Thursday, December 04, 2008

Political theory within political science

I may not agree in quite every particular, but in general, Mike Munger is singing the right song.


Patchen Markell said...

It's not a bad song, but it's not the right song, because it still reduces political theory to two elements: the historical and the normative. I don't blame Munger for this; it's part of the way in which lots of political theorists talk about the subfield too. But -- you've heard this ditty from me before -- that division isn't true to what many of us actually do (including many of us who use that terminology, because we don't have anything better). It's a relic of the postwar compromise that allowed political theory to remain in political science departments as a sort of crazy but tolerable cousin as long as it dealt with old stuff or values, and therefore kept out of the way of the progressive science of facts. But insofar as what political theory does is to redescribe fundamental political phenomena, it's (a) not reducible to the historical or the normative, even as it's inseparable from them; and (b) absolutely central to political science as a whole, since it shapes the ideas and words through which things show up to us as empirical or evaluable phenomena in the first place. Munger's right, I think, that political theorists need to be less dismissive of social choice theory and formal institutional theory, because these are theory in just the sense I've described. But the problem with his post is that it only appears to be reciprocal in its criticism of political scientologists who don't care about theory. For him, the reason political scientologists ought to pay attention to theory is that it answers Big Important Questions that are nevertheless not the questions of (the rest of) Political Science -- they're just questions that should be of interest to "any educated person." But if political theorists need to take positive theory seriously as theory, scientologists also need to see the rest of political theory as offering alternative answers -- answers that they need to take seriously -- to questions that are fundamental to their own enterprise, and not merely of auxiliary interest.

Jacob T. Levy said...

I entirely agree with you, of course. Each of the past two years my big intro theory class has had one section that was explicitly about reunderstanding the phenomena, alongside a conventional should-we-obey and a conventional dirty-hands normative section, and I'm more firmly convinced all the time that that kind of thing is an important part of what we have to offer within political science as well as an important part of what distinguishes us from philosophers. Part of my spiel here is something you heard me say the first time I said it-- econ and soc may have big problems that are tractable with stata, but political science has to be concerned with some big important phenomena the explanation of which will have negative-a-large-number degrees of freedom. At that point, it's better to have access to Tocqueville, Weber, Smith, Marx, Foucault, and their heirs. than to give up and look under the streetlamp where the light and the NES are.

Nor do I think that the political science we theorists ought to know is limited to formal institutionalism-- Mike chops even more of political science out of his story than he does of political theory.

But "I think that the place of Theory in Poli Sci is something more than intellectual history. At least, it should be. Ideas matter, or they MAY matter. Even the most doctrinaire Marxist historian thinks that the particular ideological superstructure erected around evolving economic relations matters for how the society functions. So, even if self-interest and materialist forces of weather, resources, and population movements are the driving forces behind history, ideas matter."

and "And, the consideration of the basis, and validity, of rights claims lies at the heart of many of the key questions in economics and political science. What is the dividing line between what is mine, and what is ours? How might we decide? How could we think of deciding such questions without a knowledge of Rousseau, Marx, Hume, Locke, Rawls, Nozick, and (I could obviously go on, but....)"

and "So, Theory would be more relevant to Poli Sci if all Theorists would actually STUDY Poli Sci. To me, the Political Scientologist who has never heard of Rawls, or Walzer, is no better than the Poltical Theorist who has never heard of Arrow, or Zaller. A pox on both of you."

I think I can agree with all that. It's a good first verse.

Matt said...

Jacob and/or Patchen- might I ask of you an example of a political theorist who you think is a) contemporary, b) doing top-level work, and c) is doing something clearly distinct from that done by political philosophers? I don't mean this to be an aggressive question at all (though I'm a philosopher by training). I'd just be really curious who you'd mention. There are people in government/poli-sci departments that I think are very good, but who do not seem to me to do work that is clearly distinct from what philosophers do- David Miller, at least most of Amy Guttman's work, Jon Elster, Susan Okin, probably some others. I'd just be really curious to know who you think is very good and also does work that isn't more or less the same as what political philosophers do. (I'd also be interested to hear what you think is different from political philosophy in their work, but since that would take more time don't consider it an obligation.)

X. Trapnel said...

Matt, I think Elster is the odd man out on that list, and I think he's a good example of someone who fits in Markell's third category (which I think might be thought of as "conceptual"). I mean, sure, you can call him a philosopher if you like, but he's not really the sort of philosopher NYU or Rutgers is trying to produce.

Elster's not normative in the way the others are. Sometimes he's doing philosophy of social science, I suppose, but he's engaged in a way that most philosophers aren't; he's trying to *change* the way social scientists work. Sometimes he's *doing* 'social science,' explaining political phenomena through causal mechanisms, and challenging by example the Laitin large-N paradigm.

I think this sort of political theory takes from philosophy a critical approach to extant concepts, but the concepts in question are those we use to explain the social/political world, and the method is pragmatic and evidence-intensive rather than deductive and intuition-based.

Some others in this category might include: Jack Knight, Jim Johnson, John Dryzek, Russ Hardin, Gerry Mackie, Ian Shapiro.

X. Trapnel said...

(I suspect that I'd be able to come up with lots more names if I had were more aware of "continental" theorists are doing.)

Matt said...

Thanks, X- I thought about leaving Elster off of my list, in part for reason you say, but he is very regularly read by and engaged w/ by political philosophers (not just analytic marxists, though of course them, too.)

James Bourke said...

I may be quite a bit late here, but I was alerted to the existence of this discussion today so I just read it (I'm doing graduate work in the department of which Munger is the chair, and when discussing his post today with a colleague it was recommended that I look at what Markell and Levy were saying on this blog. So here I am). I think Markell's point is right on target--even though I count Munger as an ally inasmuch as he doesn't dismiss theory as irrelevant or at best a quaint curiosity that serious political scientists have to put up with for contingent reasons, I think there really ought to be a better understanding of what folks are doing on both sides of this divide. It seems to me that most positivist (if that's the right term here) hostility to theory comes from a combination of a dated (and discredited) Weberian conception of the fact/value distinction (that is, as a "dichotomy" that neatly maps onto a distinction between objective and subjective) and a (sometimes willful) ignorance of what theory is all about (or, and I take this from a recent talk by George Shulman at Duke, perhaps Baldwin's conception of "innocence" is a better word for it--that is, refusal to acknowledge because that acknowledgment would jeopardize one's own identity). If you can stomach it, look at some of the comments on the thread from which Munger copied his comment--there are people out there who think theory is about exploring the hidden depths of some imaginary Platonic realm, and thus both inherently esoteric and scarcely relevant to "the real world." Now Munger is right that political theorists should pay more attention to political science, but so should political scientists (and of course this is also part of his point) give some thought to what political theorists are trying to say. And I think Markell is right that getting over the normative/historical categorization is a big part of that.

I'd also like to respond to Matt on the issue of theory and philosophy. If by "top-level work" you mean "stuff that I as a philosopher would find compelling or at least methodologically sound" then you are probably right. But if you mean "the things which the discipline itself takes to be important or influential" then the number of political theorists who could comfortably work in a contemporary American philosophy department is FAR fewer than those who could not. If you'd like examples, the question is where to begin. Sheldon Wolin, William Connolly, Seyla Benhabib, Linda Zerilli, Peter Euben, Wendy Brown, Stephen White, Mary Dietz, just about any noteworthy Cambridge person (Skinner, Tuck, Tully, etc.), just about any noteworthy Straussian (Mansfield, Tarcov, the Zuckerts, the Pangles). All these people are at (or pretty near) the top of the field (although there's a question as to who would count the Straussians here), none of them (with the possible exception of Benhabib) could fit comfortably in a philosophy department.

Jacob T. Levy said...

In the oldest active generation, political theorists who have done very important work that's not much like what political philosophers do and also isn't much like what intellectual historians do include George Kateb, Michael Walzer, Sheldon Wolin, Richard Flathman. (Each of them has *sometimes* done work that fit into one of those categories, but typically not.) Carey McWilliams and Hanna Pitkin, though no longer "contemporary," also fit into this group.

And they were all doing their thing before Theory of Justice came out-- even Walzer, by a little bit-- and so never let their intellectual agendas be wholly defined by the tremendous resurgence in Harvard/Oxford political philosophy. Also perhaps worthy of note: Arendt's an important influence or interlocutor for at least three of them. We think of Arendt as "continental," but that adjective connotes a lot of different things; Walzer, Wolin, Kateb, Flathman didn't start their intellectual agendas in a world that had been shaped by Habermas, Derrida, or Foucault any more than in one that had been shaped by Rawls.

Then if you want younger names, part of what to do is to look at the students of these people, and the students of their students.