Review Essay: Political Research Beyond Political Science

sanfordPolitical Research Beyond Political Science

by Sanford F. Schram, University of New York

In spite of growing political rancor over increasing inequality and widening economic precarity, many political scientists steer clear of such issues, focusing more on how to best study political behavior and institutional processes. In fact, for some, Political Science is about the science more than the politics. Recent debates about the standards for published research were intensified by a scandal concerning fabricated data for an article published in the December 2014 issue of Science. The DA-RT (Data Access-Research Transparency) initiative led to journal editors agreeing to require that published articles be explicit about how the research was conducted and that the data be made publicly available. Some have noted the standards would force different types of research to conform to the strictures of positivist, quantitative analyses at the expense of the nuanced interpersonal relationships associated with field research.

The merits of DA-RT aside, the debate has highlighted an enduring semiotic divide in research orientations: scientific vs. humanistic, positivist vs. interpretivist, quantitative vs. qualitative, etc. Surely, not all political scientists insist on this sort of methodological sectarianism; however, the problem seems longstanding. As Sheldon Wolin once emphasized, “methodism” pushes political scientists away from studying the real world of politics in the name of perfecting methodological specialization. 3 Gabriel Almond noted that political scientists prefer to sit at “separate tables,” where distinct methodologies were associated with different ideological orientations. 4 In fact, methodological sectarianism characterizes the social science in general, where each discipline has a dominant method with an implied political orientation as Alan Wolfe emphasized years ago. 5 Economics is at one end of the continuum with a top-down scientific, positivistic modeling of economic behavior; and Anthropology is arguably on the other end with a bottom-up humanistic, ethnographic approach for interpreting behavior in culturally specific settings. Nonetheless, power creates its own resistance and today there are a growing number of researchers across disciplines who pursue what Ian Shapiro and Rogers Smith call “problem-driven research” that employs whatever methods help understand the problem being studied, even mixing methods to understand their object of inquiry. 6

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Perspectives on Politics / Volume 14, Issue 3 /September 2016, pp. 784-787