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Dangerous minds: ‘Public’ political science or ‘punk’ political science?

The end of another academic year and my mind is tired. But tired minds are often dangerous minds. Just as alcohol can loosen the tongue (in vino veritas) for the non-drinkers of this world fatigue can have a similar effect (lassitudine veritas liberabit). Professional pretensions are far harder to sustain when one is work weary but I can’t help wondering if the study of politics has lost its way… heretical to hear or music to the ears of the disenchanted?

What is the core role of a professional political scientist in the twenty-first century? Where do our social and professional responsibilities lie within and beyond the discipline? How does political science differ, if at all, from the broader social sciences in terms of defining principles and values? On what criteria should we judge success and failure? How is the external context in which political science operates changing and what role is the discipline playing in terms of shaping or informing that context? These are the questions that have concerned me for some years and that I have engaged with in my writing on the concept of ‘engaged scholarship’. But Jeffrey C. Isaac’s recent editorial ‘For a More Public Political Science’ in Perspectives in Politics—in my opinion possibly the best political science journal in the world­­—jolted me out of my end-of-semester weariness.

It is an essay that resonates with my concern over professional pretensions: “[as editor] why make believe that I am simply enacting the anonymous and ineluctable requirements of ‘science’” Isaac writes, “Everybody knows that this is not the case. And yet we so often pretend. Why pretend?”

Pretending is not something that is easy to do when you are tired and maybe that’s why Isaac’s arguments hit home with such alacrity at this particular moment in time. The lecture halls and seminar rooms are empty, most academic offices lay vacant, administrators administrate with a lazy summer swagger but in a matter of weeks the whole academic cycle will start again. Maybe that’s the problem. Could it be that the whole higher education system has become trapped in a market-led cycle or spiral of its own creation that promotes conformity over difference, results over risk, customers over citizens and ‘safe bets’ over ‘creative rebels’? This question brings me back to Isaac’s essay and its ‘academic-political purpose’:

“My purpose is simple: to clarify, defend and expand the spaces in political science where broad and problem-driven scholarly discussions and debates can flourish.”

It seems as if something is going on (again) within American political science. That all is not well and that a number of long-standing tensions and schisms that had for some time been managed through the post-Perestroikan stand-off, within which the creation of Perspectives on Politics formed a key element, have once again risen to the surface. In this context Isaac’s essay covers a lot of well-worn ground but then concludes with a distinctive twist, hook or barb. It revisits the debates concerning methodological pluralism, hyper-specialization, and a perceived statistical supremacism that have raged for several decades before then identifying and criticizing a resurgent positivism in the discipline ‘which I believe jeopardizes what this journal represents’. There is then, for Isaac, a need to politicize the internal disciplinary debate about which sub-field ‘is allowed to claim the mantle of ‘political science’ and to present itself as speaking for the discipline’. The concern is that some of the Perestroikan energies may have been co-opted or overtaken to the extent that they now threaten the sense of intellectual and methodological value, the belief that qualitative and interpretive approaches produce different but equally valid forms of knowledge to large-n quantitative analysis.

Image: Punk, Rock al Parque, 2010, by Lucho Molina. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.
Image: “Punk”, Rock al Parque, 2010, by Lucho Molina. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

But why do I care? European political science, in general, and British political studies, in particular, has generally evolved without the same internal divisions and bitter enmities. ‘Peretroika-lite’ is the way I have described the emergence of similar issues in the European context in recent years but my sense is that the shadow of exactly those neo-positivist pretensions that worry Isaac are becoming more pronounced. In the UK I am frequently told that the future of the political and social sciences lies in the realm of digital scholarship and its capacity for utilizing the increasing availability of mega-data. Now I don’t know about you but ‘data-scraping’- let alone debates about data transparency or data-analytical techniques – does not float-my-boat when it comes to thinking about my role as a scholar. However, there is also something slightly disquieting about Isaac’s position. Indeed, this is probably where the notion of ‘dangerous minds’ as a symptom of the end of my twentieth year as an academic starts to emerge. Indeed, two naughty little thoughts come to mind.

Firstly, does the notion of public political science that Isaac promotes really offer salvation to a discipline that some might see to be in perpetual crisis?

Secondly, does political science actually have anything to offer the public?

The answer to both these questions is obviously ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ but let me play devil’s advocate for a few moments in order to contribute to the debate that Isaac has so valuably initiated (or revived).

First of all the notion of public political science clearly takes its inspiration from Michael Burawoy’s influential critique of sociology and his movement for public sociology. And yet my sense is that the ambition and vigor behind the public sociology movement has always been far greater than the vision that Isaac seems to be discussing. Indeed, from my position on the other side of the Atlantic I have always been taken by how internalized the debates within American political science have always seemed to be and how little they have focused on the role of the public or the role of the discipline as an intermediary between the governors and the governed. The Caucus for a New Political Science that was founded as a section within the American Political Science Association in 1967 has, to my mind, always offered a more convincing model of public political science. The Caucus’s journal New Political Science was established in order to underline the relevance of the discipline and to promote a more problem-focused and solution-focused form of political science. The notion of public political science is therefore not a matter for intra-disciplinary debates but for the ambitious dissemination of research findings into the public sphere and also the engagement of the public within the research process. This latter element is really where the potential lies in terms of demonstrating both ‘the trap’ and ‘the promise’ (to borrow from C Wright Mills) of political science. How might we actively recruit the public as active participants and collectors of data into the research process?

Secondly, encouraging the dissemination of research findings into the public sphere is all well and good as long as the discipline actually has something to say. Put slightly differently, engaging in ‘the art of translation’ whereby the discipline ‘talks to multiple publics in multiple ways’ (to borrow one of Burawoy’s phrases) might actually be counter-productive unless it has something of value to say. This is a critical point as the discipline risks ridicule and reduced funding if the message it promotes is one of limited ambition and limited results. Now this is obviously a naughty and quite scandalous little thought that will be used against me for the rest of my career but could it be that what we actually need is not public political science but punk political science? Yes, ridiculous I know but just stick with me on this. One of the most striking elements of the rise of managerialism and market-logic within universities has been the dampening down not simply of the intellectual spirit but also and more prosaically the time to think.

Hidden behind Isaac’s analysis is the creation of an incentives and sanctions framework within higher education that says ‘This is what a successful scholar should be doing’. But where is the intellectual counter movement, the restless minds that don’t want to follow the crowd, the scholar who rejects the notion of education as little more than a preparation for the workplace and economic growth, the square pegs that cannot be knocked-into round holes? Political science just seems to have… lost its political oomph, it’s vim and vigor, its intellectual ‘get-up-and-go’ seems to have ‘got-up-and-gone’. I’m over egging the pudding (a very English phrase I’m sorry) but I wonder how many readers would pretend that this is not really the case. Could it be that what we need is not public political science but a form of punk political science that challenges all conventional ways of doing the study of politics just as the punk movement challenges conventional ways of doing politics. Whether this period of creative chaos could emerge from within given the institutional and cultural restrictions that large sections of the discipline seem to have imbued and accepted is a pointed question. But I cannot help but think it might be one that is worth exploring…

I’m sorry, I did tell you I was tired.

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  1. […] really appreciate his commentary on my essay, “For a More Public Political Science,” which appears as the lead piece in the […]

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