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How Political Science is Failing Us: Have We Lost Our Focus?

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I can personally attest to the exclusivist trend in upper-division academia in at least the departments of Philosophy and Political Theory. What’s more, any cursory examination of JSTOR’s holdings would reveal that out of every 100 articles, only a handful are immediately accessible to undergraduates in terms of vocabulary, scope, and readability. This attitude is nothing new; Arthur Schopenhauer famously attacked Hegel in his preface to The World as Will and Representation for being virtually unreadable and inaccessible, calling him, “that intellectual Caliban,” (Schopenhauer). However, in recent years it has reached a fevered pitch, and now more than ever Ivory Tower academics sequester themselves away and deliver symposium topics that few in the room understand, and that the man-on-the-street could never hope to grasp. It is my sincerest conviction that the role of any true academic scholar should not just be to endeavor to understand or quantify our world’s most puzzling issues, but also to synthesize that information in such a way that it is accessible. But all too often whatever intellectual work has been truly done is awash in a sea of confusing language and vaguely defined concepts.

Herbert Werlin laments this in his article, “Political Science: Hard Science, Soft Science, Primitive Science.” On the confusing treatment of key concepts he says, “Ask a political scientist what he or she understands by ‘politics.’ The reaction is likely to be a combination of annoyance and confusion, indicating just how primitive political science remains,” (Werlin). Politics, the very concept that all such writing is and should be immersed in, remains undefined and unexplained while minutia is squabbled over indefinitely. This is where I believe a truer union between political science and political theory is in order. Carl Schmitt spends an entire book, The Concept of the Political, attempting to clarify just what a political entity is, its properties, and how it behaves with non-political entities. While I do not necessarily agree with his definition, I do believe we must have a foundational understanding theoretically of the concepts we are measuring scientifically to truly come to any understanding.

In his article, “The State in Political Science: How We Become What We Study” Theordore Lowi describes such a union before law and ideals were replaced with cost-benefit analysis and economics: “Works of political science of the 1930s and 1940s were magnificent in their ability to describe a complex political whole; thorough, honest, and imaginative in their use of statistics to describe a dynamic reality; and powerful and cogent in pointing out the flaws and departures from U.S. ideals,” (Lowi). But such a union and merging (or rather, a rejoining) of disciplines is the first step.

It is not enough that political elites understand these concepts and their implications for real-world application. The next step is to synthesize it into an unadulterated form that at least a portion of the public can grasp. I believe this is another reason, as Russell Hardin says in “Wither Political Science?” why “the knowledge of political science per se has little currency in popular debate.” Political science as it is currently conducted has almost no impact on public knowledge – citizens are not taking the findings of academic research and applying it to the way they consider politics. I believe the loss of ideals and our new economic focus is a byproduct of this shift – when the ideas are not intellectually available to the majority of people, they will cease to operate upon those ideas. My hope is that we will see a change in the way ideas and academics are treated by both intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike. Ideas change the world, but they can have little effect if no one can understand them.

[1] Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1969. xxi.
[2] Werlin, Herbert. “Political Science: Hard Science, Soft Science, Primitive Science.” PS: Political Science and Politics, December 2002: 660.
[3] Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. Chicago: University of Chicago Press Ltd., 1932.
[4]Lowi, Theodore J. “The State in Political Science: How We Become What We Study.” The American Political Science Review, March 1992. 2.
[5]Hardin, Russell. “Wither Political Science?” PS: Political Science and Politics, June 2002. 184.

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