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Political Science is Learning More, but Studying Less

Andrei Melville, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, reflects on the direction of political science today.

Contemporary political science — ‘American’ or ‘international’?

In late August, the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA) was held in Washington, which was attended by several scholars from the HSE. The word ‘American’ in the name of APSA is a bit of a misnomer; in fact, it is probably the most significant professional association in the world in the field of political science. The association is international in scale, although there are also, of course, the influential International Political Science Association and the European Consortium for Political Research, among others. It just so happens that American researchers now largely lead in political science, the major achievements of their European colleagues notwithstanding. We should note that the current annual conference of the APSA was the 110th in a row. The APSA itself has been in existence this long. This begs comparison with Soviet and Russian political science, which, formally speaking, has a 25-year history; only in 1989 did the Higher Attestation Commission include political science in the list of academic disciplines in Russia.

The following fact speaks of the scale of the APSA conference: the number of authors and co-authors of papers accepted for the conference exceeded 6,000, although it is clear that not all of them personally attended the conference. Among the most notable authors at the forum, on the one hand, were the recognized classics – David Collier, John Ferejohn, Barbara Geddes, Sidney Verba, Edward Mansfield, Robert Keohane, Joseph Nye, G. Bingham Powell, Pippa Norris, Richard Ned Lebow and others. At the same time, an obvious change of generation is taking place in American and global political science. The conference included presentations by researchers such as Beatriz Magaloni, Jennifer Gandhi, Jan Teorell, Svend-Erik Skaaning, Jessica Fortin-Rittberger, Jørgen Møller, Jason Brownlee, Milan Svolik, Lucan Way, Joseph Wright, and others. These now familiar names have recently published notable works on some of the most important problems in political science – regime change, democratization factors, modern authoritarianism, strategies of dictators, institutions in autocracies, statehood, state capacity, and others.

What modern political researchers study

In modern political science – both research and education – major disciplinary areas have taken hold: political theory, comparative politics, political research methodology, national politics (American, British, French, etc.) and international relations (IR). These are a kind of ‘umbrella’ or ‘clump’ under each of which a set of ‘branches’ exists. This is precisely how political knowledge is structured today. In the most general terms, the APSA conference was built under these ‘umbrellas’ – naturally with countless ‘sub-themes.’

Some interesting trends relate to comparative politics. Traditionally, the primary focus here has been on cross-national comparisons or area studies. Now, it seems that there is a clear interest in sub-national comparative studies where analysis is focused on comparing various aspects of political life in the regions of individual countries or groups of countries – EU members, Russia, China, Brazil and others. Judging by the APSA conference, this trend in comparative political studies may become quite long-term. By the way, this could change the focus in so-called ‘Russian studies’ to a certain degree. The peak of interest in this subject – at least in terms of classic transitology, has passed. However, obvious attention is being paid to political regionalism (in the abovementioned sub-national sense).

Another notable trend is the heightened attention to what is now called ‘comparative authoritarianism.’ Previously, issues of comparative democratization were in the foreground of research, which was reflected in the curricula. Now times are different – empirically, theoretically and methodologically. Accordingly, there is a keen interest in analysing modern autocracies and dictatorships, as well as various hybrid modes. A new generation of political researchers whose publications are now the most distinguished in the ‘top’ journals are working in this area.

 We have learned how to measure individual elements and segments of the phenomenon more deeply and subtly, but will it bring us closer to understanding the causes and effects? And the question inevitably arises: to what extent are we are able to know the political world around us? Not to mention predict it?

We can also note growing interest in the problems of the state, state-building, and state capacity. This is clear in the context of real political processes in the modern world – and the way political science is responding to them. Finally, we should mention another crosscutting theme at the APSA conference – the heightened attention to analyzing contemporary mass movements, primarily protests (the ‘Arab Spring,’ ‘Bolotnaya,’ ‘Maidan,’ etc.). We are faced with an obvious deficit of general theory corresponding to today’s trends.

On what is written in scholarly journals

As a member of the editorial board, I attended the annual meeting of the editorial board of the American Political Science Review (APSR) – the ‘top’American (i.e., and also the top international) journal of political science. In 2013-2014, its impact factor is 3.84; over the last five years, it has been 5.6. Approximately 1,000 manuscripts are submitted to the journal every year, and the rate of publication is 7%. In terms of the disciplinary fields in political science, publications on comparative politics dominate, making up almost half of all articles. The share of work on American politics and international relations is decreasing each year.

A clarification is necessary here. Russian and American academic traditions have a different understanding of research in international relations. In America (and to some extent in Europe) political science makes a distinction between works that are descriptive in nature – describing and characterizing the foreign policy of states and inter-state relations, alliances and so on (what is regarded as international relations in Russia) – and theoretical and methodological studies based on rigorous methods and databases.  The latter type of studies is virtually non-existent in Russia because there is no corresponding academic tradition.

Most of the papers published in the APSR are prepared using quantitative methods. The other leading political science journals – Comparative Politics and World Politics – have a much higher proportion of publications based on qualitative methods, both empirical and normative. This poses a big problem: is it possible to express preferences for the analysis methods that are used taking into account the level of political knowledge achieved per se (if, of course, we are even in a position to adequately evaluate it)? The answer to this question is absolutely not unambiguous.

Why the proverbial ‘mainstream’ is important

Some of my respected colleagues have a slight disdain for the so-called ‘mainstream’ in contemporary political science. They, like me, want something new, more original. But here I always think of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicu , which contains a provision on a required methodological ‘ladder’ that can be rejected only after one has climbed to a new ‘plateau’ of knowledge with its help. So, the proverbial ‘mainstream’ in contemporary political science (including the enthusiasm for quantitative methods) is an analogue of the same ‘ladder’ that we need to climb at the beginning, after which we can criticize and reject it.

However, there is another no less important problem,including for future trends in modern political science. Improving quantitative methods seems to have become a goal of political science. There is no dispute that this is one of the most important components of modern political knowledge, but only if we do not forget about the real, ‘live’ issues of politics that underlie our research.

Is it possible to view the entire world under a microscope?

I am getting a clear impression – and not only after the APSA conference – that the current ‘methodological focus’ of political science may need some correction. This is what I would call the rugged temptation of ‘thin’ methods.

Here is the thing – if we look at the most sophisticated publications in the best (and not only the best) political science journals, we can see a prevalence of articles using various quantitative methods. But it is essential that, as a rule, their subject concerns ‘small’ issues and individual nuances. There is no question that this is the most important material for understanding the ‘general’ if an overall focus is implied. But this is not always the case. In learning more about what is ‘smaller’, we risk losing sight of the forest for the trees.

 One of the ‘birth traumas’ of Russian political science is a lack of knowledge of rigorous methods, both quantitative and qualitative, and an inability to work with empirical databases. ‘I believe that ...’ is not an argument at all. 

We are revealing even greater number of factors and nuances of their possible influence on certain political effects, but due to their multiplicity, we are not always able to identify the direction of causality. In a sense, this is an analogue of Gödel's theorem; when a plurality of various provisions is applied, there will always be those that cannot be stated as true or false. This is, in fact, a terrible situation for political science, especially normative.

A variety of factors can generate the same effect, and we cannot say with certainty which is decisive. And is it decisive? Perhaps causality in politics has a multifactorial nature and the sources of these effects are simply different?

Over the last 25-30 years, political science has achieved tremendous progress when it comes to ​​data collection and the development of rigorous methods of quantitative and qualitative analysis. A lot has become more measurable and comparable in the strict sense of the word. But to what extent does this enable us to expand our understanding of the world around us.

Let us suppose that we are looking at a single political phenomenon that is extremely interesting for us. We have learned to measure some of its elements and segments more deeply and subtly, but does this bring us closer to understanding the causes of this phenomenon and its effects? We cannot help then but ask the scary question –to what extent are we are able to know the political world around us? Not to mention predict it?

Russian political studies and global political science

If we look at the list of APSA conference participants, we see many Russian-sounding names. However, when we start to look at the details, it turns out that they do not work in Russia, but rather at foreign universities – from the ‘average’ ones all the way up to Harvard, Stanford and Oxford.

Institutionally, the Russian research community was only represented by the Higher School of Economics at the conference. Dmitry Dagaev, Konstantin Sonin, Andrei Yakovlev, Eugene Nazrullaeva, and others were presenters. Anton Sobolev, an HSE graduate and now a student in the PhD program at UCLA, was a co-presenter. My report, as before, was in the section on ‘Sequencing’: a strong authoritarian state or democratization? At the conference, I expected to meet colleagues from MGIMO, Moscow State University, St. Petersburg, Novgorod and Kazan. But there was not a soul.

Why?

There was no question about there being any kind of discrimination. Still, for Russian ‘political science’, this was bad news. Many of my colleagues criticize me when I speak of the ‘flat’ landscape of ‘political science’ in Russia, a landscape absent of individual ‘hills’, one characterized instead by ‘batches’, ‘bogs’ and self-replicating bottomless ‘pits’. By the way, it is easy to understand why this has happened. Departments and faculties of political science came into being because most of them were simply departments and schools of scientific communism and Marxism-Leninism that had been renamed. They are all cut out of the same fabric, and this tradition continues to reproduce itself. Of course, there are exceptions; there are pockets of creative thought.

One of the ‘birth traumas’ of Russian political science is a lack of knowledge of rigorous methods, both quantitative and qualitative, and an inability to work with empirical databases. ‘I believe that ...’ is not an argument at all.

I would add, perhaps, in this context that the editorial board of APSR discussed new requirements for the openness of sources used upon submitting manuscripts for review. Beginning in 2015, a requirement will be introduced on presenting documented confirmation of the quantitative databases used for possible verification by reviewers or opponents. With regard to qualitative data, however, this issue has not been resolved.

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