Is Political Science Becoming Irrelevant?
Over at his Foreign Policy blog, Stephen Walt considers the question asked in a recent Perspectives on Politics article [gated] by Lawrence Mead, namely whether political science is irrelevant, at least insofar as no one outside of political science reads political science journal articles.
The problem, Walt asserts (agreeing with Mead) is ”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 sounds right to me, at least to some extent. As a political theorist, after all, I can sympathize on two levels:
- I’m not interested in the least in reading much of what’s published in the American Political Science Review (the journal that Mead analyzes in his article); it seldom speaks to my research or teaching interests as a political theorist and it generally seems as narrowly focused as Walt (and Mead) suggest. Further, it often requires mathematical skills that I neither possess nor am interesting in attempting to acquire;
- Political theory stopped being relevant to political scientists — much less to the general public — when it became excessively insular. The vast majority of people don’t want to read — and don’t see any need for — another article on what Aristotle meant by using one word rather than another in one paragraph of the Posterior Analytics.
That said, I’m not at all sure that I agree with Walt’s further assessment that political scientists have “an aversion to topics that might make a scholar visible outside the academy.” Nor am I convinced that the tenure requirements or the desire to avoid controversy are preventing political scientists from engaging with questions that might speak to the world outside the academy.
Indeed, 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.
Lastly, Walt suggests that the political science bloggers might be our hope for the future, as well as an indictment of the current state of the discipline. He says:
I’d argue that the willingness of younger scholars to take up blogging as a form of public engagement is a prominent counter-tendency. Could it be that younger scholars are just as bored producing “scholasticist” works as many of us are reading them, and that they find blogging far more fulfilling than adding another (largely) unread article to the catalog of academic journals. And if that’s the case, what does it tell us about the priorities and values of contemporary academe?
I’m not sure, in the end, that the existence of political science bloggers really tell us much. My sense [warning: the n is admittedly small] is that the best of these bloggers are also producing a good deal of interesting research that’s being published in academic journals and that their colleagues are reading both their blog posts and their academic articles. But, if they’re anything like me, they also value the immediacy of blogging: instead of writing something and then waiting for a year for anyone to be able to read it in print (and then waiting perhaps another year for anyone to respond to it in print), it’s possible to write something and get immediate feedback from other political scientists and from a broader group of readers (since blogging is open to the public while journals keep articles behind paywalls — including the article in Perspectives about the withering relevance of political science to the outside world, mentioned and linked to by Walt).
In a happy coincidence, Henry Farrell just wrote about this issue of keeping journals like Perspectives closed to the public over at The Monkey Cage while I was writing this post. How’s that for immediacy with regard to political science blogging, not to mention relevance?!