Defending Psychological and Economic Perspectives on Political Science

Peter Ordeshook. 1986. Game Theory and Political Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press. Ch. 1 (pp. 1-52).

Peter Ordeshook. 1990. “The Emerging Discipline of Political Economy.” In James Alt and Kenneth Shepsle, eds., Perspectives on Positive Political Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ch. 1 (pp. 9-30).

John L. Sullivan, Wendy M. Rahn, and Thomas J. Rudolph. 2002. “The Contours of Political Psychology: Situating Research on Political Information Processing.” In James H. Kuklinski, ed., Thinking About Political Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ch. 1 (pp. 23-47).

Robert E. Lane. 2003. “Rescuing Political Science from Itself.” In David O. Sears, Leonie Huddy, and Robert Jervis, eds., Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch. 21 (pp. 755-793).

The second reaction paper for this semester.

From all sides political science is being invaded by alien ideas. Good. Well, mostly.


The readings for this week were on game theory by Ordershock and Lane and Sullivan et al on political psychology. But really these articles are the story of the invasion of our scholarly realm by imperialist economists and insurgent psychologists. While these are very different approaches, both are useful and should be welcomed by our fellow political scientists.

But first, let me say a quick word on my personal perspective. I am a computer scientist, and graduated with an MA in that field on December 2004. My thesis, “A Computer Model of National Behavior,” tried to computationally model the national identities of Europe . This bridges political science and psychology. Likewise, my coursework involved predicate calculus, which appears very similar to the “fundamental notation and definitions” that Ordeshook introduces on his game theory article. Therefore I root all of these approaches on.

In his two articles, Ordershock relates a mathematical approach to politics that is rooted in economics. Surprisingly for the degree of formal logic he uses, Ordershock clearly enjoys visualizations and describes a “euclidean geometry” of political preference. This gives a new perspective in many ways. For instance, he mentions that he assumes that “indifference contours are continuous” as a mathematical convenience — but one can visualize all discontinuous shapes as continuous if one ads a dimension and assumes that a given n-degree euclidean space is just a shadow of an n+1-degree

Likewise, the majority of the psychological perspectives presented by Lane and Sullivan et al are valuable. In particular, Lane’s criticisms of the materialism of traditional economics approaches are devastating. If it’s true that “beyond the poverty level — level of income is unrelated to subjective wellbeing or happiness” or that people are agitated more with “fraternal deprivation” than losing something themselves, rational self interest is in deep trouble. Admittedly, Ordershock does mention this ongoing conflict, but instead of defending a materialist view he simply moves on. Without the broader definition of self-interested generated by a psychological perspective, an economics perspective would be deeply misleading.

If Oudershock’s second article was more economics than political science, the second psychological article (by Sullivan, Rhan, and Rudolph) is more psychology than political science. Their discussion of Piaget and information processing (that is, cybernetic) approaches was delightful to the psychology-student in me. Yet they too demonstrate he necessity of a trans-disciplinary approach, eventually circling around to a bayesian statistical view of cognition, which would logically lead us back to economics-style mathematicism.

However, all of the articles assigned do have their deficiencies. Just as we political scientists can benefit from the desegregation of academic thought, so to must we cleanse the cockroaches from academic field everywhere. This is most notable in the psychological reading. Lane’s article contains far too much majority thought. Meanwhile, the Sullivan reading spends an excruciating length of time on psychoanalytics. We political scientists already have our own pseudoscience in Marxism — we do not need another one.

Perhaps the greatest contributions political scientists can make is to become a melting pot for the best ideas in all the sciences. Lane, almost as an aside, notes that politics has traditionally been the study of power, a special case of interpersonal relations. If this is the case, then there is gold for us in the hills of electromagnetic physics. Resistance, friction, potential energy, kinetics, and waste heat have been rigorously related for us by the engineers. If politics, a form of group psychology is but the study of power, political science can meld the worlds of physics and psychology together, taking the best ideas of both.

Let’s do it.