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09 August 2012

The Myopics of Political Science

UPDATE (8/15/2012): Please see my own response to this post here.


I have a growing disagreement with Political Science as a discipline (and, yes, I'm painting a pretty broad stroke here, I know). Much of PoliSci is a study of "the game" with little or no concern for the effects of the outcomes of the political games that get played out in or between our democracies. While the magnitude of effect is debatable, it does matter who wins. Winners not only get to tell the history, but in some very material ways, winners dictate reality. As an example, just take two of the hot-button issues of the day: access to legal abortion and gay rights. Whom we elect matters in terms of these two things because of the laws that get passed, the policies that get enforced, and the constitutional review of both. While political scientists have done a superlative job at investigating the process of legislation, execution, and adjudication, it systematically ignores the outcome of these processes.

If the discipline of Political Science existed on an island, all of this would be fine and even laudable. These things need to be studied and understood. However, PoliSci exists among us, insinuating to many that the game is all that counts. We should understand the game as the means that it is, a means to some ends. Specialized disciplines too often extend their specific ends as the ends. Politics should only matter as a means to some ends.

Many today lament what is perceived as a problem among political elites who play politics-as-a-game at the expense of what is best collectively. Obstructionist tactics in Congress are one great example. Losing perspective and thinking of the political process as the ends instead of the means often leads elected officials to sabotage the system while ignoring the larger and longer-lasting consequences. I wonder how much of this is an inevitable part of our nature as social beings in a democracy and how much is a more malleable part of our culture. This seems ripe for comparative-historical research.

Undoubtedly, Political Science is not alone. There are other disciplines (e.g. history) that can easily fall prey to these same faults. I'm not trying to bash my non-sociologist colleagues or their invaluable life's work, but I do think it's important for us all to take a step back and recontextualize our disciplinary pursuits.


  1. It seems to me that the study of political science IS the study of the game. Political Science is about the process.

    Determining the outcome and spillover effects of different policies is more the realm of Public Administration and Policy.

  2. I don't disagree, Daniel. What I'm trying to argue is that any discipline that studies process detached from result runs the risk of valuing the process despite the result (or at times even over the result). The study of the processes is *essential*--but only in so much as it has an effect on a result. If Political Science has splintered its concern over the results into a new discipline, policy studies, the problem has been institutionalized. Sociology is historically guilty of something quite similar as Social Work, an application of the science, was jettisoned long ago.

  3. Actually, the profession is NOT as detached from the results as you seem to think. The professional pretense at "neutrality" is actually results oriented. The political principle underlying poli sci is (like Hegel said)- what is is good. The profession gets numerous perks for refraining from being critical of the established powers. Cushy university positions, donations to big schools from "nonprofits," free conventions in places like Las Vegas, and New Orleans (this month), paid sabbaticals, easy access to publishing companies, etc.

    RE: "I wonder how much of this is an inevitable part of our nature as social beings in a democracy and how much is a more malleable part of our culture. This seems ripe for comparative-historical research." Done, and by an old pro!Read, The Human Birth Defect
    William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
    Twitter: wjkno1
    Author: Internet Voting Now! and The Human Birth Defect

  4. Ah, I gotcha now.

    I'm always in a dilemma because part of me sees the process from an operative mindset (ie, how can it be exploited) based on my experiences in undegrad years. This is obviously in stark contrast to the policy outcome focus of my grad school experience.

  5. William, I'm confused by your comment. If you'll send me copies of your book(s), I'd be glad to post a review here on the blog.

  6. I received an email comment from a respected friend and colleague in PoliSci who thought that I was in some way making a statement about the "merits" of her profession. On the contrary, I noted the important role that the discipline plays. I applaud PoliSci's work in understanding the process; at the same time, I caution that often that has come at the expense of the context of the process.