What is political science?

By Timothy Fitzgerald
9 Oct 2012

In my last article [1], I addressed the question of the “world of politics”, relating to questions of arbitrariness, construction, and performativity. Here I want to develop thoughts on questions of the ‘science’ of ‘political science’.

The crib-sheet provided by the Writing Center at Chapel Hill that I mentioned in my last piece explains that the development of general principles and theories by political scientists reflects an attempt to describe and analyse in a neutral, objective and scientific way the struggles and fighting of interest groups:

Although political scientists are prone to debate and disagreement, the majority view the discipline as a genuine science. As a result, political scientists generally strive to emulate the objectivity as well as the conceptual and methodological rigour typically associated with the so-called 'hard' sciences (e.g., biology, chemistry, and physics). They see themselves as engaged in revealing the relationships underlying political events and conditions. Based on these revelations, they attempt to state general principles about the way the world of politics works. Given these aims, it is important for political scientists’ writing to be conceptually precise, free from bias, and well-substantiated by empirical evidence. Knowing that political scientists value objectivity may help you in making decisions about how to write your paper and what to put in it.

This assumption of scientific neutrality and objectivity is questioned by David Wearing, a political science writer in a 2010 Guardian newspaper article, 'How scientific is political science?' [3] He writes:

The prevailing view within the discipline is that scholars should set aside moral values and political concerns in favour of detached enquiry into the mechanics of how the political world functions. This often involves borrowing the trappings of the natural sciences in attempts to establish generalisable theories of causation through the testing of hypotheses. To the extent that this activity has a purpose beyond the establishment of knowledge for its own sake, it is to place that knowledge at the hands of policymakers who, in the light of the political scientist’s advice, may then make political and moral judgements as they see fit.

Wearing here points to the problems with these claims, not because he denies the value of rigour and objectivity as far as one can attain it, but because in the final analysis he sees moral commitments and priorities inevitably entering into the equation:

I have yet to be convinced by the idea that the study of politics can be apolitical and value-neutral. Our choice of research topics will inevitably reflect our own political and moral priorities, and the way in which that research is framed and conducted is bound to reflect assumptions which – whether held consciously, semi-consciously or unconsciously – remain of a moral and political nature.

So the problem here is that the study of politics is itself political though it pretends not to be. Wearing gives as an example the field of terrorism studies and the way its practitioners focus on non-state rather than state actors, and define the problem in terms of madcap terrorists (frequently described and probably misdescribed by others as ‘religious terrorists’)) and not in terms of the moral culpability of western states.

In the case of Iraq for example, Wearing points out that in the 1990’s the UK helped maintain a sanctions regime that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of citizens, around half of them children under the age of five. Yet out of many articles published in International Relations journals during this period, only three were concerned with the appalling effects of the sanctions. For Wearing,

It is difficult to see why choosing to investigate state terrorism would be ‘political’, while choosing not to would be non-political, or why discussing the effect of sanctions on Iraqi society constitutes any more of a moral choice than choosing not to do so. The suspicion must arise that, when some scholarship is described as too political or too polemical, what is really meant is that it is insufficiently consistent with, or too critical of, mainstream priorities and assumptions.

Wearing has made some important observations here about the problem of excluding value judgements from description and analysis. He also questions the restriction of the methodology of studying politics to a domain like the hard sciences, in which value judgements are typically deemed to be excluded.

However, though Wearing intends to correct an error in the understanding of what ‘political science’ is, or what it can legitimately be, we can note that he is not questioning the discursive field of ‘politics’ or ‘the political’, or the validity of a political science in the first place. And why should he? He like many others might find the question counter-intuitive.

The theme for the up-coming 63rd Political Studies Association Annual International Conference in Cardiff (25 – 27 March 2013) – The Party’s Over? – “speaks to a number of senses in which assumptions and modalities that have hitherto underpinned political life, and political analysis, may no longer be sustainable”. This alarm note is unpacked by a number of more specific questions.

The general thrust of these questions concerns the decline of European and especially US dominance and prosperity, and the rise of China and other emergent powers. This is obviously a theme of major significance, and one that needs the serious debate that the PSA are inviting. My own question, however, is whether ‘the party’s over’ for the very idea of a world of politics in the first place?

I am sceptical about the very idea of a universal domain of politics, and what it means to claim that such a world exists. I suggest that ‘the world of politics’ is as much a faith-imaginary as those beliefs typically attributed to ‘the world of religion’. Its mythical status is elided by an ideological illusion which I want to explore.

In many publications I have raised mirror-image issues with a supposed ‘world of religion’ endlessly propagated by academics, the media, politicians and others (most recently in Religion and Politics in International Relations: the Modern Myth, Continuum, 2011). In what sense do these putative worlds exist? And how would one discriminate objectively between a religious and a political world? It is to these questions that I turn in my next article in this series.

NOTES

[1] 'What is politics?' http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17135
[2] http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/political-science/
[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/08/political-science-mo...

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© Timothy Fitzgerald is Reader in Languages, Cultures and Religions at the University of Stirling. His work, background and publications history are summarised here.


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