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Political Science: What is it Good For?

One of the questions I most dread being asked is: “What do you do?” Coming from a mostly working class background, I am one of the few members of my family who actually got a university education, let alone a second diploma. So when I tell them that I am currently pursuing my Masters in political science, I am almost always met with a confused look: “Um, what exactly is political science? You guys study politics?”. Their questioning inevitably leads me to embark on a convoluted and often confusing explanation of what exactly political scientists do, often leaving my listeners just as clueless as they were at the beginning.

For many, the political scientist is purely relegated to overt political activities, whether it be as politicians (although, ironically, politicians are more likely to hail from disciplines other than political science such as law or economics) or perhaps civil servants. Others still place us simply in academia, as observers sitting in an ivory tower discussing things that do not matter in everyday life.

I think the main reason for which the discipline is so hard to explain is that, like all social sciences, we ultimately study human behaviour. Human behaviour, unfortunately, is not readily defined nor always easily explained. The one thing I think we can hold constant, however, is the human will to survive, in other words, the driving force of our existence. At the very basis of this survival instinct is
the notion of power, for what is surviving without having the upper hand on someone or something else?

This notion of power can be examined through a variety of lenses and within different contexts. It is the political scientist who chooses to frame the way in which s/he perceives it. For as many behaviours we can observe, you can surely find a political scientist who has sought to explain and understand them. Indeed, as political scientists, we produce and validate concepts and theories of human action, as action is the exercise of power. Ultimately, we seek to develop the relationship between knowledge and power. Like all social sciences, this means political science can get messy.

Throughout the years, the discipline has come under fire for, quite simply, not being a real science, which has lead to some existential angst for its proponents. Indeed, the American Political Science Association, which held its 2010 annual review in Washington, itself questioned the importance of political science in a theme panel entitled “Is Political Science Relevant?”. The critics denounce social science for being incapable of producing research that is rigorous, predictive and has generalizable conclusions. This has lead many in the field to try and transpose the principles of the natural sciences in their work, to varying degrees of success. In doing so, one wonders how this is changing the field. Should we, as political scientists, aspire to be exactly like the natural scientist? We most definitely need to maintain a level of rigour within our research, but do the principles of natural science, such as universality, context-independency and cumulativeness, lead us to an unrealistic interpretation of human behaviour?

As Flyvbjerg suggests, we need to recognize that these natural scientific principles can only provide us partial knowledge on how we behave in everyday life. It is one thing to study an inanimate object in a controlled environment and a whole other thing to understand why people choose to vote or not. In Making Social Science Matter (2001), Flyvbjerg seeks to move away from these principles and proposes instead a more philosophical approach based on Aristotle’s notion of phronesis. He discusses the various forms of knowledge that any given expert will exert. Techne is knowledge understood for its instrumental capabilities, as a means to an end. Episteme is knowledge in the form of disinterested understanding, that is, knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Finally, phronesis is knowledge as practical wisdom. It is the exercise of using one’s knowledge within a particular logic guided by values and principles. It is therefore a combination of techne and episteme, with a dash of philosophical introspection.

Inspired by Weber, the emphasis is put on the idiographic nature of the expert’s work, rather than on its nomothetic nature. Indeed, our goal is not simply to “discover” laws or make predictions in order to explain a certain phenomenon. More importantly, we seek to understand it by giving meaning to actions. We can most certainly draw on principles of natural science. By solely relying on them, however, we would be compromising our ability to understand the importance of human behaviour in its varying historical contexts. As Flyvbjerg so eloquently puts it, “The task of phronetic social science is to clarify and deliberate about the problems and risks we face and to outline how things may be done differently, in full knowledge that we cannot find ultimate answers to these questions or even a single version of what these questions are.” (Flyvbjerg 140)

The political scientist, then, should be focused on the status of values and interests in society. It should not be about trying to reduce human experience to a formulaic concept. Rather, we should understand the study of political behaviour as a dialectic between different people, who interpret their lives and roles within society in a variety of ways. To deny these things would be to create a theory that disparages the dynamism of human experience and interpretation. Regardless of the attempts to regularize human behaviour, the fact remains it cannot be completely disassociated from its context.

This context-dependency in turn influences the role of the political scientist. Indeed, the area or the behaviour the political expert will choose to study can determine a different role for her/him within society. More generally, we find the role of the political analyst. Regardless of the type of political analyses the analyst may embark upon, at the core of her/his activities is the contextual examination of a situation whereby s/he observes and interprets a reality. What often becomes clear, as it did in Des anthropologues à l’OMC (2011) and through my experience at the Laval municipal council in November 2012, is that the reality is often muddled, confusing and, sometimes, downright disappointing. It is perhaps precisely for this reason that many in the field have sought to emulate the natural scientists who manage to produce clear and straightforward research. One has to wonder, though, if this has caused us to avoid asking bigger questions on issues of power and the state. Indeed, we often choose to look at smaller puzzles, interesting little quandaries that instead of trying to solve or better the larger, often unmanageable, problems of real life, simply act as a mental exercise for the solver. In this sense, the criticism of the academic in the ivory tower seems fitting. However, the political scientist can be much more than just an analyst.

At some point inour careers, many of us (and I do not just mean political scientists here) will find ourselves in some form of a bureaucracy.  Indeed, the bureaucratic model has proven to be one of the most efficient ways of running everything from a small business to a government. For the political scientist acting as a bureaucrat, chances are s/he has some hand in deciding public policy that has an effect on thousands of people in a society. While generally, it is the politician who wields the ultimate power of decision-making, it is the bureaucrat who greatly influences the process by handling information and giving recommendations. In fact, these seemingly invisible people can have a significant impact on the direction of a state’s engagement in any given situation. The reason why the bureaucratic model is so appreciated is that it provides structure, discipline and a supposed neutrality to the decision-making process. If this discussion so far has taught us anything, however, is that in real life things are not quite so black and white. Firstly, there is the whole question of the ethical standards of the bureaucratic culture. Should unelected officials exercise so much power?[1]Secondly, as was evident in Eyewitness to a Genocide (2002), it is impossible to completely de-politicize decision-making for the simple fact that we are dealing with human beings. Statistics and facts only get us so far when we are managing policies that impact the lives of people. Here again, we are confronted with our desire to develop clear-cut concepts and theories to make sense of a messy reality. We try to convince ourselves that we can undertake research and implementation that is completely objective. We simply cannot. I am not saying that this type of thinking has no place in political science. To the contrary, I believe that it should indeed be a starting point. Ultimately, however, the decision-maker will surely have to make a value judgment in order to come to a final decision. Subjectivity certainly has its place: ethics and morality most definitely come into play in the decision-making process. This brings us to another role for the political scientist.

The engaged intellectual, as opposed to the bureaucrat, is front-and-centre and seeks to play an active role in society. Indeed, s/he tries to merge intellectual theory and everyday practice in order to push for societal change. According to Edward Saïd (1993), an intellectual’s mission in life is to advance human freedom and knowledge. The intellectual achieves this sometimes as an outsider who seeks to disturb the status quo, other times as a member of society who addresses her/his concerns to the public as a whole. In either case, s/he is constantly balancing the public and the private in an effort to transfer knowledge between academia and the greater public. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, two prominent American political scientists, do just that in Winner-Take-All-Politics (2010). In their bestseller, Hacker and Pierson sound the alarm in America: the level of inequality among its classes has risen dramatically in the last thirty years. They offer us a mid-range theory that develops a causal relation between individual variables (such as technology, the economy, the media, culture, the societal structure in place as well as the political institutions and actors) and the dependant variable, that of the increase in inequality. While their explanations are not always convincing, they are nonetheless based on a scientific method, whereby they observe inequality and come up with a set of causes and effects. However, to focus solely on the scientific quality of the work would be missing the fundamental point of it. The goal of this book, I think, was not really to create a theory, but rather to transform the boundaries of American society and to bring its people together for reasons of solidarity, to make them aware of a reality that is often lost in today’s political debate.

Similar to this figure is that of the political entrepreneur. As the economic entrepreneur is a driving force in the economy, the political entrepreneur is a driving force in politics. Indeed, s/he is an impetus for the evolution of political institutions. In this sense, Sidney Tarrow is a great example of one such entrepreneur as he seeks to develop a new theory of group dynamics and citizen engagement. In his aptly named Power in movement (1998), he provides us with a comprehensive explanation of causes, characteristics, dynamics and consequences of social movements, which he defines as “(…)collective challenges, based on common purposes and social solidarities, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents and authorities.” (Tarrow 9) Unlike Hacker and Pierson, Tarrow is not simply informing the public on a particular phenomenon, rather he seeks to provide a more developed theory of the relationship between power and human action in the sphere of contentious politics, in which “[c]ollective action becomes contentious when it is used by people who lack regular access to representative institutions, who act in the name of new or unaccepted claims, and who behave in way that fundamentally challenge others or authorities.” (Tarrow 7) In this sense, however, it is not just Tarrow who is the political entrepreneur. Indeed, social movements themselves and the individuals who constitute them can be understood as entrepreneurs as well as they seek to implement a new political project or discussion within their societies. In the end, the goal of all social movements is essentially to transform the socio-political landscape in one way or another. What Tarrow demonstrates is the power in human action, that is, the capability of a group in society to momentarily seize control of the dialogue by investing time and resources and by building coalitions in order to supply collective goods to the general public. In other words, as members of a society, we all have the power to make a change. Am I being too optimistic here? Perhaps. But, if Tarrow’s work has shown us anything, it is that throughout history, if the right combination of factors can be met, we truly can transform our social and political realities.

These are just some of the many hats that a political scientist can wear in society. The very fact that s/he can take on so many roles, I believe, is a testament the far-reaching scope of the field of political science. In studying the question of power and the state in its multiple forms, we can gain a better understanding not only of the individual human experience in relation to society and to its political institutions across historical contexts, but we can also interpret the existence of different societies based on a variety of values and interests.

It will soon be seven years since I’ve begun my life as a political scientist, and I have yet to completely understand the breadth and depth of this field. For me, that’s where the interest lies: knowing I can never know enough and will always be learning. So when I cannot explain what a political scientist does in a succinct manner, it is only because political science itself cannot be reduced to a simple explanation. Surely, one can say that the study of politics is essentially the study of issues of power and the state and how humans experience both. But I think in doing so we would be doing a great injustice to the field. While this can give people a basic understanding of it, it betrays the sheer amount of areas of study within the discipline itself and lacks the nuances we as political scientists provide. Indeed, as a political scientist, I see some concept or other playing out in everyday life.

So, is political science useful? Of course. One of its greatest advantages is that it exists on the border of the pure sciences and humanities: it helps us understand who we are and why we act the way we do. I think, however, that the field may be loosing its way. With political cynicism at a high in the Western world, as political scientists we should be at the forefront of the political discourse. As Rothstein says, in the end we “(…)need to focus on the problems that plague every system of governance.” (Rothstein 2005)

[1] These types of concerns can become crucial in extreme situations. Indeed, in Holocaust studies, one of the main issues has been to try and understand and explain why so many heinous acts were actually committed by the ‘ordinary bureaucrat’ (Rothstein 2005)


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