The Problem of Political Science: Why Scientific Inquiry Does Not Always Translate Well Into Social Phenomenological Explanation

Oliver Thomas

I just arrived in Vancouver on September 1 to begin my graduate studies in Political Science at the University of British Columbia. After thumbing through a required text titled Designing Social Inquiry, I’m already worried about course content this Fall.

As a historian and political theorist by training, I’ve been skeptical for some time about positivism within the social sciences, and the use of pure scientific methodology as a tool for examining phenomena and causality.

Scholars of international affairs and security often point to political science as a nexus of both qualitative and quantitative research. Yet, the overreach of the discipline’s research methods leads to a depreciation of philosophical inquiry and to a misuse and reliance upon scientific method.

In other words, political scientific analysis is prone to extracting itself from human factors, leading to a false sense of justified positivism. As AEI scholar Steven F. Hayward once explained, “[t]he real problem with academic political science is its insistence on attempting to emulate the empiricism of economics and other social sciences.”

To me, this is a huge problem. Here are 3 reasons why:

1. Misconceptions of epistemological progress

When it comes to comprehending global threats and working toward the national security of the United States, political science has proven itself a dismal contributor in the dialogue toward an understanding of defense and global order. This lapse is due largely to the assumption of perceived ideological and paradigmatic  progress.

Barbara Geddes addresses the fragility of political science methodology and ideology in her book titled Paradigms and Sand Castles. She builds on Max Weber’s assertion that inquiry and dealing within the space of ideas has direct implications through action and participation in the political process. As political animals, we have a great degree of responsibility. Ideology, in this case, deconstructs, and makes political action a space for relativism and dogmatism. Political experimentation operates within a echo chamber, dismissing the use of looking to the past and instead, retracting into hermetic, cold calculation.

The weakness of political science, then, is that the discipline does not approach research inquiry in a proper manner of intellectual honesty. That is, having both comparative knowledge based on sound contemporary and historical knowledge, while orienting research outside of constructivist arguments for epistemological progress.

Just as importantly, scholars of political science tend to follow incorrect methodology of inquiry.  Posing research questions within political science framework tends to avoid the visceral, initial philosophical questions that spark human curiosity and indignation. Yet there is a key place for this type of inquiry in the field.

2. Methodological Sophistry and False A priori Positioning

A favorite political theorist and philosopher of mine, Eric Voegelin, wrote a short, accessible text called The New Science of Politics. In the work, he argues against the subscription to ideology and “isms” much like the contemporary clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson asserts in his speeches and writing. My second point, then, is that political science and politics create a space that primes individuals for rigid intellectual positions.

Each “ism” and new paradigm shapes and forms scholars’ approach to research questions. Thus, a cyclical process of methodological bias begins. In turn, research and policy proposals lack a diversity of outcomes, sticking to a safe, cookie cutter script that fits the mold of the theory or method being utilized. Without trying on new ideas and being intellectually courageous, the strength of our arguments and thus our policy proposals become short sighted and further from obtaining political truth.

3. Ineffectiveness in Substantive Policy Proposals

Because of the aforementioned faults in theory building and research mechanisms, political sciences often results in ineffective and mis-prescribed policy outcomes.

Taking into account the cracked methodological foundations and flawed epistemological assumptions, we should not be surprised by lapses in policy efficacy. The more fractured and relativistic each methodological approach becomes, the more political science will be trapped in Hegel’s metaphysical dialectic.

Political science can only survive if the discipline recognizes its strengths and weaknesses. Only by integrating the humanities into an overly quantitative, positivist methodology will academic political scientists be able to reorient their theoretical framework. Such disciplines might include history, philosophy, theology, and literature. Political science has the potential to become an interdisciplinary epicenter, but no longer can it claim to be something it is not: a predictive science.

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