Tag Archives: Fabio Rojas

Money, Power, and Normal Science

Fabio Rojas has a post up titled Theory Death in Political Science. It links to a post by Stephen Saideman, “Leaving Grand Theorists Behind,” which was published as Saideman’s Semi-Spew. (A companion piece was also published at Duck of Minerva and discussed by me earlier.)

Here’s the beginning of the post:

A definition: theory death is when some intellectual group tires of theory based on armchair speculation. Of course, that doesn’t mean that people stop producing theory. Rather, it means that “theory” no longer means endless books based on the author’s insights. Instead, people produce theory that responds to, or integrates, or otherwise incorporates a wealth of normal science research. In sociology, theory death seems to have happened sometime in the 1980s or 1990s. For example, recent theory books like Levi-Martin’s Social Structures or McAdam and Fligstein’s A Theory of Fields are extended discussions of empirical research that culminate in broader statements. The days of endlessly quoting and reinterpreting Weber are over. :(

Now, it seems, theory death is hitting some areas of political science.

What Fabio Rojas calls “theory death” is the “normalization of science.” That is, the establishment of methods that allow for progress in the prediction, control, and improvement of behavior of some object of study (molecule, person, State, etc.) over time.

The next line is particularly important:

Science becomes normalized when the power the Old Boys network achieves through limiting competition is overtaken by the money available for creating progress.

There have been two great flowerings of science in American history. Both emerged from the establishment of the great American University System in the late 19th century, but they accelerated at different times. As I wrote previously:

Following the Second World War science boom, the federal government accelerated the rise of the American research universities. From the Second World War to the Vietnam War, physics was a favorite area for funding. From this we received many new physical inventions, such as a transistor. After the Vietnam War, medicine is a favorite area for funding. Now we have great medical breakthroughs.

While social science research funding is only a fraction of medical research, the federal academic complex ensures that there is bleed through from health sciences to the social sciences as well. The bureaucratic momentum for peer-reviewed scientific research funding. Such funding requires that researchers seek to achieve progress in some areas, which of course privileges normal science (which is capable of achieving progress) relative to non-paradigmatic science (Which is not).

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The reason that Political Science is late to normalization — why it is experiencing “theory death” later than other fields — come from the obvious exception to this general rule for how academia works:

Professors, like most people, respond to the incentives of power, influence, and money.

The institution of tenure reduces uncertainty regarding money, and focuses the incentives on power and influence.

Power in academia comes from the number of bodies a professor has under him. These bodies might be apprentices (graduate students he advises), journeymen (post-docs who have a PhD and work at the lab, or staff researchers), or simple workers (lab technicians, etc).

Influence in academia comes from the extent to which one is successful in influencing one’s peers. This is typically measured in terms of influence scores, which are a product of how often the academic is cited, weighted by how important of a publication he is cited in.

Unlike other places in academia, professors hope to influence national policy makers, and so are relatively immune to academic discipline. This actually hurts scholarship. For instance, Victor Cha’s otherwise great book on North Korea, The Impossible State, is pretty much ruined by his analysis of Kim Jung Il, which was basically a job application. Likewise, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer (who began this discussion by defending the Old Boys network) basically produce political propaganda for the Old Right (pessimistic, Army-focused, and anti-Zionist). The lack of academic discipline has allowed political science to get away with graduating students into the “humanities ghetto” — because skills don’t matter in political science as much as connections, those without connections are left with high unemployment and bitter job prospects:

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The way forward is probably for grant-funding organizations to support normal science in political science research, and for political agitators to coalesce within agenda-driven “think tanks.” Educational sciences have already experienced this split. It’s time for Political Science to normalize, too.