Is Political Science Obsolete?

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If you went to college, there's a good chance you took a political science course. If you work in politics, you probably majored in poli sci and maybe got a graduate degree as well. If you're really a pro, maybe you even got published in one of the many political science journals put out by university presses. These journals are a big deal in academia. Their pages represent the national dialogue of the country's political scientists, stationed mostly at colleges and think tanks. But do they accomplish anything valuable anymore? NYU professor and political scientist Lawrence Mead, writing in the political science journal "Perspectives on Politics," argues that political science has become obsolete:

Today's political scientists often address very narrow questions and they are often preoccupied with method and past literature ... Scholars are focusing more on themselves, less on the real world. ... Research questions are getting smaller and data-gathering is contracting. Inquiry is becoming obscurantist and ingrown.

Foreign Policy's Stephen Walt, a political scientist at Harvard, presents a theory why this has happened. "The issue isn't method per se; it's the tendency of many scholars to ask smaller, less significant, and less controversial questions and to produce what he describes as 'analyses of jewel-like precision that ... generate only minor findings and arouse little interest beyond specialists.' This is accompanied by an aversion to topics that might make a scholar visible outside the academy -- or god forbid, controversial -- because that might screw up your shot at tenure or get your criticized in print."

University of Nebraska political scientist Ari Kohen differs a bit.

I would argue that many political scientists are engaging with such questions, but that the way in which the answers are being delivered is problematic. When we rely on advanced statistics to speak for themselves rather than explaining our findings in clear prose — or when we choose not to translate key quotations in French, German, Latin, or Greek into English — we do a disservice to our potential readers, or chase them away completely. These are choices that don’t have much to do with tenure or with controversy … and, ideally, political scientists will choose to do better.

Whatever the nature of political science insularity, the causes of that tendency, or its ramifications for the public discourse, this is not a new argument. As Walt points out, famed and legitimately important political scientist Hans Morgenthau made a similar case in 1958:

[Political science] is neither hated nor respected, but treated with indifference as an innocuous pastime, is likely to have retreated into a sphere that lies beyond the positive or negative interests of society. The retreat into the trivial, the formal, the methodological, the purely theoretical, the remotely historical -- in short, the politically irrelevant -- is the unmistakable sign of a 'non-controversial' political science which has neither friends nor enemies because it has no relevance for the great political issues in which society has a stake. History and methodology, in particular, become the protective armor which shields political science from contact with the political reality of the contemporary world. Political science, then, resembles what Tolsoi said modern history has become: 'a deaf man answering questions which no one has asked him.'

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