Rethinking Political Science

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by Shola Adenekan

On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians are questioning the value of political science as an academic discipline and its relevance to the modern society. In the United States, Tom A. Coburn, a senator with the centre-right Republican Party wants funding stopped for the discipline. His Washington DC’s Capitol Hill office suggests that political science would be better left to pundits and voters alike, and wants funding to be directed instead to scientists working on "finding solutions for people with severe disabilities, or the next generation of bio-fuels, or engineering breakthroughs.”

Unsurprisingly, the call has not gone down well with academics in the field of political science who cautioned politicians not to belittle the value that the discipline adds to politics and to social life. They argue that many of the problems that the world will face in the 21st Century and beyond will be political, and have to be addressed by political science and academics working in the field. Others point out that, while technology may have produced various ways of addressing climate change and other environmental problems, it is politics that is needed to generate agreement between those whocan address those problems.

Political science and the 21st century

Many academics believe that political science is as relevant as ever in today's world, and that the discipline is in tune with the world outside of academia.

"Underpinned by developments in game theory and cognitive psychology, experimental political science is beginning to produce significant findings about the barriers to cooperation and agreement," says a British professor of political science who wants to remain anonymous. "And, potentially, it is political science that can answer how these problems may be overcome, particularly in matters of institutional design."

Kenneth R. Benoit, a professor of Quantitative Social Sciences at Trinity College, University of Dublin, shares similar sentiments. He points out that the current global financial crisis is not simply an economic question but also a political one, as it pertains to how we elect politicians and the institutions making budgetary decisions.

"For example, there are academics in my department who study the political process of the European Union and the formulation of economic policies in these countries. Academics are looking at how to design the voting systems in the new EU countries and governments seek our helps on this and various other political decisions," he says.

A scientific approach to political science

For some, the argument is that the field of political science is not really a "scientific" discipline. Academic political scientists, though, point out that science is a method and not a list of breakthrough findings. Science is the systematic pursuit of knowledge, and in this respect, empirical political science is as scientific as any other form of inquiry conducted toward that end.

"Content-wise, it is becoming like economics - behavioural and more mathematical," says Prof Benoit. "The level of training is more scientific than in past - maybe not to the same degree as economics - but statistics is now embedded in the discipline"

Prof Benoit points to the fact that the discipline now has much more professional literature, with an increase in the number of research journals across the world, as well as a growing number of research publications.

Game theory and mathematics

Steve Brams, a professor of politics at New York University and a leading authority in the use of mathematics to design decision-making processes, says social-choice and game theory could make political and social institutions more democratic. Using mathematical analysis, he has already developed rigorous new procedures that enable voters to better express themselves and that allow disputants to divide goods more fairly.

"We now better understand voters’ behaviour in election and have improved on elements of the electoral process such as exit polls; why they vote, who vote and who they vote for," he says. "While comparisons of governments around the world may be difficult, new methods are being developed in international relations and we now have more sophisticated theories especially with regard to nuclear warfare, arms control and the study of deterrents."

European universities lagging behind

But Prof Brams warns that political science at many European institutions is still descriptive and may not be scientific enough when compared to institutions in the United States and Canada, which is a view shared by other experts. They say that while empirical political science has increased in its methodological sophistication in the US, this strand of the discipline is still weak in Britain, where much teaching and research in politics is a blend of history and philosophy, interpretative rather than explanatory in its goals. And while students tend to be attracted to this approach, its value, they say, is a matter of opinion.

Experts say that more theoretical and methodological training is desperately needed, particularly at graduate level, where research needs to be addressed towards problem solving, but without abandoning theory-driven inquiry.

"Theoretically, an excessive emphasis on matters of ontology and epistemology runs the risk of paralysing empirical research," warns a senior British academic. "Such research may accumulate information in the form of high-quality journalism, but will not necessarily generate knowledge. Its main value is that it may generate understanding of perspectives different from those of the mainstream."

Political science in the ‘real’ world

For Prof Benoit, the elements that need improvement include basic methodological skills, and an influx of people who are better trained in applying scientific methodology to the field of political science.

"I'm talking about relevance here," he says. "We need skilled academics who are using their knowledge to solve societal problems for people in the 'real' world. We should be able to communicate our findings clearly to the public. There is clearly a case for outreach."

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