originally appeared in French in L'Economie Politique,
no. 26, Sommaire 2005 Details at www.alternatives-economiques.fr/ecopol>www.alternatives-economiques.fr/ecopol
Perestroika in American Political Science
Kurt Jacobsen (University of Chicago, USA)
© Copyright: Kurt Jacobsen 2005
Does democracy, or the lack of it, affect research methods? Philosophers of science Paul Feyerabend, and, less flamboyantly, Thomas Kuhn are among those who have implied such a link. In the superpower that advertises itself as the world's greatest democracy (despite the precipitous Iraq invasion, the Patriot Act, Abu Graib and suspicions of electronic and other forms of vote rigging in the 2004 US election) one might imagine that the American Political Science Association (APSA), which represents 15,000 scholars and teachers of the art of politics, preaches the gospel that the best system of government, despite all its faults, is democracy. Actually, as with any group fancying itself an elite, many eminent APSA members harbor grave doubts as to how far this unruly form of government ought to go not only in the world but inside their own club. From inception the Association has never entertained the subversive notion of conducting internal elections through a secret ballot, that is, until recently. Does this situation exert any impact upon the content of political science research? A rebellious group of US political scientists explicitly connect the recent dominance of a stultifyingly formal and quantitative view of political life to the absence of internal democracy in the APSA.
What governs the APSA is a cozy arrangement where a committee chosen by the president nominates his (eighty times "his" versus four times "her") successor who then picks the governing council who pick the next president who picks the next Council, and so on. APSA officers are answerable to people whom they themselves appoint, a splendidly regal arrangement. What does this coziness mean for the vitality of teaching, research and democracy? An ancient academic joke has a surly scholar complain about a successful experiment: "That's all very well in practice but how does it work in theory?" The joke is only a slight exaggeration about the otherworldly plight of American political science. Today it is the elegance and artificial neatness of models - not relevance to real world activities - that reap the greatest kudos. Other sorts of scholars have gotten the clear message that they need not apply. This disturbing trend would not have come to light except for a sudden surprising revolt against what disgruntled scholars claim is the suffocating grip of mathematical models and of formal theory (rational choice, public choice) in economics as well as political science.
Rational choice theory derives from an especially abstract version of neo-classical economics, which political scientists cannot help but enviously notice win Nobel Prizes, though often for no intelligible reason and with no discernible benefit to mankind. The theory deploys an arid set of assumptions about human behavior which reduce complicated lives and societies to prioritized "rational" choices that we supposedly make in order to maximize our patently obvious "utility" in any given situation. In this dusty chalkboard universe people are viewed as specimens of 'homo economicus,' a stern concept wherein any trace of culture, history, personality, accident, whimsy, self-reflectiveness or any other impurity that might smudge the model's tidiness is erased. In the political science discipline the equation of 'empirical' with 'quantitative' is a commonplace and, indeed, increasingly compulsory error, as Peri Schwartz-Shea of the University of Utah, among others, notes .
Although some dissidents exclude statistical techniques from their critique of the hubris of formal theorizing, Greg Kasza of Indiana University insists that it is "radical quantifiers" who "popularized the study of politics outside of its historical and cultural setting, who made methodology into the core of graduate education while degrading political philosophy and foreign language study, and who spawned the trend toward method-driven rather than problem-driven research." Kasza observes, with a good deal of justice, that American graduate students are forced to "earn their passports to the clouds in qualifying exams that grill them on multiple regression, most-different-systems analysis, and the small-n problem" when many have yet to master the history, economics, social structure, and politics of even one "n" . . ."
Few critics deny that rational choice, and the statistical apparatus that often accompanies it, has merit if employed with a bit of humility, especially in studies of collective action. The chronic trouble is that formal models dangle the tantalizing appearance of explanations for almost anything, although these explanations, critics retort, either are trivial or reinvent (and rephrase the invention of) the wheel or fail to display even a nodding acquaintance with recognizable reality. Unscholarly citizens especially in the UK and US may well wonder why recent economic growth consistently generates a maldistribution of wealth or why the best and brightest market economists encouraged the Russians to send their economy, so far as the average Russian is concerned, straight to hell. Few economists or rational choice connoisseurs pay any serious attention to such vulgar everyday policy questions. Can this serene disengagement from public life go on forever?
'Beyond generic group death and disability insurance, discounts on otherunreadable scholastic publications, cheap tickets to APSA meetings, and periodically-issued surveys of what many academics pretend is 'cutting edge research,' the APSA does very little," Professor Timothy Luke of Vermont drolly accuses. "It no longer aspires to guide the nation's public life, it bars members from making political pronouncements in any collective manner, and it produces a fairly apolitical and largely unscientific run of self-referential literature by, for, and of college professors.'
Like the "post autistic economics" movement erupting in France in 2000 against formalistic "excesses" of economics, the American perestroikans too advocate a "plurality of approaches adapted to the complexity of the object studied." American economics proved fiercely resistant and so the reform movement ignited instead within political science, which zealously imitates economics. The clarion call of the US revolt came in October 2000 in an e-mail circulated by "Mr. Perestroika" - perhaps a junior faculty member or group of junior faculty and graduate students- who lashed out against "poor game-theorists who cannot for the life of me compete with a third grade economics student" yet are able to stifle the "diversity of methodologies and areas of the world that APSA 'purports' to represent." Perestroika, according to its - ahem - original sponsors, promoted the "vital creativity" of society's members; development of democracy, "initiative and independence" and "the widening of criticism and self-criticism in all spheres of social life" in the long gone Soviet Union. Mr. Perestroika recently stated that the goal of the movement is providing "a forum where people can discuss and debate methodology, politics, theory, and the world in such a manner that APSA and APSR (American Political Science review) and our discipline become more open and more diverse in gender, racial, ethnic, and methodological terms - in teaching, publishing and hiring practices.'
The anonymous 'Mr. Perestroika' became the elusive catalyst for a lively reform movement. Within a month of the original e-mailing an enthusiastic movement of insurgent professors crystallized, led by a bevy of eminent scholars whom APSA authorities simply could not afford to ignore. By January 2001 more than 200 tenured faculty signed a slightly toned-down version of the original petition, charging that formal modelers are slowly but surely elbowing out other valuable forms of research. Signatories included 24 named chairs - luminaries ranging from Yale's political ethnographer James Scott to University of Chicago's South Asia experts Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph to Penn's political semioticist Ann Norton and American studies scholar Rogers Smith.
Political science has "been taken over by methodological parochialists who believe that the only worthwhile scholarship in political science speaks the language of mathematics," stated Chicago security specialist John Mearsheimer. Only counting "counts" inasmuch as mathematics conveys a seductive and illusory sense of precision. Numbers cannot lie. Just ask vote tabulators in Florida, accountants at Enron or any tax attorney. The dubious, indeed daft, belief that quantitative data are not themselves an interpretation has become widely institutionalized, a sad fact which forecloses many potential analytical insights. One consequence is that economists and political scientists have less and less to say about anything that mere mortals recognize as the actual world they move in.
Young scholars, like it or not, bend to prevailing disciplinary winds. In America rational choice modelers rapidly became notorious for forming potent coteries intent on expanding their paradigmatic presence. This imperialistic behavior has not gone unnoticed in Britain either: "The governing principle in most sensible political science departments is that rational choice theorists should be on tap but not on top," the former Chair of a top UK politics department, who preferred diplomatic anonymity, told me. "They should exist, be permitted to flourish, but never be permitted dominance. Once dominant they are incapable of appointing other than their own; the more vulgar they are the more this is true." Dissidents complain that rational choice/mathematical modelers cannot admit that equations are just as much metaphors as any lofty literary image deployed by supposedly "soft" (and , therefore, second-rate) social scientists. Giandomenico Majone, who lectures in the US and Europe, believes the fault lies not with formal models in themselves but with the excesses of undereducated disciples: "You should know more than the tool you use," he observed. Indeed.
One side benefit of this strenuous hyperspecialization - what Thorstein Veblen long ago labeled a 'trained incompetence' - for acolytes (at least those without any sense of intellectual adventure) is that whenever they encounter flak from more broadly (multi-disciplinary) educated colleagues, they just retreat along a trail of numerological platitudes into the APSA institutional fortress where like-minded number crunchers rule the roost. Other fields are virtually off-limits. The result is that they can punish anyone who knows more than they do. It is all too common for formal modelers to take a framework derived from a Western context and apply it blithely and blindly. An example I witnessed is a paper by overly numerate academics who imposed a one-size-fits-all conflict framework upon Northern Ireland where, among other howlers, they asserted that the Irish Republic could pressure the Reverand Ian Paisley to endorse the fitful peace process, which is akin to calling on the Pope to control Osama bin Laden. A graduate student in the perestroika list serve recalled an ambitious faculty modeler who decided to incorporate India into his data set without developing any grasp of its history or culture. "Isn't Dehli the national language of India?,' the undaunted chap asked. Everything looks like easy prey if you never tried to capture it and just need to look as if you have. Practitioners often slip into the touristic assumption that American values and practices are, or ought to be, universal. They often get away with flawed concoctions by invoking the axiom that numbers and their allegedly neutral formal theories make whatever they do scientific.
The American reform movement has two prongs. One is opposition to the non-competitive process by which political scientists in the world's second largest democracy have chosen to organize themselves. The second is opposition to the hegemony of formal and quantitative work in the journals and fori of the Association, and support for diversity in forms of knowledge. Opposition has taken several forms. The most severe criticisms of monopolistic formal-quantitative approaches have targeted the American Political Science Review, flag ship journal of the Association. The journals of regional associations likewise have come under scrutiny. These august organs are used by many departments as a certifying authorities for faculty recruitment, promotion and tenure, which is useful particularly for departments who wish to relieve themselves of the onerous burden of personally reading and evaluating the work of prospective candidates.
In an initial dismissive response to perestroikans Ada Finifter, APSR journal editor in 2001, evinced her belief that only sordid ambition was at stake, and was unable to imagine why so many prominent dissenters were upset since they are so successful at publishing their work anyway. Finifter was wholly oblivious to the ominous ambiguity inherent in claiming that all is well so long as scholars provide "high-quality work using methods appropriate to the research problem" - as if the very definition of those estepmed methods were not the major issue.
Still, in 2001, a conciliatory APSA announced the selection of a Perestroika-backed candidate as President, Harvard's Theda Skocpol. Even this move was viewed with some suspicion out of concern that the APSA honchos reckoned that Skocpol, despite renown for being no pushover, might be co-opted into the tight coteries of the East coast network and so opt to preserve the old undemocratic mechanisms. Everyone has read their Machiavelli - in which case, of course, it is rather harder to be successfully Machiavellian. Most dissidents were pleased that, as Mr. Perestroika put it, there was a tantalizing prospect of a "dismantling of the Orwellian system that we have in the APSA." Yet it speaks volumes that junior scholars today still fear to reveal identities in a profession that purports to prize vigorous open exchange. When lifelong students of the way power works express surprise, and in some cases dumbfounding indignation, that some perestroikans must conceal their identities for fear of reprisals, one gets a whiff of apparatchiki or else naifs at work, even among some perestroikans. 'One does not need to be a rocket scientist - or a political scientist - to see that transparency does not always serve insurgency well,' Anne Norton replied to a few indignant perestroikans who primly demanded that Mr. Perestroika disclose his/their identity.
"If P 'came out of the closet' and turned out to be a graduate student at Michigan State, a junior faculty member at Los Angeles Community College, a recent PhD with no job and no book contract, one esteemed recent PhD from Chicago with a visiting post at a small college, and some senior scholar somewhere, how many of us would give their collective opinions equal weight with those of Anne Norton, Rogers Smith? Sure we all would," pointedly writes Michael Bosia. "But talk to graduate students and recent PhDs (and many scholars) about why they don't post on Perestroika, and you might learn that we don't weigh all voices equally. The group P, then, equalizes the discussion. Perestroika or P is a disembodied voice with no more power than the ability to remind and recall."
Since 2001 the network has undergone two 'constitutional crises': one over whether to become a formalized institution with officers (rejected) and the other whether to become a forum for general political criticism (mostly rejected). Apart from the decision not to become a formal organization, the e-mail net-work, which continues to be brokered by the mysterious Mr. Perestroika, has become semi-institutionalized. It has given rise to relatively coherent project collaboration by colleagues who often have never seen each other. In 2003 a committee of major scholars was formed to oversee list serve traffic while at the same time protecting Mr. Perestroika's identity. A list serve, or course, cannot be free from foibles. Discussants often get diverted to hobbyhorse concerns of a few garrulous members. The list serve recently seemed in danger of takeover by prominent conservatives who, in a hard era spanning Reagan, Bushs senior and junior, and a Southern Democrat who scuttled the US welfare system, complained that they suffer awful discrimination inside the liberal Academy.
Theda Skocpol was succeeded as APSA President in September 2003 by perestroikan Susanne Hoeber Rudolph. Rudolph, Skocpol and predecessor Robert Putnam appointed perestroikans to various decision bodies of the Association. An initiative set in motion earlier to launch a new journal as an alternative to the parochialism of the APSR, and give members a choice, was accelerated by the Perestroika presence. Jennifer Hochschld oversaw the first few years of 'Perspective on Politics.' New APSR editor Lee Siegelman acknowledged the grievances concerning absence of diversity in his journal. Issues of the APSR under his watch have shown improvement. From the September 2002 to the February 2004 issue, an inquisitive Perestroikan found that twice as many qualitative articles (10 - 14%) appeared as in the prior decade. A self-nominated committee on reform of Association governance also was busy formulating proposals for competitive elections..
Not everything smacks of sweetness and light. A "Mr. Pravda" intervened in the list serve to suggest Perestrokans were motivated by sheer careerism. There is a grain of truth to this, as no movement is made up entirely of saints (not even saints). Still, association with Perestroika hardly wins you points from most hiring committees. Skocpol testily chided Perestroika itself as being unrepresentative while APSA nominating committee member Joan Vecchiarelli Scott opined that many reforms were in the pipeline anyway. Rudolph received many letters warning of sinister cooptation, that the reform agenda might well be buried by sly inertia and resistance. One prominent Perestroikan warned of Thermidore. Some fear that the new journal is fated to be deemed a second-class repository of non-formulaic manuscripts. Studies of the regional journals show they "continue to represent a narrow section of the scholarship and a small section of the membership in our profession." During Rudolph's term, which concluded last Fall, plans for elections were stymied within the Election committee. Current President Margaret Levi of the University of Washington, the third woman in a row, is not regarded as a perestroikan sympathizer, favoring instead a somewhat left-wing variant of rational choice. However, President-Elect Ira Katznelson of Columbia University, who assumes office in September, very much favors methodological pluralism.
One formidable problem that Perestroikans haven't solved is how to introduce diversity into departmental hiring processes, which are said to be largely controlled by the hegemonic formalist persuasion. Recent discussions in cyberspace raised the possibility of an informal process to rank departments according to degree of diversity, relying on the information process itself as a form of critique and consciousness-raising. So far, the discussion is held up by finicky questions of, you guessed it, methodology. Perestroikans certainly do not oppose formal methods or mathematical models, Susanne Rudolph stresses, but only resist their consecration as holy devices, squeezing out rival cultural, historical and psychological approaches. Rudolph asserts that the essential objective is "high-quality work using methods appropriate to the research problem," but follows fellow dissident Margaret Keck of John Hopkins University in believing that "the problem dictates the method" - not the other way around.
Like much else in the world of American politics, the Perestroika movement is many-stranded. The objectives of several marginalized demographic groups within the Association overlap with those of Perestroika. Skocpol was supported by the women's caucus while Rudolph was supported by the women's caucus, the black caucus, the lesbian and gay caucus, and the Hispanic caucus.
Ironically, when the September 11 attacks occurred a ferocious debate erupted that was sidetracked quickly to other websites. Most perestroikans are shy of provoking splits within their fragile melange of methodological approaches and political leanings. In contrast, Chris Howell of Oberlin argues that over-reliance on quantitative methods are only a symptom and that the "real goal is a critical and engaged political science that does not readily conform to what the powers that be want of it." Certainly, a key "purpose of education is precisely to promote reflection on preferences," Mark Graber noted. Timothy Luke observed how "formally inclined rational choicers look down on others as story tellers and journalists" Indeed, no single epithet is more damning. A rigidly self-defined political science department in North Carolina some years ago contemptuously discarded a young academic as being little more than a mere journalist -- just months before he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for a political biography.
Mr. Perestroika sees the nature and organizational form of the insurgency as aiming to retain "the amorphous character of this movement and list group. However, we will form working groups in democracy, publishing, future initiatives to broaden intellectual base. In the same vein, perestroika as it stands needs to make a real effort to draw in people of color and other oft-marginalized communities if it is to make any valid claims to representativeness." There is always a lurking danger of serious rifts among a delicately constructed coalition of scholars who are up against a cohesive set of opponents. There also is always room for humility. "I rarely encounter any political scientist," said Professor Rogers Smith during an online chat, "who is 100 percent versatile in all the methods that are employed within political science." A discipline that is "methodologically dexterous is bound to advance more effectively," observed former president Skocpol, "than one becoming overly specialized in narrow or fixed techniques."
The hard tasks now for the rebels are to consolidate gains, decide an agenda, mollify various factions, debate strategy, and maintain a perestroikan presence at regional and national conferences. All rebels do agree that diversity of methods must be encouraged and that APSA elections must be democratized. They are looking into and contestng NSF and SSRC funding practices, which some believe have uncritically backed the rise of quantitative hegemony. There is also some attention trained on the permanent non-elected APSA bureaucracy who, as perestroikan Ido Oren found, have a rather intriguing history of links to the national security establishment.
The overwhelming practical challenge remains inducing changes in hiring and promotion criteria, which are controlled not by the APSA but by individual departments. So there is a long struggle ahead on literally hundreds of fronts. The dissidents hope that the effort to improve democracy within their profession will also help improve democratic practices outside. The increasingly otherworldly methods of "the social sciences make it difficult to communicate with and make our work relevant to the wider public," laments Chicago's Lloyd Rudolph. "We have to know and live with differences within our profession as well as in the world." Or, as Forrest Gump might aptly have put it, "rational is as rational does."