Everyday Political Engagement in Comparative Politics
by Thomas Pepinsky, Cornell University
It is common for critics of social science to consider scholarship and academic research to be too divorced from “real-world politics” to be useful. Academic political science, critics allege, is too motivated by disciplinary or methodological concerns, or funding agencies’ priorities, to be relevant for the pressing political issues of the day. Such criticism paints modern political science as irrelevant at best, and exploitative at worst. However, such criticism misses the many ways that contemporary political science plays a central role in politics in countries around the world. Especially in “area-focused” comparative politics, academic political science research does focus on issues that have practical and political importance. The debates and findings of political scientists are input for national political conversations—and sometimes even for the policy process itself. The more interesting question is this: under what conditions it is appropriate for foreign academics to be as engaged as they are. Using the politics of Southeast Asia as an example, this article illustrates how academic political science has contributed to important political debates, past and present. It also asks whether or not there ought to be limits to how engaged political scientists are in the politics of the countries they study.