mail 20-11-2012). Europe has its Erasmus program for exchanging students through comparable programs in different countries.  Universities find themselves in a “ruthless global competition” in which governments “have been inconsistent partners”, pushing universities toward higher tuition fees and dependence on corporate funding (ibid). Corporations and governments are making increased efforts to influence the research they pay for. At the same time, in Canada the proportion of university operating revenue covered by governments has fallen by 26 percent in the past three decades, while the proportion covered by student tuition fees now accounts for 35 percent of operating budgets (Globe and Mail 18-10-2012).

Technology is also changing universities. Massive, open, online courses, or MOOCs, already reach millions in the United States with one course numbering 160,000 students in 190 countries (New York Times 20-11-2012, Hennessy). People are speaking of “flipped education” where you watch a good lecture at home and meet in tutorials at the university. Top universities like Harvard and Stanford are leading the way and smaller universities are feeling the pinch. How will courses be interactive and how will students be evaluated? As these courses become international, we can well imagine conflicts over competition, language and culture. Whatever happens, the challenges of globalism will be intensified. E-books are having a similar upsetting effect. While graduate students tell me they still prefer to do their research from ‘hard copy’ (books and photocopies) E-publications are nevertheless being used more and more. The problems are: how do we know what publications are available? Who will evaluate them for quality? Will academics bother about high-quality publishing?

Further, education has become an object of international trade. “The fact is, education is a knowledge-intensive export” (National Post 7-11-2012). It includes the education of foreign students in our universities and the delivery of educational programs in foreign countries whether by satellite campuses, institutional partnering or online learning. In Canada, for example, higher education is our eighth largest export sector accounting for some $7.7 billion in 2010, but we are only ranked 14th in the world in this field. Countries are now being advised to work on the “branding and marketing” of their education exports”. Countries also have to improve the ‘competitiveness’ of their educational structures. For instance, a recent article stipulated that Canada should: create a national strategy for coordination between provinces, universities and colleges; reward faculty for making teaching a priority; expand internationally; establish accountability statistics about student success rates; and rush to build online teaching platforms (Globe and Mail 20-11-2012) .

However, even in a period of flux and change, we would be wise to remember that many of the great debates about higher education are still much the same as they have always been. Despite interference from governments and business, academics still think their role is to provide high quality, evidence-based, independent information to help seed and inform public debate (Globe and Mail 20-11-2012). The debate is hardly over about whether great researchers make the best teachers or whether universities are better off to focus on one or the other. In any case, universities are advised to improve the “learning environment” of undergraduate education (Globe and Mail 12-10-2012). What is the purpose of universities: education or training? At a press conference prior to a 60,000 student march in Montreal in favor of free tuition, the spokesperson for the Student Union spoke against the “commercialization of education” by declaring, “Our governments want more and more to link postsecondary education to the market when universities should really have humanist orientations for the transmission of knowledge and learning and the development of a critical mind” (Le Droit 23-11-2012).   

1b) The Next Generation of Political Studies: Proposals with Regard to Education

What, then, does this empirical evidence suggest to us about the priorities of the ‘next generation’ of political studies so that they will become more relevant to global conditions? I would make the following six proposals.

  1. Political science associations, both national and international should start taking their professional roles more seriously. We have seen that the effects of globalism are so intense that we must create our own capacity to generate information and debate about the future of the discipline. Our associations can no longer be simple repositories for organizing meetings and communication. Our associations must furnish politists with the capacity to think collectively about their future in a global environment.
  2. Political science departments must improve conditions for international exchanges for their students and professors so they may gain a more intimate understanding of global complexities and diversity. In particular, each department should start forming small consortia with departments on different continents with which they can cooperate on a continuing basis.
  3. Political science teaching programs, if they are not already doing so, must be sure to include courses on comparative politics, policy studies, globalization, interdisciplinarity, and international relations.
  4. Some political science research centres must start paying attention to the study of the development of the discipline. The University of Padova is to be congratulated on taking the lead.
  5. Students must be encouraged “to see the world as their oyster”.
  6. Social science funding councils must seek means to sponsor international funding programs. To date, our disciplines are hobbled by national funding sources that have national blinders.
  7. Let me, finish this section with a seeming contradiction. We have noticed there is a tendency for political scientists, as they become more implicated in international research networks, to abandon local colleagues and activities. National politics lose some of their most knowledgeable analysts. This must not be. We must strive to remain relevant at both levels.

2a) The Development of Political Science circa 2012: Evidence with Regard to Advances in Political Science Research

Research output may be characterized as diverse and eclectic – perhaps reflecting the vast range of subject matter the discipline must cover.  As indicated by the IPSA research committees, the research covers all levels of politics – local, regional, national, international, and global. Most work is Western, with growing amounts from Central and Eastern Europe and the Developing World as well as broad comparisons. Approaches include institutionalism, processes, individualism, belief systems, markets, comparison, and multi-level governance. There is a reaching out to other disciplines and concepts such as biology, evolutionism, morality and history.

A global set of research sub-fields is gradually appearing. They are ensconced in a large number of research specializations (IPSA has 50 research committees; the APSA and the British PSA have 30 - 40 sections each). These fields are grouped within a smaller number of research categories such as national political processes, democratic regimes, methodological approaches, area and comparative studies, international politics, public administration and local government. For instance, a recent APSA study of major fields of political science research in the United States showed that 38% worked on American politics, 37% comparative, 30% international relations, 17% political theory or philosophy, 10% public law and 10% methodology. There is also a convergence around an eclectic, pluralist set of approaches to political analysis. Among those mentioned on several occasions: systems analysis, structural-functionalism, behavioralism, historical-institutionalism, juridical-constitutionalism, critical theory, Marxism, feminism, public management, rational choice, constructionism, and interdisciplinary analysis.

Issues attracting attention within these categories include: health care, family structures, sexuality, welfare, domination and imperialism, religion, fundamentalism, terrorism, democracy, parties, legislatures, participation, political finance and corruption, ideologies, policy networks, political culture and the digital divide. Each study has significant findings but are they communicated to interested publics? Among newer research trends are large data sets, multi-level governance, biological evolution, local impacts on change, institutional evolution, a return to problem-oriented and actor-oriented research, and a greater appreciation of historical sociology and normative theory. The findings are too numerous to be encapsulate, beyond the lengthy listing just given. This is only a sample and is not a systematic portrayal of the discipline. Despite the fact there has been considerable learning within these specializations, only a minority of the studies makes policy recommendations. The majority of the papers are addressed to the discipline.

There have been great advances in research techniques and information sources. The study and application of methodologies, especially quantitative ones, have made great leaps forward. The level of sophisticated quantitative analysis is “stunning”, as is its interpretation. There is also tremendous interest in working out research design issues. One particular advance is in new multilevel models which allow researchers to get beyond assumptions of homogeneity by both assessing and modeling heterogeneity and by aggregating micro and macro analysis.

This is supported by advances in norms and software for the collection, replication and sharing of large-N data sets. Political science now has a number of large international data sets that contain dozens of key variables, indexes, and classifications that allow easier comparison of countries on both a static and dynamic basis.  They also help us place countries on a continuum concerning international issues such as the quality and the efficiency of the state, capacity to respond to threats, capacity for influence, public well-being, and democratic potential. There are also many more elaborate statistical data archives, information banks, values surveys, barometers, indicators, audits, newsletters and websites to help us study public opinion, voting, decision-making, democratic processes, conflict and negotiation etc.

In the field of gender and politics, research goes beyond the public/private boundaries of state-centric mainstream (‘malestream’) political science to draw on concepts more often addressed in sociology, psychology, economics, philosophy, anthropology, geography and history. Gender and politics has developed largely out of interdisciplinary work and indeed, non-academic work. It has required a wide range of philosophical and historical knowledge to create new concepts and explanations.

2b) Issues and Challenges for Political Science Research

Once again we may group under several headings the issues and challenges facing political science. These are: the viability of research paradigms; tensions between objective and normative approaches; keeping up with global change; Western and male predominance; making political theory reflect society; the fragmentation of the discipline; tendencies toward excessive specialization; and relevance to politics, the media and the public.

There has been a continuous output of research and new models and theories. But almost all the political science research paradigms are severely questioned by authors surveyed.  The major conclusion has to be that there have been no major breakthroughs and even the purportedly significant changes are all now hotly contested. To give but a few examples:

  • The question is posed of whether all the more sophisticated methodological analysis is too far out in front of the discipline? Should not political science seek coherence between theory and methodological measurements? Perhaps there is too much emphasis on maximizing the internal validity of our quantitative models at the expense of external validity and generalizability to the world of politics.
  • Despite purported qualities of generality and parsimony, rational choice theory was generally condemned. It is of limited value unless incorporated in broader descriptive realism. Assumptions of rationality, full information and utility maximization are unrealistic.
  • There are four critiques of ‘governance’: a) it has many meanings and does not give a central role to government; b) the concept is derived from descriptions and has no theoretical argument; c)  it is likely non-government bodies haves always been involved; and d) cases are limited to Western liberal democracies.
  • International relations is still mainly “a Western project”. But even within the “Western” region there is a growing perception that the prevailing Westphalian idea of statehood does not grasp current processes of transformation. Some researchers are calling for a “debordering” of the discipline to develop a “science of the global” which seeks to distance itself from “methodological nationalism”.

There are similar deep criticisms of most of the other recent focuses of the discipline.

Tensions between objective and normative, between quantitative and qualitative, and between scientific and real world approaches are endemic. There is a ‘mainstream’ – ‘non-mainstream’ division and deprecation between quantitative (e.g. empirical/scientific) vs. qualitative (e.g. philosophical/institutional) practitioners. Tensions run deep between ‘scientific’ vs. ‘political’ orientations; ‘value neutrality’ vs. ‘doing good’; and between experimental, causal certainty versus the validity for external reality. Feminists go further. They claim knowledge productions is not neutral, but inherently linked to global power hierarchies” and second, political science as a discipline is anything but “value free” or “unbiased” where the topics of women and gender are concerned, nor is it free of bias ideologically or methodologically as all concepts, methods and categories carry with them some form of bias. It is often posited that the mainstream quantitative empirical approach is mainly responsible for the current impression that political science has become irrelevant and cannot deal with the real world of politics. Even so, we should never say never. In an article in The Future of Political Science, Bear Braumoeller argues, “At the same time, advances in statistical methodology are opening a back door to thinking about synthesis and complexity. What are hierarchical models, Boolean models, and simple multiplicative interactions if not models of context? …Still, these issues tend to be treated as a nuisance to be eliminated, rather than an opportunity to formulate a richer and more satisfying description of social reality” King 2009: 242). But some day …

Keeping up with global change is a real challenge for political science. In part this is because of our subject matter. We are unable two arrive at generalizations concerning world-wide politics because we are facing a more increasingly competitive, rapidly changing and homogenizing international context. It is therefore not surprising that despite great expansion and research development, a common perception stresses the significant impact of change on the political science agenda from the end of the Cold War to the 9/11 attack on America, along with the processes of globalization, climate change, and increases in international mobility and actors. There is an enormous scope of issues confronting global society and, by extension, political science. The scope of issues is augmented by simultaneous demands for more attention to human values and identities, interdisciplinarity, a global vision, and being relevant.

Far from reflecting national or international communities, political science is still predominantly Western and male. Even the most advanced political science communities reported that barely a third of political scientists are female (although a little better for the new cohort). Much of the output, theories and models are Western, produced in English. In multiethnic and multiracial Western countries, the non-white groups, especially aboriginals, are poorly represented in the discipline. Youth are also having difficulty getting into the discipline due to budget cuts and a loss of popularity for political science in some places that cause a bottleneck in the career ladder.

The profound global changes just noted also make it increasingly difficult for political theory to reflect the world. In a globalized world, how do we reconcile equality and universality, common identity and new particularities? How do we define new forms of solidarity? Theory also has to deal with the rediscovery of history and religion. So, again we must ask what are the meaning and limits of universal and regional concepts. Our conundrum is trying to develop broad theory in a more ‘integrated’ world of cultural and local differences where shared values often do not exist. There is a similar dilemma in finding the right mix of the normative and the empirical, the ‘ought’ and the ‘is’. Political theory should be based on a conversation between the classical and empirical approaches rather than their isolation from one another by mutually suspicious specialists.

Many political scientists deplore the increasing fragmentation of the discipline. Principally, they are questioning the bifurcation of the discipline into “IR and the rest”, when in the real world it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the ‘domestic’ and the ‘international’. The same can be said of public administration which, like international relations, often has its own departments and associations. Surely the logic of politics does not stop at national frontiers or at the ante-chambers of government. Political philosophy can often be added to this list of sectors of the discipline that feel marginalized – as can be policy studies. Many scholars who want to be more relevant to the real world of politics are walking away from the discipline and categorizing themselves as public policy analysts. Fragmentation leads to both to a weak capacity for understanding politics and to blurring  the discipline’s boundaries.

Another major concern is the excessive specialization within political science. Most researchers are drawn into ever narrower and less productive fields of research, often with their international colleagues, while ignoring local issues.  While some  British and Americans see specialization as a boon, providing links to non-academic interests, others fear divisions are being created that impede political understanding,  effective communication,  cumulation of knowledge, theoretical debates, and our capacity to deal with political reality.

Political scientists from many countries recognize their discipline has little relevance for politics, the media or the public, thus leading to issues of visibility, recognition, relevance and identity. The Americans recognize allegations of “monolithism, scientism and detachment” and wonder if there has not been an increasing risk of “scholasticism and detachment from practical politics”. To put it another way, there is a retreat from domestic political debate because of our specialization and our “scientific pretensions”.    There are few “public intellectuals” and few connections with the political class. Several countries (e.g. U.K., Belgium) reported strong interaction between academics and policy-makers, but most countries complained of poor applications of our research to politics and poor visibility in the media. Another angle on this process is when dependence on state and corporate funding, contracts and authorizations results in a widening gap between public expectations and scholarly interests and a sense we are not helping citizens. In addition, political scientists in some countries have weak visibility in comparison with journalists and other disciplines which traditionally have disputed the subject matter (law, history, philosophy, economics, and sociology).

To summarize, political science has greatly increased its capacity to develop comparative data bases and empirical methodologies to help us describe the nature of politics but it still does so from the vantage point of a discipline dominated by Western males. In addition, our excessive specialization, fragmentation and inability to keep up with global change, along with our internal disputes between quantitative and qualitative methodologies,  have increasingly put in question the validity of our approaches, theories and relevance to the real world of politics.

Let us now turn in more detail to the problem of excessive specialization.  We must look at the sociology of our academic community to explain why specialization is so dominant. By specialization I mean individual and group concentration of research within one of the academic sub-fields of political science. The extent of the problem is demonstrated by the fact that by 2011, 13 national political science associations had collectively generated no fewer than 216 research specialist groups in their national associations (Eisfeld 2012:27). While not disputing the contributions of specialization, numerous political scientists are worried it has become “excessive” as research focuses on ever-more narrow subjects that absorb their whole career and generally exclude any attempt at linkage with other sub-fields or with social reality.

It cannot be doubted that the power to ‘concentrate on a subject’ has led to many of the break-throughs in science. The capacity to know all about a specific research area, to be in contact with colleagues at the cutting-edge of the field, and to focus one’s research on new developments can offer inspiration and save time and energy. By enhancing analytical powers, specialization has become an integral part of scientific progress.

On the other hand, the authors of the papers in my report enumerated some of the problems that excesses in specialization are causing for the discipline:

  • Camped in their narrow fields, political scientists communicate badly.
  • Narrow, specialized, academic knowledge does not help public understanding.
  • In the discipline, there is little theoretical debate among the “separated tables”.
  • Students are rarely encouraged to “look at the big picture”.
  • Specialization with foreign colleagues distracts from debates at home.
  • Hyper-specialization stimulates quantitative-qualitative internecine conflict.
  • Many fields and paradigms are in fact more complimentary than competitive, yet they tend to ignore each other or press for primacy instead of cooperation.

We can place the reasons for specialization under four general headings. The first we might call ‘scientific progress’. Dogan (1997) is quite categorical: “there is no progress without specialization” and “in Cartesian thought, analysis means breaking things into parts”. Simon (1996:4) explains the process. Science tends to proceed by analytical division. It seeks to establish mechanisms and causes through comprehensive rationality by defining the situation, identifying all possible explanations, testing to find key causes that exclude others, continuing until alternate options are eliminated, and then expressing findings in a generalized and parsimonious manner. The end goal is to offer an analytical explanation not a solution to a problem. This process is reductionist.

The second general source of specialization is our whole system of education which, over time, has become more and more compartmentalized. From the beginning, we are bracketed into various subject matters (reading, writing and arithmetic). Eventually we learn that another word for ‘specialist’ is ‘expert’ and everyone admires an ‘expert’.

‘Careerism’ tends to follow from education and is our third source of specialization. Academic disciplines tend to valorize highly specialized research from which derives our culture of publication and even teaching. One’s reputation is largely dependent on peer perceptions of one’s research.

Specialization has been advanced by the growth of the political science discipline. As it has gotten larger and larger it has become harder and harder to know the whole field so that scholars have sought recognition within smaller arenas where they can find validation and allies. The result has been a process of ‘differentiation without integration”.

“Much historical and sociological evidence suggests that specialties have been the prime audience for many scientists: they are the explicit and tacit audiences – the reference group – to which they address their work, just as they are the prime sources of wherewithal and rewards for that work (Zuckerman 1988:539)”.

A number of recent studies put the finger on “careerism” (Paquet 2009 uses other terms like “disciplinary reductionism, the credentialized tribe, and the professionalization of the academy”) as the behavior driving specialisation. There are a number of self-reinforcing norms and processes which we all know only too well. To achieve tenure, promotion and continuing academic respectability, scholars must publish. The easiest path is via articles or chapters in international, peer-reviewed publications. These are the same peers with whom we interact at specialized national and international conferences. Publications must respect “scientific” norms collectively established by disciplinary associations, journals and university departments. The pressure is toward exactitude rather than imagination. These norms are enforced by juries of peers. This closes the circuit because the credentialized peers are drawn from the same pool with which one has been interacting throughout the process and the circle is complete. There are no goals or standards beyond “contributing to knowledge”, no necessity to make connections with broader bodies of knowledge or outside the circle of specialists.

Fourth, specialization can be explained by Dogan’s concept of ‘hybridization’ across the margins of disciplines. It is expansionist not reductionist. It imports (and lends) concepts, theories, and methods to broaden explanatory power (see also Laponce 1980).

“Political science has contracted an enormous ‘foreign debt’, because politics cannot be explained exclusively by politics… Dozens of non-political variables are used to explain politics (Dogan1997: 441-2)”.

This is the form of specialization that one would wish on the entire discipline.

A second major problem is the relevance of political science to political audiences. One example of the flight from relevance is scholarly isolation from the “great debates” of the socio-political world. In his presidential address to the 2009 International Studies Association, Thomas Weiss, said, “We analysts of international organizations have strayed away from paradigmatic thinking. We have lost our appetite for big and idealistic plans because so many previous ones have failed” (256).  He said, “It is humbling to realize how much our aspirations have diminished, how feeble our expectations are in comparison with earlier generations of analysts” (264) He calls for more passionate advocacy, vision, a quantum shift in thinking.

Another example of being out of touch is the difficulty we have in dealing with global transformations in security, the environment, equality, democracy and economic stability. Political scientists are hampered from adequately analyzing these changing realities by the social composition of their discipline which is based on the dominance of national disciplinary structures that are self-absorbed with agendas that reflect national conditions and also include male dominance and a Western bias.

Is political science out of step with the world?  Simply put: is political science relevant? We must first decide what we mean by “relevant”.

The concept of relevance begins with a relationship to a consequential other. As soon as you use the term ‘relevant’ you have to add the word ‘to’ as in ‘relevant to what or to whom? We, then, must ask: with what significant audiences should political science be connected? More or less obvious answers are: other political scientists, students, citizens, politicians, policy-makers, specialists, educational authorities, and research funders.

Some will maintain that our main obligation is towards the discipline, that is, to the production of more and better knowledge. In his book entitled, From Knowledge to Wisdom: A Revolution for Science and the Humanities, the philosopher of science, Nicholas Maxwell, contends that intellectuals must do better. They must have as their basic aim to enhance personal and social wisdom. They have to give priority to personal and social problems, to what is desirable and of value. It is to the public and the political class, society and democracy, to which political scientists must be responsible. He criticizes the underlying empiricism of the philosophy of knowledge. A discipline limited to factual evidence is doomed to ignore what might or should be. 

We must be very careful when we use such a term as “relevant”. A desire for relevance is not a call for turning universities into trade schools or changing professors into functional sycophants. Nor is it a desire to see each individual researcher being hauled before the bar of popular culture or political correctness. On the contrary, I am simply claiming that the political science profession as a whole has a social responsibility that includes, but goes beyond, empiricism and the search for knowledge. The discipline, or at least a significant proportion of it, must be pertinent to students and their liberal education but also to public issues, to personal and social problems, and the future as well as the present. As Oscar Wilde wrote: “A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth looking at” (1954/1891).

Nor am I alone in this quest. For several years, the Americans have been working to enhance the discipline’s awareness and attention to public issues. Nevertheless, a more fundamental solution might be to look at how our research is produced and what rules it follows.  Is it not possible that the difficulties we have connecting with a broader public are, in part, due to our scientific methodology? The Book Series posed a number of questions concerning the viability of basic scientific techniques from the point of view of relevance to the “real” world. Among these questions:

Disciplinarity: Does a too narrow concentration on the field of politics not cut us off from other fields of knowledge that are essential to our research? Are not political issues 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. One 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, observable and verifiable means to knowledge, it is an aid to the study of politics. But when it becomes obsessed with pure methodologism, computerization and quantification does it not constrain the analysis of 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), 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 computational models  “do not directly address “real world” political concerns, but rather engage in academic discourse… do not take particular, defined bodies of knowledge or social structures as given…they do not attempt to explain the outcome of specific decisions … its failings lie in its explanatory power … they disappoint those who seek policy relevance (p. 96).” After such a litany, it is clear that extreme formalism and quantification can isolate the discipline from public discussion.

Empiricism:  Do political studies not require, in addition to observable facts, some degree of interpretive and critical analysis? Also, 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. It does not include what could or should be.

Value neutrality: Is it possible to explain political behaviour, or policies 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). Nor is political science alone. Gary Hamel’s book What Matters Now on challenges to business organizations starts with values which he claims have withered dramatically in the business world.

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 decisions that are necessary in complex and turbulent times? As one anecdotal example, an excellent piece of empirical research at the International Studies Association 2008 conference demonstrated conclusively that international organizations, and not governments, were responsible for bringing together countries to create more than 80 percent of treaties and conventions, thereby single-handedly rejecting President Bush’s claim that the UN is irrelevant. Yet the study’s conclusions were framed in the sense of “suggestions” that “perhaps” a “relatively” large number of international solutions came from these 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 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).. But, political scientists are not alone in raising these questions. MIT’s first professor of science and humanities, Alan Lightman, wrote his entire autobiographical novel, Good Benito, to explain the impossibility of understanding human behaviour by scientific reasoning. It is often said that only social scientists insist on the sanctity of the sciences. Scientists know better. Hacking (1986) has done much to expose what he calls the “disunity of the sciences” stemming from the diversity of styles of scientific thinking.  Each community struggling with a specific type of problem determines the nature of the evidence that is considered acceptable and the forms of arguments considered plausible.

2c). The Next Generation of Political Studies Research: Proposals

Limiting the perverse effects of Specialization: Specialization, as we have seen, is an integral part of scientific progress. The questions are whether specialization also leads to human progress and whether its excesses can be counteracted?

Jervis (2002) was careful to explain that there are costs and benefits to specialization. We need our specialized capacities to buttress our general knowledge.  We are damned with it and damned without it. This was the meaning of Hyack’s title, “The Dilemma of Specialization”. We have seen that not all specialization is good or bad. To a large extent there are two types of specialization. One is inward looking within a narrow sector of the discipline where increased resources eventually only engender reduced returns. “Hybrid specialization”, on the other hand, turns toward the exterior to learn and illuminate from advances in similar sectors in neighbouring disciplines. The former is to be discouraged. It really is not wholesome for anyone to be allowed to spend their whole career in an academic sinecure turning out marginal variations on essentially the same reframe. The hybrids, on the other hand, are responsible for the flowering of knowledge.    But, it is likely much more needs to be done to build a discipline with a holistic understanding of politics. It is also unlikely that specialization will disappear or that any single solution can be found for its excesses. Rather we need to think in terms of spreading awareness of the dangers of specialization’s grip on the discipline and taking counteractive measures.

  1. Clearly, narrow ‘careerism’ is to be shunned. Essentially it requires influencing every element of the cycle of behaviour that inspires specialization. It might start at the MA and PhD levels by inciting young scholars to have a broader knowledge of society and political reality. They could learn to do team research on wider topics. There must be a greater effort to once again include the broad thinkers in our graduate courses and to reward students for daring to “think outside the box” and to think of policy implications.
  2. Departments of political science and our professional associations should ensure that career rewards should go to those whose research covers both theoretical and practical issues and multiple fields of knowledge. Often this requires more time and resources than narrow, specialized research.
  3. Career rewards could be complemented by a requirement that research publications, in addition to demanding that their authors make “contributions to knowledge” must insist that articles and books also make contributions to explaining and resolving human problems and/or expanding human wisdom, theory and ethical norms.
  4. Funding councils should ensure that scholarship must include understanding of broader sources of knowledge and making the links between specialized research and its political context in theory and practice.
  5. Political scientists should take greater responsibility for developing expertise on current social problems and initiating greater interaction with politicians and public servants.  We might start by including them in our annual conferences. 
  6. Our associations might seek creative ways to bridge the gaps between our discipline and the media and the general public. Have we ever proposed media seminars on public issues or offered the media easy contact with experts on hot topics? In addition, political scientists will have to accept more responsibility for effective communication of their research and learn how to deal with the media.
  7. Perhaps, at a minimum, we should strive to ensure that narrow specialization is not considered to be a scholarly attribute.

Looking to the Future of Political Studies: Proposals for Research - Authors in the Book series and the IPSA Conference made a number of suggestions to help political science combat its poor relations with the public and the political class and to improve its analysis of real political problems. These are supplemented by a reading of recent research on the discipline.

Before looking to the future, we might make our analysis more comprehensive by remembering what it was we criticized about the discipline some sixty years ago at the start of the behavioural revolution. We don’t want to forget where we have come from. At that time, it was thought that there was too much historical rumination, studies were too culture bound, too descriptive of governmental institutions, and too dependent on emotion, faith or tradition. Simultaneously, there was too little rigorous, scientific methodology, too little analysis of political behaviour, too few universal generalizations, and too little systematic theory (Easton 1953).  Unfortunately, as in all revolutions, we forget the limiting adjectives (“too much”, “too little”) and throw the good out with the bad. In an extreme turn around, the criticism becomes the new orthodoxy. Even so, the lesson is that it is not sufficient now to demand that we bring back all the traditional elements of political studies or that we eradicate the developments in the discipline of recent decades. What is called for is a ‘rebalancing’. That does not mean a scorched earth policy but rather a political studies program that is more comprehensive and seeks to right wrongs.

While I firmly believe in the need for a global commission to launch an academic debate over the evaluation and the development of political science there were a number of suggestions in the studies I have been citing that concur with a reading of other major scholars pointing to areas in which the discipline can advance right now (beyond the alternative methodology and the ways of dealing with excessive specialization already proposed).

  1. Several proposals were made for the creation of dedicated think tanks to bring scholars together in new cross-disciplinary and policy-oriented ways.
  2.  Political scientists need to make a collective effort to understand the social needs of their time. Relations with politicians and governments should be “constructively critical, engaged, but autonomous.
  3. Many of our methodologies lead only to glorified descriptions. In an essay entitled “Why”, Kenneth Shepsle (King et al. 2009) argues that, “We learned to count, measure and generally to identify regularities and give precision to otherwise imprecise observations. But we forgot, for quite a long time, how to ask “Why?”… Explanations for empirical regularities, carefully derived from clearly articulated premises, are the gold standard to which we should hold ourselves (244).”
  4. “Why?” also implies we must ask ourselves what is the audience for our research? Research is not undertaken in a vacuum. An understanding of politics is generally for the public, the political class, the media, and, certainly, our students. I agree with the critics of the strict scientific approach such as the American Commission on Graduate Education of the American Political Science Association that the study of politics must deal with explaining human experience and helping to resolve human difficulties and that the study of ethical norms and normative commitments are central to the study of politics.
  5. David   Easton in The Political System declared that, “A major source of the shortcomings in political science lies in the failure to clarify the true relationship between fact and political theory and the vital role of theory in the relationship… In and of them-selves, facts do not enable us to explain or understand an event. Facts must be ordered in some way so that we can see their connections (1953:4)”.  Easton argues that the problem is not so much the scientific approach but our misinterpretation of it, especially leaving out the theoretical cap stone. The studies of the discipline upon which this essay is founded continuously underline the neglect of theory and the overemphasis on quantitative methodology and the amassing of data without adequate goals and models. The discipline appears to have gone in the opposite direction from that proposed by Easton.
  6. It is encouraging to see that the International Political Science Association gave itself a mission statement in 2012 which combines service to the community with organizing research. It says, in part, “Political science (is aimed) at contributing to the quality of public deliberation and decision-making … Ultimately the IPSA supports the role of political science in empowering men and woman to participate more effectively in political life, whether within or beyond the states in which they live.” (Eisfeld 2012: 27). Surely, this is a good first step forward because, to break out of the circle of irrelevance will require a generalized consciousness of its pernicious effects and a collective desire to do something about.
  7.  In addition, there are some things we as individuals can do about rebalancing our research. First, let us give science a balanced position within the panoply of political studies. The aim would be to keep the best of the scientific approach while getting rid of scientific pretensions. So let us rigorously measure what can be measured and give up the false pretension that all politics can be quantified or that it can be value-free or that all knowledge is empirical. As a symbol of “rebalancing”, our departments and associations should return to the earlier name of our discipline as “political studies” at the same time as we join the other social science disciplines in calling ourselves “politists”.
  8. Another step in “rebalancing” would be to take out of the drawer all those advances that have been made in the past fifty years but are now put aside in favour of faddish, narrow conceptions.  I am thinking of bringing back to the fore systems theory, behavioural theory, normative theory, historical-institutionalism, critical theory and policy studies. Each one of us can add to the list. The movement in the United States toward “qualitative and multi-methods” is part of the search for a better balance within the discipline. 
  9. Further rebalancing can be attained by opening ourselves once again to knowledge from other relevant disciplines at the same time as we open students to the real world via coop courses in government and business.
  10. Another major problem spawned by the scientific method has been our forsaking the study of political norms. As Jean Blondel has recently put it in an article on “The Future of Political Science”, “Political science has always been concerned with norms, yet aims to be a science: this is no easy relationship (2010: S22). He complains that as one cannot distinguish fact from values, political scientists have tried to circumvent the problem by “assuming it away” with the assumption of universal ‘rationality’. He claims we must include those cases where value differences play a large part.
  11.  In his presidential address to the APSA, Robert Putnam proposed that “simple questions about major real world events have driven great research. Worrying about the same ‘big issues’ as our fellow citizens is not a distraction from our best professional work, but often a goad to it” (King 2009: 253). I
  12. In practical terms, Stephen Walt has argued in The Annual Review of Political Science (2005) for a conscious effort to alter the prevailing norms of the discipline. Departments should give greater weight to real-world relevance in hiring and promotion decisions; journals could place greater weight on relevance in evaluating submissions; universities could facilitate interest by giving junior faculty greater incentives for participating in political life. While such a path may not be for every – or even a majority – of scholars, they are useful attributes to have in the academic mix of any department.

In a final plea, I would hope that the executives of our associations will provide the leadership required to rejuvenate political studies by directing our attention to its deficiencies and by bringing together scholars to debate the major issues facing the discipline.           


Appendix 1

The Book Series: The World of Political Science: Development of the Discipline 2000 - 2012

This was a project adopted by IPSA in 1998 to produce specialized studies on various sectors of the discipline. This research program of Research Committee 33 on the “Study of the Discipline” 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 RC 33 Book Series, edited by Michael Stein and John Trent, has produced ten books.

Dirk Berg-Schlosser (ed.) Democratization: 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

Subratra K Mitra, Malte Pehl and Clemens Spiess (eds.). Political Sociology: The State of the Art, 2009

Adrian Guelke, Jean Tournon (eds.), The Study of Ethnicity and Politics: Recent Analytical Developments, 2012

Jane H. Bayes (ed.) Gender and Politics: The State of the Discipline, 2012

Mark Haugaard and Kevin Ryan (eds.) Power and Politics: State of the Art, 2012

Norbert Kersting (ed.) Electronic Democracy, 2012

John Trent and Michael Stein (eds.) The World of Political Science: A Critical Overview of Political Studies around the Globe: 1990-2012.

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


Appendix 2

International Political Science: New Theoretical and Regional Perspectives

IPSA Conference Program

Concordia University, Montreal (Quebec), Canada

April 30 – May 2, 2008

The programme of the conference, giving the titles of the papers and the names of the authors can be viewed at www.johntrent.ca


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