Profs keep it real

The insurrection has begun, bringing with it hope, apprehension, pointed e-mails, Cold War verbiage, a few rag-tag chronicle journalists and shiny, bright-red buttons. Indeed, the “Perestroikan” revolution was officialized about a month ago in a San Franciscan Hilton amidst acrimony, enthusiasm and what were likely vodka cocktails. Political science may never be the same.

Led by an academic mysterioso calling himself “Mr. Perestoika,” (adopting former Soviet secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s term for restructuring and renewal) the motley assemblage of disaffected political scientists met to avow their dissatisfaction with what they claim has become a “hegemon” in the discipline; the so-called “quantoid.”

At their first public convocation, the Perestroikans charged that the American Political Science Association and its journal, the American Political Science Review, has been overtaken by rational choice, mathematical, and statistical theorists, leaving little room for other approaches. And Perestoikans intend to change that.

According to a Sept. 21 article covering the gathering in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the movement has some preeminent supporters. Professors from a range of universities, from the University of Chicago to Harvard to U Penn, stood to present their complaints to a spirited audience.

John Mearshimer, a distinguished political science professor, summarized the aims of Perestroika; “This is about the mathematization of political science,” the Chronicle quoted him saying. “I’m in favor of filling the zoo with all kinds of animals. But I’m concerned about them running us out of the business or making us marginal.”

While the association has thus far been receptive to the Perestroikans and has taken some steps to address their accusations, the movement isn’t limiting its efforts to the association. They want a revolution in-house.

Many of the speakers claim that quantoids – academics who rely on approaches heavily based in numbers and calculation models – are hired, published, and generally favored over others, providing incentives against qualitative approaches.

More academically weathered Perestroikans, like Mearshimer, argue not for one approach or another, but for a diversification in political science including all approaches. “Rational choice and statistical modeling belong inside the tent, too,” he noted. But according to the Chronicle, others hope to “Storm the Bastille,” or, in keeping with the movement’s language, the Kremlin.

The Perestroikans hope to reshape a more traditional political science with an abundance of perspectives, approaches and conclusions, not hell bent on wrestling information into rigid science-like models.

And I agree.

There has been a strong drive in the last few decades toward a political science of utility–more focused on practical use of information than an interpretive approach to understanding the world.

This has affected other social sciences as well, and has been noticed by luminaries from many disciplines (philosopher Richard Rorty to name only one).

While the quantitative may be an important part of any pursuit to understand human relations, humanity could never, and shall never, be reducible to a simple calculus. Such an approach, if not checked by qualitative interpretations and analyses, distorts as much as it explains.

In this sense the Perestroikans may be an inspiration to us all with the idea that studies, whatever they may be, are not immutable in space or in time. Contrarily, they can always be remolded and redirected by those who believe that such is possible. And furthermore, politics and the issues of power are ubiquitous, they exist everywhere, even in political science.