post-autistic economics review
Issue no. 37, 28 April 2006
article 5



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Prying Open American Political ‘Science’

Bruce Cumings and Kurt Jacobsen   (University of Chicago, USA)


© Copyright: Bruce Cumings and Kurt Jacobsen 2006


            Numbers are seductive. We love what we are good at so it is hardly surprising when a math wiz imagines that numbers contain the whole truth and nothing but the truth. A mathematically talented teen recently told one of us of an alleged encounter centuries ago of a famous French philosopher with a Russian mathematician who proceeded to spout an algebraic equation and to claim, because the equation made sense, that he had proven there was a god. The philosopher, according to the story, was dumbstruck, which our young friend interpreted as abject surrender to a superior mind. We replied that the philosopher doubtless was flabbergasted that a bright fellow could be so gullible as to believe that a perfectly enclosed and self-referential system like mathematics necessarily had anything reliable to say about the wider and wilder world around it.


           Perhaps we were interpreting too, but the point stands. Run numbers through a complicated enough set of procedures and they enchant especially managerial mentalities who like to conjure a tidy abstract universe where there’s no need to use careful judgment based on extensive research and hard-won experience about the way societies operate. Fill in the blank spaces to a formula and, presto, you’ve solved the problem. Skip all the steps in between and forget there was any processing as to what the numbers mean. A great deal gets lost when numbers are used without humility or reflection. Lousy policies are one result. Critics argue, for example, that environmental costs cannot be expressed adequately in money terms. What figure captures all the harm of polluted air, soil or water? The use of GDP to calculate prosperity is misleading since it counts disasters positively - the costs of clean-up raise GDP.  Numbers may get you from here to the Moon or Baghdad but won’t tell you if the trip is worth it. Instead of regarding numbers as a necessary evil we need to beware of, econometricians typically treat them with adoration. Economists, laden with glittering faux Nobel prizes, have led a strong trend toward quantification in all the social science by deploying econometric models - models, moreover, that tend to favour neoliberal market schemes. (After all, nothing commodifies you like a number does.) 


          Accordingly, in American political science today any research paper lacking phalanxes of jitterbugging numbers seems suspect, not science at all. Political science  is  hardly  alone  these  days in  privileging  method  and numbers. Economics, of course, is  fully  colonized  by  this  mentality,  to  the  great  detriment  of economic  history. Sociology  neglects  its political and historical dimensions, and  thus  rarely  produces  figures  like  C. Wright Mills who  command  both  a  disciplinary  and  general  reading  public; and  even  in  history,  owing  to  different  theoretical  proclivities, political  history  is considered  boring  and  passe. The result is that  many  students  in top  universities  have  trouble  finding  courses  on actually-existing politics. A revolt was  brewing  among  some of their disgruntled teachers.


            So in October 2000 an anonymous American political scientist (or perhaps several of them) under the name “Mr. perestroika’ dispatched a scorching email to a number of noted senior figures in the discipline. The email excoriated the domination of political science by enthusiasts of formal theory and of quantitative methods, who tend to make common cause. The problem was not so much that certain factions within political science were ascendant but that formal theorists did not believe anything except their own brand of theory mattered and that many exponents of quantitative methods did not believe anything but their own manipulation of mathematical symbols deserved the label ‘method.’ Hence, they were disinclined, as they gained control of departments, to heed or hire any but their own. “Mr Perestroika" deplored these "poor game-theorists who cannot for the life of me compete with a third-grade economics student" yet are allowed to crush "diversity of methodologies and areas of the world that [American Political Science Association] 'purports' to represent."


            ‘Perestroika’ lamented that the cost to knowledge in the study of politics stood to be enormous in the sense of the fabled man with a hammer as his only tool treating everything as a nail, or seeing only hammers and nail-like items as worth knowing anything about. Disgruntlement with this dogma had been growing all along among other scholars, the sort who want to know their subjects well before playing reductionist games with them, and they were only awaiting a spark. So the email – likely inspired by the post-autistic economics movement in France - ignited a rousing scholarly movement in America.1  One could not hope to assemble a more unlikely band of insurrectionists, ranging from apprehensive grad students to greying professors ensconced in named chairs.


            Several  hundred tenured scholars signed a petition charging that a dangerous fad for formal models and number-crunching was squeezing out valuable forms of research. At the 2001 American Political Science Association (APSA) meetings attendance at several perestroika-themed panels spilled into the hallways. Well-known panelists included Penn's Rogers Smith, Harvard's Steve Walt, Johns Hopkins University's Margaret Keck, Colorado’s Sven Steinmo, Indiana’s Gregory Kasza, Chicago's Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd Rudolph and Yale’s Ian Shapiro and James Scott, the lattermost becoming perestroika's first representative on the APSA Council. Political science has "been taken over by methodological parochialists who believe that the only worthwhile scholarship in political science speaks the language of mathematics," said Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer of foes whom, he warned, were formidable. For the latter, only counting matters because mathematics conveys a sense of precision, as if numbers never lie. As the belief that quantitative data are not themselves a form of interpretation becomes institutionalised, this naïve orthodoxy excludes important sources of insight. One consequence is that economists and political scientists seem to have less and less to say about anything that we recognize as the world we move in. Most have nothing to say about expanding social inequalities, neo-imperialistic crusades and ecological woes.                 


            The perestroika movement – approximately 900 out of 15 thousand American Political Science Association members - is the latest round in a recurrent battle between different notions of legitimate research  in the social sphere. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz once joked that in social science old ideas tend less to fade away than to go into second editions. The struggle today harks back to the 1960s when the Caucus for a New Political Science arose to combat pretensions of behavioral ‘hard science,’  to battles in sociology departments in the 1950s such as Columbia where Paul Lazersfeld’s statisticians and C. Wright Mills more plain spoken disciples squared off, and even stretch centuries back to the piquant (and self-serving) Latin dictum that only knowledge expressed in numbers matters.2


            Obviously there are scholars well-versed in both quantitative and qualitative methods who deftly integrate them. These few are not the problem. The field today is again enticed by the ambition that establishing a dominant method, as in 19th century physics, is the sine qua non of a first-rate science. It is just as reasonable to argue that the pursuit of a single paradigm is really the pursuit of the right not to have to think or raise discomfiting questions. Plug in pre-digested data and let the paradigm do the work for you. How very handy. One can see why this quest appeals to certain sorts of intellects. Numeracy is a wonderful thing - so long as it does not entail illiteracy in other fields.


            As Thomas Kuhn, and other historians and philosophers of science, attest, every paradigm is a selective device, making a particular kind of informational demand on the multi-layered nature of reality, and deliberately excluding other aspects of it.3  There is no way, within the boundaries of a single dominant paradigm, to discover if one is mistaken about the importance of those excluded aspects, and of those shunned perspectives. The paradigm you adopt pre-determines your answers. Further, because the profession seeks out, and rewards, generalizable propositions derived from studies of many (‘large-N”) cases, then those propositions simply are assumed to have counterparts in reality, no matter how Procrustean the methods used to slice reality down to such convenient size. Any savvy philosopher – and anyone who knows the cases on the ground intimately - can spot how flawed, indeed foolish, these notions are. 


            Rational choice theory derives from neoclassical economics and deploys simplifying assumptions about human behaviour to boil down complex experiences to prioritised "rational" choices that we presumably make in order to maximise our "utility" in any situation. Rational choice, and mathematical models that accompany it, have merits when used with humility, especially in studies of collective action. But its critics point out that the results are often trivial or else remote from reality.4  Formal theory, unchecked, gives carte blanche to cram all manner of oblong pegs into little square holes. Examples of silliness abound. “Is it our task to understand politics,” Perestroikan Greg Kasza of Indiana University therefore asks, “or to grapple with the logic of imaginary games?” What he and other perestroikans propose instead is ‘the idea of an ecumenical science. It is based on three principles: problem-driven research, methodological pluralism, and interdisciplinary inquiry.’ Apart from methodological dogmatism, Perestroikans are concerned about the stacked deck of APSA elections (where an unelected committee appoints the president for one year terms), reform of professional journals, and, most difficult of all, hiring practices.


            The movement was heartened in February 2001 when the APSA nominating committee selected Theda Skocpol of Harvard, an academic with diverse methodological skills, as president elect. Both Skocpol and predecessor Robert Putnam began including Perestroikans on decision bodies of the Association. The American Political Science Review, flagship journal of the APSR, and the journals of regional associations, came under scrutiny because they are often used by departments as a short-cut certifying process for faculty recruitment and promotion. If you don’t see print there, you often are in trouble. An initiative set in motion earlier by in-house critics of the APSR, to launch a   journal, Perspectives on Politics, as an alternative to the parochialism of the APSR, was accelerated  by Perestroika’s presence. A new editor of the APSR  recognized the grievances concerning the absence of diversity, and promised change. All was not sweetness and light internally either. Skocpol, in a show of presidential impartiality, chided Perestroika itself as unrepresentative while APSA nominating committee member Joan Vecchiarelli  Scott said – taking the role of Simon Schama  regarding the French revolution – that, ho hum, reforms were in the pipeline anyway.


            Still, the movement gained a major success in 2003 when the APSA presidency went to perestroikan Susanne Hoeber Rudolph of the University of Chicago. ‘One of the effects of 9/11 is a renewed awareness that Americans need enhanced capacity to understand and interpret the ‘other,” remarked Rudolph at the time. “Corridor talk in the Association is that my special focus in political science, comparative politics and India, which would ordinarily be a disadvantage in an association whose membership is concentrated on America and the West, [probably was] an advantage.”At first glance, the elegant and erudite Rudolph was not Hollywood central casting's idea of a rabble rouser, but academic trends drove many prominent people to the metaphorical barricades.  Rudolph received a batch of fretful letters warning darkly of thermidore or of cooptation by wily formalists. Some colleagues worry that the new journal Perspectives on Political Science launched in order to broaden the association's appeal is fated to be a second class ghetto. A self-nominated committee on reform of Association governance formulated proposals for competitive elections, which ultimately were stymied during Rudolph’s term. Rudolph’s successor Margaret Levi, the 3rd woman President in a row, was not a perestroikan but current President Ira Katznelson of Columbia University is regarded as sympathetic.


            So is perestroika an internet forum for the exchange of views, or a movement, or both?  “Perestroika is more an attitude, a set of concerns, an adherence to certain values as a scholar, that lead each of us to question the dominant paradigm in Political Science, but obviously for many different reasons,” perestroikan Michael Bosia sums up.  “Perestroika is a movement of critique, disorganized and uncentered, a forum for discussion, but never an organization seeking power for itself. Perestroikans are all of us who choose to identify as  critics of established orthodoxies in Political Science.”





1.On the post-autistic economics movement see Edward Fullbrook, ed, The Crisis in Economics (London: Routledge, 2004).


2. On the Caucus, see Philip Green and Sanford Levinson, eds,  Power  and  Community: Dissenting Essays in Political Science (New York: Pantheon, 1969).


3. See Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1962).


4. See, for example, Donald Green and Ian Shapiro , Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996) and Steve Walt, “Rational Choice or Rigor Mortis?: Rational Choice and Security Studies” International Security 23, 4 (Spring 1999), and the exchange  in the next issue.


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Bruce Cumings and Kurt Jacobsen,
”Prying Open American Political ‘Science’” post-autistic economics review, issue  no. 37, 28 April 2006, article 5, pp. 55-58,