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The Battle for Control of Political Science Education
Quantitative analysis, formal modeling, and other forms of hard science dominate the leading journals and research institutions of American political science. To justify a hard scientific approach to the study of politics demands elaborate philosophical argument. In particular, it demands answers to three questions: What is the character of political life (the ontological question)? How and what can we know about politics (the epistemological question)? What purpose should political knowledge serve (the normative question)? Yet few of today’s hard scientists offer sophisticated answers to these questions because one by-product of their hegemony in the discipline has been the banishment of political philosophy to the margins of the curriculum. Indeed, political philosophy is the most distinguished victim of today’s “normal science.” This essay offers graduate students a program by which to test the claims of hard science in a radical manner. It demonstrates how reflection on personal experience, the study of history, and the study of philosophy offer different ways of scrutinizing the ideology of hard science. Each raises formidable challenges to the hard-scientific project.
Some see the current conflict in American political science as little more than a battle over occupational resources. It is a battle over who gets hired, who gets published, and who leads our professional associations. What meager response the current “Perestroika” protest movement has elicited from hard scientists has focused on these issues.
The conflict is partly a battle over scarce resources, but the protesters have also presented a radical critique of hard science as a means to study politics. Hard scientists have met this critique with silence. The protest will not disappear with a more equitable division of occupational spoils. Its substantive challenge, too, demands a response.
The focus of the debate is the definition of “science” as it is applied to the study of human beings. Today’s protest movement is not anti-scientific, as some adherents of the hard-scientific establishment have tried to stigmatize it. Unlike post-modern thinkers, most protesters associated with Perestroika think of themselves as scientists. But what sort of science is possible when the object of study is a human society? Science has always been a contested concept, even in the realm of the physical sciences, and it remains so today. The Perestroika critique revolves around three questions related to the reach of “science” in the study of politics:
First, what is the character of political life? This is the ontological question. In particular, does politics exhibit the high degree of consistency and regularity demanded by hard science, or do choice, complexity, and accident limit its regularities? Formal theorists and quantitative researchers seek a political science comparable in precision and breadth to the natural sciences, but does the character of politics resemble or differ from the character of physical nature?…