The State of Political Studies in the World: Thinking About New Paradigms

John E. Trent

Panel : RC 33-160, Paradigms and Historiography in Political Studies

World Congress of the International Political Science Association

Montreal, July 23, 2014

Abstract: 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, section briefly reports on what these studies tell us about the development of political science around the globe circa 1990-2012. The second, conjectural part seeks to respond to key questions concerning the challenges posed to political research as it seeks alternate paradigms to scientific methodology. Essentially, my studies have shown that with regard to research output, 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,

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, ; 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 and The UN & Canada (2013).  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

The State of Political Studies in the World:
Thinking About New Paradigms

John E. Trent

The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas, as it is in escaping from the old ones.(John Maynard, Keynes)

It is essential to keep on discovering new ways of finding out… It is not innovations but innovativeness…that needs to be nurtured. (Dee Jupp)


Paradigm here refers to a mutually reinforcing pattern of concepts, values and principles, methods, procedures and processes, roles and behaviors, relationships and mindsets, and orientations and predispositions.

Robert Chalmers, Revolutions in Development Inquiry, London, Earthscan, 2008, p.172

Introduction: This essay is based on empirical evidence about the present state of advances in global political science arising 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 (see Appendix 1 & 2). 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 a very brief summary of the material from these studies, I then go on to make proposals for alternate paradigms for political research to make it more relevant to interested publics. The final parts deal with suggestions about the ‘next generation of political studies’ and the impact on the discipline of concurrent changes in higher education

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.

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.

That being said, the overall impression one gains is that 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).

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. 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. This seems to be the thinking of U.S. Senator Thomas Coburn whose 5 Nov. 2009 amendment to the 2010 Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Act 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.

A rapid view of the state of political science

Let me start by recapitulating from my earlier studies (the details can be found in Trent 2008, 2009). First, here is the good news. Political science has expanded dramatically in recent decades. As educators, we have adopted a judicious and attractive curriculum around the world. An introductory post-secondary education that includes not only an understanding of our own society but comparative knowledge of many countries and basic knowledge of several connected disciplines, and also historical, international, philosophical and methodological perspectives, appears to be of interest to many students (also see Klingemann 2007). If we may surmise that education is fifty percent of our output, then it is a very healthy base for the discipline. We are now also a recognizable, international discipline and profession with common standards. Over recent decades, there has been a convergence around an eclectic, pluralist set of approaches to political analysis.  Systematic empirical knowledge (e.g. data sets) is growing apace. Our sources for this study indicate that we produce much more information, significant findings, and cogent advice than is ever effectively communicated to the public. The fact is that we now know much more about most of the elements of politics than ever before. Hence the difficulty for any one of us to intimately know the entire discipline. Our achievement has come at the cost of an understanding of the whole, that is, of the articulations between the elements of political studies. This is why RC 33 wants to work with the IPSA Executive to do a systematic, longitudinal study of the development of the discipline.

What, then, does my analysis of the Book Series suggest to us about the priorities of political education so that it will become more relevant to global conditions? Here are six proposals.

  1. Political science associations, both national and international should start taking their professional roles more seriously. 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 and act 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”. MA and PhD programs should be helping their students to see the ‘big picture’.
  6. Social science funding councils must seek means to sponsor international funding programs. To date, social science disciplines are hobbled by national funding sources that have national blinders.

Now let’s look at the less good news. In my studies of the present state of political science, I have found fundamental criticisms of political science approaches, methodologies and theories. Scientism as a basic approach for political science is accused of being seriously flawed. It helps little or not at all with a great deal of the subject matter of politics from democracy to constitutions, from philosophy to federalism. The notion of ‘value-free politics’ is an oxymoron. Empiricism keeps us in a status quo straightjacket that ignores the future. Concentration on “facts” begs the question of what are political facts. The internecine struggle between quantitative and qualitative methodologies hobbles our productive capacities. Restrictiveness within disciplinary boundaries inhibits us from comprehending the broader context of politics. Intensive specialization compartmentalizes knowledge and scholarship. Most political scientists do not believe they have a responsibility for communicating with the public. A ‘Western’ oriented discipline dominated by white males and that does not span the world inevitably loses out in its breadth of comprehension. Being severed from international relations and public administration makes political science a seriously handicapped discipline. We are of less and less interest to the public due to our focus on the pure production of knowledge and general rejection of participation in the “great debates” of society. It also minimizes our capacity to deal with the immense scope of change going on in a globalized world. All of these deficits taken together are responsible for political science being of little public visibility and relevance. Their cumulative effect ensures a widening gap between public expectations and scholarly interests. Our discipline must become more relevant.

Today, too many of our methodologies lead only to glorified descriptions. For instance, 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).”

“Why?” also implies we must ask ourselves why are we doing research: who is our audience? Research is not undertaken in a vacuum. To who is it addressed?  There are multiple answers. A part of our work may be for the development of knowledge and is addressed to the discipline. But surely it does not end there. The development of the discipline is also aimed at those who pay our bills, our funders. They too are an audience representing the public good. Of course there are our students.  Additionally, an understanding of politics is generally addressed to the public, the political class, and the media. When we structure our studies we should have in the back of our minds our potential, multiple audiences and we must be enquiring if we are adequately communicating with them. If we have multiple audiences and obligations then the end-goals must include, but go beyond, the pure production of knowledge.

Still, some 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. He also criticizes the underlying empiricism of the philosophy of knowledge. A discipline limited to factual evidence is doomed to ignore what might or should be. 

The American Commission on Graduate Education seems to have been listening. It declared 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”. It is encouraging to see that the International Political Science Association also has given 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). These all point in the direction that political studies are starting to break out of the circle of irrelevance. But it will require a generalized consciousness of the problem and a collective desire to do something about. So far, there is little evidence that the IPSA has done very much to promulgate its new mission statement.

But there is something we as individuals and in our departments can do about our research. Let us call it “rebalancing”. First, this means giving 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. Simultaneously, we should correct some of our abuses of the scientific method by a return to the search for synthetic and causal general theory which Bear Braumoeller calls for in his article on “Rediscovering Complexity and Synthesis” (King 2009:241-3). 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 terminology of the other social sciences and start calling ourselves “politists”. 

I have already insisted that scientific methodology has contributed to making political science more rigorous. I am not suggesting we throw the baby out with the bath water. What is called for is a rebalancing of political analysis so that the scientific methodology and quantification are used where they are most productive and we seek alternative, additional approaches for dealing with more qualitative subjects. The scientific method is not of much use in many domains such as philosophy, law, democracy, nationalism, religion, morality, equity, values, goals, constitutions and future oriented projects etc.  It also seems evident we need new forms of analysis to help us deal rigorously with the enormous issues that confront us in the 21st century. This  proposal comes from the authors in our Book Series. 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), claims, “The task ahead is gigantic and a few cross-national surveys are far from sufficient for our needs.” (p.145). 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).

Purposive Political Studies: A Possible Alternative to Scientism

I presume that all of us who write about political studies believe our discipline is necessary for a civilized society. Our desire is to maximize its value. As political analysts, we have an extraordinary opportunity to provide our students and fellow citizens with knowledge, understanding, inspiration and information on government and politics. But, reviews and critiques of our discipline are not enough. Many have complained about the enervating impact of scientism on political studies. We may recall the books by Andreski 1974, Flyvberg 2001, Lindblom 1996, Maxwell 1984, Paquet 2009, and Ricci 1984. This criticism has gone on for several decades without us having found alternatives.  To advance the debate, we have to propose convincing alternatives or complementary approaches that might overcome the deficits of the scientific method. It is in this direction I would like to turn now.

Without going so far as to suggest an actual new methodology, let us start our search for new paradigms for political studies by seeking an alternate set of precepts. As far as the scientific method which social scientists use is concerned we might include the following set of precepts, rules, norms or guidelines: precise observation; testing of hypotheses based on precise questions; the search for verifiable facts for empirical regularities, preferably ones that can be measured and quantified; amassing data; replicability; analytical specialization; value neutrality; normative controls; tentativeness of conclusions.

In an attempt to find a methodology with precepts adapted to the solution of social problems, Gerry Stoker (2010) adapts Herbert Simon’s classic, The Sciences of the Artificial, to political science.  Stoker suggests that Simon has found a heuristically satisfying method for surmounting political science’s relevance problem. I find his arguments very convincing. What I will call ‘purposive political studies’ is goal oriented, seeks solutions to social problems and incorporates normative objectives. We may contrast the scientific and purposive approaches to the discipline in the following precepts that I have adapted from Stoker’s account of Simon.

  1. The natural and social worlds are dissimilar and require differentiated forms of analysis. In this crucial insight, Simon explains that nature manifests itself in existing material arrangements. They may not be immutable but they are stable and given (until humans get at them). The natural does not have goals and adaptability – unless they are inferred by humans. The social, on the other hand, is “artificial”, created by human beings. I will use the term “constructed”, to avoid possible pejorative connotations. Constructed society exists for a purpose and does have functions, goals and changeability.

  2. Science has led to specialization, that is to say analytical division, whereas purposive analysis requires a holistic approach that takes into consideration context and complexity, usually calling for multi-disciplinarity. The approach is similar to engineering. According to Simon, “We speak of engineering as concerned with ‘synthesis’ whereas science is concerned with ‘analysis’. Synthetic or artificial objects – and more particularly prospective artificial objects having desired properties – are the central objective of engineering activity and skill (1996:4). Several decades ago there was an objection to the idea that the social sciences would provide ‘social engineering’.  It sounded as though social scientists would artfully orient or arrange society. But that is not the sense in which the term is used here. When an engineer brings together the techniques for building a bridge she is not telling society that it needs one or where it should be built. These are socio-political decisions. Social engineering refers to social technology in the sense of how to do what society wants.

  3. Science is goal and norm neutral while purposive political science incorporates them. Herbert Simon maintains that when we are carrying out a research project on society we are often considering its goals and such research requires a “design”. “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into the preferred ones” (1996:111). Once again, to avoid poor connotations, I am going to take the liberty of changing “design research” to ‘purposive research’. Purposive research seeks intentional change. “The engineer, and more particularly the purposive politist (designer), is concerned with how things ought to be – how they ought to be to attain goals and to function” (1996: 4).   

  4. Science attempts to establish mechanisms and causes while purposive (design) research (while not neglecting these concerns) starts by asking about goals and purposes and how they could be achieved (Stoker 2010: 10) .

  5. The scientist tries to separate out and exclude the normative whereas the purposive (design) researcher needs to embrace and study the relationship of the normative to the empirical. Certainly, once goals have been established in a research project there must be the same commitment to theorizing that is rigorous and empirically supported.

  6. While the end goal of the scientific approach is description and explanation, purposive research will be much more oriented to prescription and prediction. The scientist aims at explanation, the purposive scholar will seek solutions for problem-oriented research.

  7. Scientifically oriented academics seek to determine a dependent variable and then go on to progressively eliminate various independent explanatory variables until (hopefully) a single causal relationship is established. In purposive research, one seeks solutions for decision-makers and recognizes they are conditioned by the cognitive limitations of the human mind. Therefore a first stage is to establish some representation of the problem that can be “understood by all participants and that will facilitate action rather than paralyze it” (Simon 1996:143). In the following process the researcher interacts with the participants in a process of reflection that may include quantitative or qualitative research to enhance functional reasoning. Building in feedback or learning mechanisms is central to purposive (design) thinking (Stoker and John 2009). This is because there is an inherent indeterminacy in purposive research due to the potential for ill-formulated problems, missing or contradictory information, and decision-makers holding opposing views.

  8. Scientists are warned off “concept stretching” whereas it is a normal part of purposive research. We want to see if a solution that is understood to work in one setting (say national politics) will also work in another setting (say international relations) – even if adjustments have to be made to fit the new situation. For a more detailed analysis of the application of purposive (designer) research one may consult Stoker (2009).

Together, these precepts for ‘purposive political studies’ orient us toward the formation of an alternative approach for research that is future and/or goal oriented, that entails normative considerations and that deals with complex, holistic situations. As already mentioned, considerable practice will be required to ensure that such a methodology continues to stress theory building and empirical verification of its substantive elements.

Let me offer one brief example of how purposive political studies might work. For the past several years, I have been part of a Partnership of international associations seeking funding to launch a research program on the creation of authoritative (decision-making) global institutions. This group believes that the greatest problem in the world today is that we are incapable of making decisions that global society will want and obey so the world may cope with major global challenges running the gamut from climate change and pollution to the fiscal crisis and terrorism.

Such a research program is too vast to be the work of one person. We must be capable of doing and managing team research. It is equally evident that the research must be interdisciplinary. At a minimum, it will include all the social sciences as well as philosophy, evolution and history. The more it includes the analysis of global issues, the more it will be useful to include the physical sciences.

The project cannot be handled by a normal scientific approach and calls for a purposive political study. I said just now that “the group believes” in the need for global institutions. We are therefore dealing with major values. Only a minority of people think the idea of global institutions is even imaginable. Most fear the notion of “world government” or believe their interests demand national sovereignty (Weiss 2009). As one example, a majority of U.S. Republican senators recently blocked ratification of the long-pending International Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (if one can believe it) arguing that “international treaties unduly constrain Washington's freedom of action in the world or threaten U.S. sovereignty”. We can see that at a threshold much below that of effective global institutions we have an institutional and ideological conflict that is part of the research.

The new institutions will be “constructed” based on up-dated global principles and new global structures which will have a purpose, goals, functions and changeability. All this will require fundamental thinking about the theory and practice of constitutions, socio-political change and institution-building based on the projected global context. It has been asked what will be the nature of the new institutions? We can dip into the political science tool kit to see what we know about how new societies and new federations came into being.  But, at the present, we can only assume that neither governments nor citizens would accept any form of global governance that was not democratic, federal and liberal and promoted human rights and equity. This would require working groups with research expertise in multi-level governance, rule of law, democracy, human and minority rights, and the experience of the European Union. The research program will require a design to synthesize the knowledge in many specialties.

The purpose of the research is to seek solutions for decision-makers and the public. This will require influencing public opinion. Political scientists have an expertise in opinion research but few of us would claim we are specialists in the practice of influencing politicians and citizens. Political scientists can prepare the most viable ideas for global institutions but it will take the knowledge and competence of civil society to put them into practice by influencing citizens, the media and decision-makers to understand that new global institutions are in their own best interest. Bringing together academics with civil society associations for combined research on the theory and practice of creating legitimate world institutions will be another social science advance. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I hope this example will help to convince you of the need for new approaches to political studies, with purposive research perhaps being a precursor.

Another Alternative Paradigm: Participatory Research:

In the 1960s and 1970s students were introduced to many alternative approaches to the study of politics. One of them was participatory analysis. The idea was quite simple. If we want to understand the complex reality of politics we should stand beside the people who actually ‘live’ politics. Very quickly there were a flurry of problems and criticisms. Such close proximity could not be ‘scientific’. The researchers would be too close to the subjects. How would we isolate the empirical ‘facts’ and quantify them? How could we ever do enough participatory studies to deal with reality?

In a recent book, Revolutions in Development Inquiry, Robert Chambers endeavours to show that participatory methodologies have improved by leaps and bounds during the past three decades. They are now used in millions of studies around the world in the field of development studies and merit to be emulated across our discipline. Not only have they learnt to deal with quantification and theoretical understanding but also have led to social change and empowerment of the subjects. 

In the 1970s, like so many of his colleagues, his research converged on large-scale, multi-subject questionnaires for his rural research. Even with the best of efforts, they tended to generate bad data that were unusable and unused because of their pre-set categories and structured interactions. They have been made to fit large numbers and are suitable for standard treatments and uniform environments but, for community-driven development, they have been a costly and ineffective way of trying to learn about social complexity. Chambers believes the issues are paradigmatic.

Questionnaire surveys have many short-comings. Unless very careful field appraisal precedes drawing up a questionnaire, the survey will embody the concepts and categories of the outsiders rather than those of the rural people, thus imposing an external vision on their social reality. The misfit between urban professionals and the rural people is likely to be substantial and may distort or mutilate their reality. Nor are the questionnaire surveys, on their own, very good ways of identifying causal relations or exploring social relationships. “Their penetration is usually shallow, concentrating on what is measurable, answerable, and acceptable as a question, rather than probing less tangible and more qualitative aspects of society. For many reasons – fear, prudence, ignorance, exhaustion, hostility, hope of benefit – people give information that is slanted or false.” (2008: 6). Chambers maintains that the pathology of method is most marked in inappropriate attempts to apply ‘rigorous’ scientific methodology. He had to learn where such standards of rigor could be applied and where not.  In a nutshell, this is why developmental specialists have turned so heavily to participatory methodologies in recent decades.

It is when going into more complexity, diversity, dynamism and multiple causalities that we run into trouble. Despite pilot pretesting, large surveys are likely to be pre-set, top-down, imposing fixed categories on complex realities. This is in contrast to learning processes which are repetitive, interactive and emergent. Development professionals gradually discovered that there are many alternatives to questionnaire surveys using participatory modes of inquiry that can now generate numbers and work with multiple causalities.  As an example, one researcher complained that scientific purity did not allow him to discuss questions on a community ground water survey with more than one respondent at a time in order to avoid prejudice. He eventually found that the setting up of the water committee, local by-laws, educational campaigns for clean water, and suggestions for financial contributions for small repairs, spontaneously evolved from the community itself. Over time the researchers learnt that the ‘traps’ of decision-makers in far off headquarters, including the neglect of rural ‘peripheries’ and the ‘development tourism’ of brief rural visits from the urban centre, created biases that hampered them from having a ‘critical awareness’ and  perceiving , observing, meeting and learning from poorer people in their micro-environments. The complicated research techniques also impeded the collection of information that was relevant, timely, accurate and usable.

Slowly, the developmentalists started to develop a new family of participative methodologies that started with techniques for semi-structured interviews and analytical walk-arounds (transects). To these were added: learning indigenous technical knowledge, combining social and agricultural scientists, using information gathered by local residents, direct observation, learning from key informants, the use of group and guided interviews and even low level aerial inspections and surveys. They went on to elucidate the paradigmatic aspects of these methods to develop a theory to support and interpret the practices by emphasizing the understanding of interaction, relationships, feedback, local knowledge and context, and the need for ‘greater epistemological humility and flexibility’.

A further group of methodologies evolved under the general heading of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). It started with the discovery that local people could map (from diagrams in the sand to paper renditions) better than outsiders. Mapping of all sorts is crucial for communal development, natural resource and agriculture management, and programmes for equity, empowerment, and rights and security. Other programs included:  farmer participatory research; integrated pest management; analytic group circles (Reflet); group analysis of gender inequalities (Stepping Stones); internal learning systems using pictorial diaries and workbooks for records and planning; diagram tools to collect and analyse information; and community- led social improvements. All these techniques facilitate activities which empower local communities to undertake their own appraisal, research and analysis and come to their own conclusions and actions. Crucial to these methodologies are the facilitators’ behavior, understanding of group synergy and democracy on the ground, and sharing methods between researchers.

Practical theory development appears robust. This means that practitioners would share an epistemological perspective that is then articulated in the PRA literature. Second, expert and professional knowledge needs to be humble and appreciate the peoples’ own knowledge and ways of knowing. Professionals habitually underestimate the capabilities and the value of the knowledge of the villagers. Third, the role of the professional is to transform these relations by facilitating, enabling and enhancing the capacities of the local people. The next level of theory is induced from practice with methods and approaches evolving through borrowing, inventing and experimenting based on opportunities of engagement in the field. Participatory methods have now evolved to generate quantitative as well as qualitative data. This has entailed counting, mapping, measuring, estimating and scoring.  Participatory numbers have been taken to scale through surveys with visuals, aggregation from focus groups, and through wealth and well-being ranking. There have been breakthroughs in producing national statistics. They can provide numerical data on complex issues about which questionnaire surveys are not able to produce reliable statistics, such as community poverty targeting.   

In concluding his memoire, Robert Chambers asks himself how likely it is that a new paradigm will find its way into mainstream studies. He finds the spread of participatory methodologies (PM) faces formidable blocks. He is particularly concerned by university education and by research funding practices. Most universities have been socialized into top-down didactic modes of lecturing. As long as teaching is didactic, those taught will be didactic in turn. The idea of working with and transforming pupils is far from this mindset. Thus, “Transforming the cultures and practices of universities and colleges is, in the long term, the most important task. Mostly, they are deserts for methodological innovation, which is little recognized as an academic activity (2008: 185)”. There is little time and no space to debate approaches and methods. When one thinks of it, it is ironic that the British tutorial method of learning in graduate studies, considered by most to be ‘out-of-date’, is the most closely aligned with participatory principles of guidance, encouragement and facilitation for self-learning by the pupil. The second major blockage is that funding agencies personnel are only familiar with traditional methodologies and are neither willing nor capable of innovating with those they fund. They set agendas that leave no room for exploration or experimentation. New methodologies are likely to see their funds withdrawn. Indeed, throughout the professional milieu there is little time to stop, think and reflect.  

Looking to the Future of Political Studies: Other Proposals for Advancing 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 forgot the limiting adjectives (“too much”, “too little”) and threw 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 other major scholars and point to areas in which the discipline can advance right now (beyond the alternative methodologies already proposed).

Dealing with ‘Excessive Specialization’

  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 ‘great’ 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 additional 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 includes understanding of broader sources of knowledge and analyses 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.

Beyond the topic of ‘excessive specialization’, a number of other suggestions have been made by the authors of the Book Series and other leaders in the discipline.

  1. 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.
  2.  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.
  3. 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. 
  4. Further rebalancing can be attained by opening ourselves more 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.
  5. 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.
  6.  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
  7. 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.
  8. Several proposals were made for the creation of dedicated think tanks to bring scholars together in new cross-disciplinary and policy-oriented ways.

Endnote: The urgency for politists to think long and hard about the pertinence of their discipline in a rapidly evolving world cannot be stressed enough.  A quick glance at recent media articles confirms that not only political science but higher education, in general, is being buffeted by new pressures. 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, Bologna and Lisbon processes for the mobility of students and establishing 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).  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). Corporations and governments are making increased pressures to influence the research they are funding

Technology is also challenging 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. We must ask ourselves 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-publications 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? How do you stop researchers from “buying” their way into online publications created by entrepreneurs in China and India? (Spears, Ottawa Citizen, 4-10-13) Spears points out that the effect of these fake journals, “is that low quality studies are accepted into the body of ‘published’ work that future scientists, doctors and engineers use as a reference.”

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 the eighth largest export sector accounting for some $7.7 billion in 2010. But, Canada is 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).

Thus, globalization of education, massive on-line courses, international competitive pressures, and e-publications are all potential game changers which reinforce my thesis that it is absolutely necessary that students of politics give themselves the means to protect and promote their discipline in the public eye. We desperately need leadership. The presidents, executive committees and executive directors of our associations can no longer limit themselves to running conferences and journals. They must develop the information bases and analytical techniques required to insure that political studies continue to evolve and fulfil their responsibilities. 

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 12 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


Andreski, Stanislav (1974). Social Sciences as Sorcery, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Blondel, Jean (2010). “The Future of Political Science”, European Political Science, S28.

Chambers, Robert (2008). Revolutions in Development Inquiry, London, Earthscan,

Dwivedi, O.P. (2007). “In the Matter of Good Governance: A Non-Western Perspective”, in R.B. Jain (ed.), Governing development across cultures: Challenges and dilemmas of an emerging sub-discipline in political science, Opladen, Germany, Barbara Budrich Publishers.

Easton, David (1953). The Political System: An Inquiry into the State of Political Science, New York, Knopf.

Eisfeld, Rainer (2012). “From Specialization to Teamwork: IPSA Research Committees and Current Challenges to the Discipline of Political Science”, Montreal, Participation (Newsletter of the International Political Science Association), Vol. 36(1): 27-29. 

Flyberg, Bent (2001). Making Social Science Matter, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Globe and Mail, “Folio: Higher Education: Who Universities Need Now” (20-11-2012); “ The Separate and Equal University”, (12-10-2012); “The Tricky Business of Funding a University”, (18-10-2012); “Folio: Post-Secondary Coordination:  What Canada Needs: A National Strategy for Students” (20-10-2012).

Kaase, Max (2011). `Should political science be more relevant? A comment on the paper by John E. Trent, European Political Science, 2011(10): 226-234.

King, Gary, Kay Lehman Schlozman, Norman H. Nie (Eds.) (2009). The Future of Political Science: 100 Perspectives, New York, Routledge

Klingemann, Hans-Dieter (2007). The State of Political Science in Western Europe, Opladen, Barbara Budrich.

Lindblom, Charles E. (1992). Inquiry and Change: The Troubled Attempt to Understand and Shape Society, New Haven CT, Yale University Press.

Linz, Juan J. (2007). “Some Thoughts on the Victory and Future of Democracy”, in Dirk Berg-Schlosser, (ed.) Democratization: The State of the Art, 2nd revised edition, Opladen, Germany, Barbara Budrich Publishers.

Maxwell, Nicholas (1984/2007). From Knowledge to Wisdom: A Revolution for Science and the Humanities, Oxford, Pentire Press

National Post, Exporting Education: Canada has barely tapped world demand for higher education, (7-11-2012).

New York Times, College of Future Could be Come One, Come All: Virtual U. Testing Online Learning (20-11-2012)

Nye, J.S. jr.(2009). “the Question of Relevance” in G. King et al (eds.), The Future of Political Science, New York, Routledge, p.253.

Paquet, Gilles (2009). Crippling Epistemologies and Governance Failures, Ottawa, University of Ottawa Press.

Pyrcz, Greg (2011). The Study of Politics: A Short Survey of Core Approaches, Toronto, University of Toronto Press

Ricci, David M. (1984). The Tragedy of Political Science: Politics, Scholarship, and Democracy, New Haven CT., Yale University Press.

Sartori, Giovanni (2004). “Where is Political Science Going?” PS 11: 286

Simon, Herbert (1996). The Sciences of the Artificial, 3rd ed., Cambridge MA, the MIT Press.

Spears, Tom (2013). “A sting operation in science’s Wild West: Exposing the fake journals that are focused on the fast money rather than solid research”,  Ottawa Citizen, 4-10-13.

Stoker, G. and John P. (2009). “Design Experiments: Engaging Policy-Makers in the Search for Evidence About their Work”, Political Studies 57:356-373.

Stoker, Gerry (2010). “Blockages on the Road to Relevance: Why has Political Science Failed to Deliver”, European Political Science 2010 (9): S72-84.

Trent, John E. (2011). The World of Political Science: A Critical Overview of the Development of Political Studies around the Globe: 1990-2012, Opladen Germany, Barbara Budrich Publishers.

Trent, John E. (2011). “Should political science be more relevant? an empirical and critical analysis of the discipline,” European Political Science (10):191-209

_________ (2008). “Issues and Trends in Political Science at the beginning of the 21st  Century: Perspectives from the World of Political Book Series”, Keynote presentation at the International Political Science Association Conference, International Political Science: New Theoretical and Regional Perspectives, Montreal, April 30- May 2, 2008 (for publication in the final volume of the World of Political Science Book Series, 2012).

John E. Trent, (2009). “Developments in Political Science: Report on the IPSA Montreal Conference, May 2008”, Report prepared for the IPSA Executive Committee, Santiago, Chile, World Congress of the International Political Science Association, July, 2009. Available at 

Walt, S. (2005). “The relationship between theory and policy in international relations” Annual Review of Political Science 8:23-48.

Weiss, Thomas G. (2009).”What Happened to the Idea of World Government?”, International Studies Quarterly, 53:253-271.