This article appears on Facile Gestures courtesy of the Daily Princetonian. [ed. note – while specific to the Politics Department at Princeton, I believe is applicable, in whole or in part, to the academic field of political science generally – j.m.]

by Vinay Sitapati, Guest Contributor

If ever there were a monument to tragedy, it is an innocuous red building by the Woody Woo fountain. The Department of Politics at Princeton is perhaps the finest in the nation, which makes it even more representative of the scandal that American political science has become. Teaching here is dominated by the fetishizing of certain methods, a cold shoulder to theory and the abandonment of reality. The result is a combination of model-made abstraction and number-numbing specificity that has made political science irrelevant to politicians, policy makers and, lest we forget, the general public.

How do political science departments manage to pull off this scam? How do they seduce thoughtful graduate students into a world pathetically at odds with the reality they claim to represent?

This is how: Take a very bright, young graduate student. If someone that fresh has spent the first two years of the Ph.D. program in politics taking six classes in quantitative and formal methods as well as compulsory seminar classes on the “canon,” she has little time for substantive classes that give her a theoretical background on the questions she will ultimately answer in her dissertation. The results are devastating. Not only does the post-generals dissertation-ready student have little sense of the “reality” she wishes to study, she is woefully short of a theoretical framework.

What she will have is a strong understanding of this animal called “methods.” But it’s only some parts of this animal that she will know well. If we were actually exposed to the entire range of methods that understanding politics involves, we would learn archival research, ethnography and interview techniques in addition to the undeniably useful methods of game theory and statistics. What we learn instead are six classes of this quantitative stuff, and one class, if at all, on an all-encompassing beast named “qualitative methods.”

Added to the department’s preference for certain quantitative and formal methods is the unsaid belief that empirical political science must be divorced from normative concerns. In this view, the study of politics is a purely descriptive exercise. Questions of “good” and “bad” are parceled into “political theory,” a subfield hermetically sealed from the rest of the discipline.

So it is inevitable that politics graduate students choose narrow questions backed by the certainty of clinical data sets — parcels of reality that can be reduced to something to which they can apply their peculiar methods. Even better, why choose regions, why travel to places, why learn the language? Politics, after all, fits into grand narratives that can be woven by cross national regressions sitting in Firestone basement. Why deal with the vagaries of power when generalizable truths are only a click away?
Behind all of this is the widespread belief that American political science departments will not hire purely “qualitative” types. Genuine scholarship then becomes a slave to second-guessing the academic market on the assumption that only quantitative dissertations are valuable. Since “value” in academia is what the profession considers valuable, this prophesy will in time self-fulfill.

Notice the similarity between this scam and a bigger one, the recession of 2008. A cartel of whiz kids and their cronies in power chanted the verities of mathematically-certain risk diversification long enough and loud enough that the market began to sway to their mantras. That was, of course, until market pricing skewed so far off from intrinsic value that the entire edifice came crashing down.

Princeton’s Department of Politics is no Lehman Brothers. Alas. The autonomy granted to academia will be ritually abused to protect it from real-world pressure. If asked to produce something “relevant,” political scientists will shrug that this is the job of public policy or journalism. Our job, they will condescendingly argue, is to get tenure at top universities. And when we do, we will hire students who will be shaped in our own image. This decadently self-indulgent world will also self-perpetuate.

This column is hardly the first such criticism. The Perestroika movement within political science in the early 2000s was a reasoned rebellion advocating methodological pluralism. Look where that got us. Meanwhile, those of us who assumed that a political science Ph.D. would help us understand how power works in the real world — the horror, the horror! — must hide behind the few professors who fight the good fight or type feral howls in hope of inciting debate.

 

Vinay Sitapati is a politics graduate student from Mumbai, India. He can be reached at sitapati@princeton.edu.