08 August, 2008

Can political science be a real science?

I especially appreciate Dan of tdaxp for his ability to cut to the core of a problem. This leads me to rattle (prattle?) on about it in reply. This is based in large part from one of those replies.

Politics is about contesting goals and actions, and the subject can be affected by the act of “explaining” it. This leads the study of politics (including the definition of “politics” itself) to be based on essentially contested concepts.

It would be a lot easier if we could do "normal science." Not easy, by any means, but easier. However, many political scientists don’t want “normal science” because it places out-of-bounds the questions that brought them to the field in the first place. The subfield of political theory, for example, is almost completely normative and philosophical. Some political scientists, starting around the 1960s, engaged in a “behaviorist revolution,” patterned on a simplistic view of how the natural sciences work, that divided the field of international relations for years. It essentially involved counting things and looking for patterns. Within its limits, some of it is quite good, and it has gotten better in the “post-behaviorist” period by incorporating a greater sensitivity for the perils of concept selection and model-building for what is sometimes a multi-level non-linear self-reflexive creative process.

I doubt political science will ever be a what is called a "normal" science so long as it involves people studying (and recreating) themselves. Too much of it is art. I can give you an explanation for art based on evolutionary biology and neurophysiology, but it won't help you to be a better artist or to appreciate great art. Some areas–such as the application of genetics and game theory–are more promising because they deal with the structural realities that humans have greater difficulty changing. These approaches sometimes provide a larger context for the interesting questions. Even incomplete understanding can be useful. But then, I’m the sort that believes there is a “real” world than we can understand better (but never perfectly) by critical observation and abduction. In political science that statement is itself controversial. I can’t “prove” it any more than others can “prove” their worldview to me.

1 comment:

Bo DiMuccio said...

The empirical versus normative inquiry argument in Political Science is at the same time a perfect and a ridiculous dichotomy. It’s a perfect dichotomy because “is” and “ought” questions are different and require different modes of thought and inquiry. Scientific/empirical inquiry is meant for addressing certain kinds of questions, while normative or philosophical inquiry is good at addressing other kinds of questions. There is interconnectedness here, of course, but both distinct modes of inquiry have their place.

It’s a ridiculous dichotomy because rejecting the possibility of tackling aspects of a subject scientifically because “it involves people studying and recreating themselves” and/or because “too much of it is art,” would make empirical study impossible for almost any subject involving human behavior. Even activities in which people study their own actions, recreate themselves, use the body of research itself to re-direct actions, or even in which a lot of the behavior is based on intuition -- display patterns that can be identified, explained, etc.

The question is, what should we concern ourselves with in Political Science? Should we spend our time asking “who gets what?” or rather “who should get what?” My preference is clearly for the former. It is called Political Science, right? To say that Political Science can’t be a science is to say that political behavior doesn’t exhibit any patterns that can be discerned through empirical inquiry. Does any serious person really think that?

Conversely, whether Political Science is or ever will reach the Kuhnian status of “normal science” is an entirely different are far less important matter. To “achieve” that status, we will have to move beyond most or all “contested concepts,” as you say. This is hard to imagine in our lifetimes at least. Some would argue that even commonly accepted hard sciences aren’t always “normal sciences,” having as they do the occasional contested concepts and disagreements about the basic terms of reference and findings. But lumping the two together (any scientific or empirical mode of inquiry and “normal science”) is an unhelpful overgeneralization that creates needless obstacles to healthy empirical inquiry around things political or around things human, for that matter.

Within this context, I see no important difference between the empirical research that I now do in the technology/business realm and the work that I used to do when I was a practicing political scientist. I’ve been in business research ever since I “retired” from the academe in 1998 and am now responsible for the research department of an advisory firm that serves clients in the technology services space. My job is to anticipate and answer questions (mostly using quantitative research techniques) that our clients are likely to have. Much of my research is aimed at identifying the practices and factors that contribute to high financial performance in technology services. I address these questions, for example, by analyzing the financial statements and performance of technology firms, collecting the data into large databases, adding needed background variables and finally by crunching the data using various descriptive and inferential statistics. These empirical findings become benchmarks against which businesses can gauge and/or adjust their own practices, policies and results.

From such research, I’ve been able to determine for example that technology consulting projects involving the use of offshore solution center resources are on average twice as large and ten margin points more profitable than those that don’t. That’s an incredibly important finding for companies that are scraping and scratching to run barely profitable businesses in a lot of cases. Of course, the question about whether these companies should move more technology consulting jobs to lower cost centers offshore is a normative question that the empirical approaches I rely on are entirely un-equipped to handle. What we have here though is an example of how the research, the researcher and researched are interconnected and intertwined, and of how the empirical and normative issues are connected.

That said, my job has nothing to do with whether, in essence, the outsourcing of technology jobs is a moral thing to do or not. Even if it were, what morality and whose well-being should I be most concerned with? The dividend shareholders of these companies? The everyday people who have 401k funds that are partly tied to the financial results of these companies? The people whose jobs might be lost in the U.S.? The people who are gaining jobs in India, China, Vietnam, Poland? Whether offshore development boosts project profitability and whether it is morally good to outsource are both relevant questions. They just can’t be answered using the same techniques.

Of course this sort of complexity precisely describes an essential problematic in the study of politics, economics, interpersonal relations, risky personal behavior, international relations, or just about any other aspect of human endeavor around which we could paint a border and develop a field of study. And yet in all of these arenas we recognize patterns and sometimes even relations cause and effect that are not only incredibly interesting to study, but also potentially extremely useful. The only barrier in my view to recognizing Political Science as a “real science” is acceptance of this latter, relatively uncontroversial point.