Beyond the theoretical: What does the world expect from the political scientists of today?

John Raymond Jison (15 February 2014)

Rich Newsome

During my first year in the university, we were asked if why we chose Political Science as our college degree. When I submitted my accomplished application form in the university four years ago, I ranked Political Science as my first choice (Biochemistry being the second) solely because I was so enamored of the social sciences during my high school days. Paradoxically, politics is my least favorite topic, a strand of thought I am unacquainted to. When it was my turn to answer, it is of no wonder why I stammered; I even did not know how to translate my scattered thoughts to words. Meanwhile, most of my classmates answered impeccably but in a similar fashion: they want to make Political Science as their preparatory course before proceeding to Law. After graduation, they went to law schools.

I do not know if this is a legitimate concern, but no one from the class said that he or she pursued Political Science because he or she wants to become a political scientist someday. I pondered on that thought for a while. Unlike other degree programs, there is no licensure exam for political science graduates in the Philippines. The term “political scientist” is so rarely used in everyday language while the term “political analyst” is so bastardized you can call anyone as such. A passer-by could be surprised that there is such a thing as political science or political science is a branch of science. In this country, political science is commonly referred to as a “Pre-Law” (preparatory course for Law), a mere stepping stone to ascend into a higher pedestal.

Recognized or not, the political scientists not only of this country but also the world have a critical role to play in this rapidly evolving world. While it is our task to DESCRIBE political developments, it is our equally imperative duty to PRESCRIBE proposals and recommendations to further the common good. In one of his theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” We are overwhelmed by too many theories, obscure or otherwise, which drown our purpose of making this world a better place both for the present generation and posterity. We are so engrossed in explaining the whys, whens, wheres, and hows of things, forgetting in the process the essential questions that need be answered: what should be done, how it should be done, what could possibly be done.

Our knowledge of theories would not go in vain as they deepen our understanding of social phenomena and political processes. But as what the astute Brazilian educator Paulo Freire aptly posits, theories should be coupled with practice and action. The idea of praxis teaches us that theories are repositories of knowledge while practice is where that knowledge could be applied to solve problems. While we could feel the rush of adrenaline every time we analyze the outcomes of and prospects for a recent political phenomenon, immersing ourselves in the realm beyond the theoretical should stir a corresponding amount of interest within us.

The political scientists of today should learn how to step out of their comfort zones, how to get out of their boxes, and how to be bolder. The maladies of this world have gone from bad to worse, and the cure needs more than pen and paper. We do not have the panacea but we could be the remedy. We are not superheroes but we could empower lives. If our goal is to transform the world, regardless of how ludicrous this goal might be, we as political scientists should be at the forefront of the transformation not as passive agents but as active ones.

Image Source: Rich Newsome



Who is afraid of whom: The marketizers of the ivory towers or vice-versa? A response to John Raymond Jison

Sergiu Delcea (23 February 2014)


If there is one area where political science ought to be able to eek out a distinct claim, it appears to be (or should have been) the analysis of power (Vanhuysse).That all is not well in that direction, acknowledged also by the same author, prompting somewhat of a retrenchment from political scientists everywhere into the cocoons of their offices and papers is an extremely provocative direction, represents the starting point for my colleague’s John Raymond Jison’s fascinating latest contribution. Picking up this extremely sensitive discussion, one that worries academics, politicians and students alike (a great recent piece from NY Times also explores this), I aim here to dissect the two apparently opposing worlds – “the desk work” and “the real world of politics”. My main argument is that while both sides raise legitimate criticism between themselves, a fully marketised, praxis based role of political scientists would not be of tremendous help. To be fair, two starting notes are of key importance: firstly, a full-on mapping of university research philosophies is obviously beyond the modest aims of this debate; secondly, when I am picking up my colleague’s concluding remarks on the idea of praxis I am aware that he (being a nuance observer) is not arguing for a “lowering” of quality just for marketisation’s sake, nonetheless in order to better highlight the problems I intend to raise a slightly exaggerated tone (in that direction).

Where did it all start?

Arguably the landmark starting point for the ivory-tower vs. marketisation debate is to be found in Allan Bloom’s classical piece on The Closing of the American Mind. The author’s acid tone struck sensitive cords, particularly context-related ones but not only – Are there limits and downsides to the free reign of cultural relativism? While a more nuanced tone could have behooved the argument, this was not  Bloom’s intention as his critique resembled en passant an art for the sake of art argument towards developing the social sciences. Unsurprisingly perhaps the critique mirrored the tone of the book and dubbed Bloom’s analysis as some sort of a personal vendetta rather than a scholarly inquiry.

Yet, the question that haunts the author seems to be a legitimate one to raise: Is the mark of success to be defined via marketable skills aquired or through what some now call the sterile peer-review tenure-publication system? If one goes further, the discussion can even harken back to social sciences’ early attempts at explaining the world with hard-science-like instruments. More questions than answers seem to be found in this direction hence suffice it for the time being to go ahead with our debate from the point of view of trying to understanding the link between what political science wants and what it can actually do.

Where is it all going?

I very much agree with my colleague’s assertion that the world doesn’t seen to be getting any better. Yet, I would nuance his dualism between “pens” and “swords” (to be read as the “real world”) in that I doubt whether political science can prescribe solutions in the sense that he epitomizes. This quasi-positivit view on social sciences (which I have previously looked at in brief here) seems to come up short due to a lag phenomenon – indeed, few political scientists risk analyzing (I disagree with  John’s usage of the word “description”) an issue while it is yet unfinished, most in-depth papers/books appear after a revolution/election/movement etc. has failed or enjoyed success.

Since Pierson‘s seminal contribution on timing and path-dependency, the “what is to be done” has been greatly reconsidered (particularly if one looks at the great debates concerning today’s welfare-states). My main point here is that the “why” questions should not be boxed into the same category as whens, hows and wheres. If there is a change that political scientists should implement it is one towards the centrality of “why” questions! A purely praxis-marketised orientation that would amorphously blend in a “why” with a “how” and a “what is to be done” is less of a sound prediction and more of blame-avoidance strategy (Vanhuysse: 2006 for instance) cum guessing game (or just a normative judgement of the world as is the case of some radical leftist environmental movements). I would hence argue that the only prediction-making possibility a political scientist has lies mostly in lateral connection making with only a limited degree of future orientation. While I will pre-emptively agree to the argument that today’s pilot programs (in what concerns poverty eradication, democratization and so on) are indeed sluggish, as well as to the need for a more active-dynamic stance of scholars, I would not hasten towards the step of “what is to be done”. To be clear, I am not arguing for a conservative-purist search for Truth! To give a more concrete example of what I am raising here: early 90s Western scholarship paralleling between CEE transitions and South-American transitions seemed fatalistic, yet the reality of an EU-28 has shown otherwise (and it hardly seems likely that this beneficial change was caused by fear of the fatalitic predictions!).

While an ivory-tower conservative retrenchment is not in and by itself beneficial, gaps existing in most areas of political theory could greatly limit the expected value in a rapid move towards a narrowly defined praxis. To be clear, I am again not espousing a purist-conservatist search for consensus and Truth! It is undeniable that a degree of praxis-orientation is needed, but I would urge caution in the abrupt direction of “changing the world” quoted by my colleague. Rather I would nuance this whole debate in that moving the “pens” in a “why”-centered direction (which to a certain extent must firstly happen in the “apparently sterile peer-review tenure system”) is the logical first step towards a more active role of political scientists.

Image Source: Quinn Dombrowski

Two articles have been published so far on A Different View by my colleagues John Raymond Jison and Sergiu Delcea with relation to series of very important questions: What should be the role of the contemporary political scientist? Should she merely analyse the political science events, developments and phenomena or should she also prescribe solutions to the problems which arise? And ultimately, why do political scientists seem to remain backstage actors despite their extensive expertise in the field? While both of my colleagues include in their analyses a number of interesting and convincing points, I would like to turn your attention to one additional aspect of this discussion, namely the unique nature of politics.

Politics has unique inherent properties which should not be neglected when analysing the role of the political scientists today. Politics is often associated with, or expected to solve, the most sensitive problems in a society. Understandably, the word politics often has a negative connotation in the minds of people. Politicians are largely regarded as dishonest, hypocritical, and driven by self-interest. In addition, in every political system, there are certain ideological elements which are not necessarily rational or, in extreme cases, even subjected to any form of critical assessment. In this context, politics outside of academia is very much a matter of personal opinion and very little a subject of an informed (at least to the extent that this is possible) discussion. But why does this matter when it comes to political scientists?

There are two important consequences of the arguments presented before which explain: 1) why political scientists should, in fact, come out from their ‘Ivory Towers’ and start contributing to the solution of political science problems in the ‘real world’ (that is to say, engage in debates outside of the academic conferences and the peer-reviewed publications) and 2) why are they (or at least some of them) so reluctant to do so.

Firstly, the lack of informed discussions on important political science topics creates a number of serious problems including misperceptions, possibility for manipulation of the public opinion and, ultimately, results in politicians telling people what they want to hear. One could argue that electoral sanction is one mechanism to mitigate these problems. After all, if politicians promise more than what they can realistically accomplish, they have little chance of being re-elected. This is, however, a post-factum control mechanism which can only be put in place once every 3-4-5 years. One could easily see the need for on-going control over the actions of politicians. Clearly, one of the indispensable functions of the opposition in a democracy is to act as such an on-going control mechanism by scrutinizing the actions of those in power. But how can we really rely on the opposition, whose obvious goal is to win the next elections, to provide us with objective and impartial political analyses? The need for political science experts to guide the public debate is self-evident at this point and political scientists are arguably best suited to embark this role due to their extensive analytical and puzzle-solving abilities. After all, they spend their entire careers asking and answering research questions. But then, why are a large number of political scientists reluctant to step in and actively participate in the public debate?

Once again, the answer lies in the unique nature of politics. Analysing and explaining political events or phenomena which have already occurred is what political scientists normally do. In other words, the ‘why?’ question is often asked (along with the ‘how?’ and ‘what?’ questions) but only in a context where it can be answered with the evidence at hand. Framing the analysis in this manner is considered ‘the scientific way to go’ and deviating from this norm is tolerated rarely and only in the form of a single paragraph in the conclusion of the research article outlining the future ‘real world’ implications of the topic at hand. Given the fact that political scientists abide by these rules during their whole careers and build their reputation on the quality of their published work, it is understandable why they might prefer not to engage in prescriptions for or predictions of the future, especially when it comes to a topic as sensitive as politics.

In conclusion, both the reason why we need political scientists in our public debates and the reason why they appear to be missing from the public sphere link back to the unique properties of politics in our society.

Image Source: Mr.TinDC