Tag Archives: political science

The Language of Theory, or, How to Escape the Humanities Ghetto

This morning I read an article by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Daniel Nexon, titled “Paradigmatic Faults in International-Relations Theory.” This piece originally appeared in a 2009 edition of Internaionl Studies Quartlerly.

I like when people agree with me, so when I saw my words echoed across time (it’s as if Jackson and Nexon read my post, built a time machine, and told their former selves what a great idea they read on tdaxp). Yesterday, I said it was riduclous to describe the International Relations cliques of “Realism,” “Liberalism,” and such as paradigms. I wrote:

The highlighted passage, originally by Daniel Maliniak simply means that empirical research is increasing, and that non-empirical research is declining, within political science. But Maliniak, and thus Walt and Mearsheimer, bizarrely use “paradigmatic” to refer to less paradigmatic (that is, less capable of progress) fields, and “non-paradigmatic” to more to more paradigmatic (that is, more capable of progress) fields.

Political science has been in the fever swamp for so long that the notion of progress as an outcome of normal science has almost entirely been lost. If Walt and Mearsheimer had their way, it might be lost, and the field simply divided into a stationary oligarchy of old boys network.

As Jackson and Nexon write:

The terminology of ‘‘paradigms’’ and ‘‘research programmes’’ produces a num-ber of deleterious effects in the field. It implies that we need to appeal to criteria of the kind found in MSRP in order to adjudicate disputes that require no such procedures. In order to do so, we spend a great deal of time specifying the ‘‘boundaries’’ of putative research programmes and, in effect, unfairly and misleadingly holding scholars accountable for the status of theories they often view as rivals to their own.

Perhaps the most well-known instance of this kind of boundary-demarcation occurs in the debates surrounding ‘‘realism’’ in international relations theory. The proliferation of countless lists of the ‘‘core commitments’’ of a realist ‘‘paradigm’’—by adherents and critics alike—shifts the focus of scholarship away from any actual investigation of whether these commitments give us meaningful leverage on the phenomenal world, and instead promotes endless border skirmishes about who is and is not a realist (Legro and Moravcsik 1999), whether predictions of balancing are central to the ‘‘realist paradigm’’ (Vasquez 1998:261–65), and so forth. Such debates and demarcations not only distract us from the actual study of world politics, but also harm disputes over international relations theory by solidifying stances that ought to remain open to debate and discussion.

So I enjoyed Jackson’s and Nexon’s takedown of the so-called “paradigms” in International Relations.

But they don’t go far enough.

Their piece ends with an appeal to Max Weber (how non-progressive can you get?!?) and an unfalsifiable taxonomy that I won’t go into

ideal_typical_taxonomy

A more useful conclusion to the paper would have been to recognize that statistics is the language of theory, the language of modeling. Instead of inviting international relations scholars to chase their own tale and bow to Max Weber and the dead, how much more useful would a positive theory of research programs in International Relations have been? For instance, consider a citation indexing method, such as PageRank [pdf] to determine if they are “clusters” PageRank sets in which certain articles were influential (exemplars?) and others were not. Did Jackson and Nexon really have no one availability to sketch even a proposed methodology for testing their claim?

The answer is probably “no.” My purpose isn’t to pick on Jackson and Nexon, but to point out the weakness of International Relations as a whole. In a related post by Patrick Musgrave, titled “The Crass Argument for Teaching More Math In Poli Sci Courses“, the following diagram showing is shown:

wages_employment_majors_md

Which clearly displays a “humanities ghetto,” that includes political science.

wages_employment_majors_humanities_ghetto_md

How can this be, if International Relations is the disciplined extraction of meaning from data, which is the same focus as the high-paying, well-employed fields?

The obvious answer is that International Relations does not teach actually useful methods for the disciplined extraction of data. It does not teach critical thinking or logical reasoning. It teaches something that apes these skills, a rhetorical ability that impresses old scholars and does not help society.

International Relations is a non-progressive field where, by and large, it sucks to be young.

ways_of_knowing_3

In an evocative comment that ties the article and the blog post together, Patrick Thaddeus Jackson states:

I don’t think that it is our job as university faculty to increase students’ future earning potential. Nor do I think that it is our job in teaching PoliSci undergrads to make sure that they can read APSR in the 1980s and 1990s. Our job is to teach students to think critically about politics, and while I am perfectly fine with the suggestion that some statistical literacy can be useful to that end, I am not prepared to give that higher pride of place than things like reading closely, writing cogently, and disagreeing with one another civilly.

The dichotomy that Jackson notes is entirely false. In his own piece, he was not able to express a constructive critical thought about paradigms — the original Nexon and Jackson article is devoid of the model specification or operationalization that would needed to turn his criticisms and taxonomy into something capable of progress. Any competent graduate from the humanities ghetto can read “closely” or write “cogently.” That’s needed is to think usefully, and for this statistical literary is required.

Science, Paradigms, and the Old Boy Network

On Facebook, Daniel Nexon pointed me to this post by Steve Saideman, titled “Lamenting The Loss of the Light, The Ebbing of Grand Theory and The Decline of Old Boy Networks.” Saideman’s post itself is a commentary on Stephen Walt‘s and John Mearsheimer‘s ridiculous article, “Leaving Theory Behind: Why Hypothesis Testing Has Become Bad for IR,” which will soon appear in the European Journal of International Relations.

Walt and Mearsheimer’s article is absurd on many levels. But I mention it for how well it reflects my post, “Progress, Science, and Exemplars — or — When It Sucks to Be Young.”

In that post, I mention that it is horrible for your career to be young in a science with loose exemplars — that is, in a field that is “non-paradigmatic” or a “revolutionary science.” The more revolutionary the science, the looser the exemplars, the more “knowledge” and “experience” are both measured in years. The less things change — the less progress is made — the less youth matters relative to years of experience.

Or in diagrammatic form:

ways_of_knowing_3

What’s bizarre is that Walt and Mearsheimer agree with me! But this makes them sad. Walt and Mearsheimer would rather political science stay as anti-youth and revolutionary as possible, so that their power and influence could remain strong:

Over time, professions also tend to adopt simple and seemingly objective ways to evaluate members. Instead of relying on “old boy” networks, a professionalized field will use indicators of merit that appear to be impersonal and universal. In the academy, this tendency leads to the use of “objective” criteria—such as citation counts—when making hiring and promotion decisions. In extreme cases, department members and university administrators do not have to read a scholar’s work and form an independent opinion of its quality; they can simply calculate the “h-index” (Hirsch 2005) and make personnel decisions on that basis.22

The second part of the paragraph is literally incoherent, attacking the use of an h-index by arguing it’s a raw count of citation. Walt and Meirsheimer seem unable to do math, and so their inability to understand even basic fractions should not surprise you. What should be surprising is they are so openly defending the power aristocracy that comes from using subjective scores and the “old boys” network!

In fairness to Walt and Meirsheimer, the intellectual poverty they confess through their incoherent ramblings is not entirely their fault. Political science has been so revolutionary, so paradigmatic, so subjective for so long that few may know what a science actually is, or even understand the terms used to describe science.

Consider this earlier passage in Walt and Meirsheimer’s article, in which the “worse than wrong” passage is intended to be uncontroversial:

Indeed, some senior IR scholars now rail against the field’s grand theories. In his 2010 ISA presidential address, for example, David Lake described the “isms” as “sects” and “pathologies” that divert attention away from “studying things that matter” (Lake 2011: 471). Thus, it is not surprising that “the percentage of non- paradigmatic research has steadily increased from 30% in 1980 to 50% in 2006” (Maliniak et al 2011: 439). Of course, one could advocate for middle range theories while disparaging grand theories, and indeed Lake does just that. The field is not moving in that direction, however. Nor is it paying more attention to formal or mathematically oriented theories (Bennett et al 2003: 373-74). Instead, it is paying less attention to theories of all kinds and moving toward simplistic hypothesis testing.

The highlighted passage, originally by Daniel Maliniak simply means that empirical research is increasing, and that non-empirical research is declining, within political science. But Maliniak, and thus Walt and Mearsheimer, bizarrely use “paradigmatic” to refer to less paradigmatic (that is, less capable of progress) fields, and “non-paradigmatic” to more to more paradigmatic (that is, more capable of progress) fields.

ways_of_knowing_2

Political science has been in the fever swamp for so long that the notion of progress as an outcome of normal science has almost entirely been lost. If Walt and Mearsheimer had their way, it might be lost, and the field simply divided into a stationary oligarchy of old boys network.

At one point in their article, Walt and Meirsheimer say that “the creation and refinement of theory is the most important activity in [social science].” This is nonsense. The most important activity in science is the prediction, control, and improvement of behavior. Theory can help, diagram can help, interviews can help, process tracing can help. But the paen to old boys network, and the nonsense that Walt and Mearsheimer try to pass off as a scholarly article, certainly doesn’t.