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.
Picture source: Quinn Dombrowski