Political Science and the Public Sphere in the 21st Century

Rogers M. Smith, University of Pennsylvania

Fifteen years ago, I was one of several political scientists asked to participate in an interdisciplinary conference organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to analyze transformations in four disciplines over the last fifty years.{{1}} That request prompted me to become more of a student of the history of American political science, its problems, and its contributions to knowledge and to public life. For this essay, my assignment is to also consider the relationship of political science to the contemporary public sphere.{{2}} To do so I first revisited my earlier work to see what remains true and what is different now.{{3}}

To preview the results: the analysis of the intellectual challenges facing the discipline that I offered then, focused on the tensions between trying to achieve rigorous science and trying to serve American democracy, seems to have held up well. All that means, however, is that despite real progress on some fronts, those tensions not only remain, they have in some ways become still more debilitating, particularly for the capacities of political science to enrich the public sphere. But the discipline is now also challenged, probably more severely challenged, by changes in modern American higher education that I did not foresee, including declining public support and the increased segregation of higher education faculty members into a small cadre of high-paid researchers who do limited teaching, and a large number of economically insecure teachers who lack time and resources for research.

These transformations in higher education affect all disciplines, but I believe they especially compound the difficulties facing good political science research and teaching, in ways that further diminish the discipline’s capacities to enhance broader public understandings of politics. I do not despair for the future of political science or higher education due to these difficulties; but they do define intellectual and institutional challenges of which all of us involved in these endeavors should be aware. Due to my own limitations, my focus here is on American political science and American higher education. But I will also draw on the broader analyses provided in a recently published European Political Science journal symposium that features the Canadian John Trent’s analysis of various efforts by the International Political Science Association to assess the state of political science around the globe.{{4}}

The Tensions in American Political Science, Past and Present

The main points concerning political science that I advanced in 1996 were first, that from its inception, the discipline has been shaped by desires to be as rigorous a “science” as possible, on the one hand, and to serve American democracy, on the other.{{5}} From the profession’s formation in the early 20th century, most of its leaders have conceived of “science” as involving extensive, accurate data collection used for systematic testing of hypotheses derived from theories that generally have taken one or more of the natural sciences and sometimes economics or psychology as their models. The object of this work has always been in part, as Charles Beard argued in 1908, “to seek the truth” about politics “simply in the spirit of science.”{{6}} But like most political scientists, Beard also contended that such research would enable the “teacher” of political science to convey “necessary” knowledge that would prepare each pupil “as a citizen of this great nation” to engage in wiser “thought and action.”{{7}}

In my earlier paper, I argued that historically, these disciplinary goals have often proven to be in conflict. In fact there have been three conflicts: first, scientific “truth” about politics has often appeared to discredit instead of affirming the feasibility and desirability of democracy; second, scientific “truth” has also appeared to challenge many of the claims Americans advance to celebrate their country; and third, some political scientists have concluded that serving democracy and serving America are in many ways two very different, sometimes opposed projects. Most American political scientists, however, have nonetheless still presented themselves as simultaneously seeking to advance science and to serve democratic citizens and institutions in America. Many have resisted the notion that there are any deep incompatibilities in these goals, in part out of sincere conviction, in part because they have wished the discipline to appear valuable in the eyes of the American government agencies, private donors, and mass publics that have provided its material base.

Today, despite its name, the American Political Science Association does not express its aims in overtly American-centered terms; but its basic goals remain the same. Its official “core objectives” begin with “promoting scholarly research and communication, domestically and internationally,” followed by “promoting high quality teaching and education about politics and government,” and the objectives conclude with “serving the public, including disseminating research and preparing citizens to be effective citizens and political participants.”{{8}} The assumption remains that by discovering and disseminating truth about politics and government, political science research and teaching will in fact serve “the public,” however defined, and equip “citizens” to participate effectively in “politics,” presumably democratic politics, rather than instead discrediting the feasibility and desirability of democratic citizenship. These objectives also rest on the assumption that political science research and teaching basically go hand in hand—a long-fragile belief that has further eroded in the last fifteen years, as I will discuss.

My earlier paper identified two patterns in the discipline’s history related to the tensions between discovering scientific truths about politics and aiding American democracy. On the individual level, many leading American political scientists, including Charles Beard (who was President of the American Political Science Association before becoming President of the American Historical Association), Arthur Bentley, Charles Merriam, Harold Lasswell, David Easton, Gabriel Almond, and Robert Dahl, all stressed making political science more scientific early in their careers; but all came to place greater stress on serving democracy later in their lives.{{9}} The American discipline as a whole, however, has over time given greater priority to becoming more truly scientific, rather than to contributing to democracy or America—while continuing to seek to minimize the tensions among those goals.{{10}} That trend, I contended, has continued despite periodic outbursts of resistance, such as the protests of the Caucus for a New Political Science in the late 1960s. The predominance in the discipline of the quest to become a true science contributed to the ascendancy of rational choice theory and more sophisticated quantitative analyses through the 1980s and into the early 1990s.{{11}} I judged in 1996, however, that rational choice theory was coming to be seen as an important source of “tools and hypotheses” for the discipline, but not as a credible “grand unifying theory” of politics. The profession seemed headed instead into an era of intellectual pluralism in which the strongest emphasis would be on more empirically rigorous testing of hypotheses that were parts of “middle-level” theories of particular political phenomena.{{12}}

What has happened since then? At the turn of the century, political science experienced another uprising, this time termed the “Perestroika” movement, protesting what its participants, including me, saw as the discipline’s undue privileging of quantitative methods and rational choice theory over other forms of analysis, and its neglect of important political questions not amenable to such methods.{{13}} By then I saw a further specification of the tension between the discipline’s scientific and its public service aspirations: often the only questions that could be answered at what was taken to be the highest level of scholarly rigor were relatively narrow, technical aspects of the big questions with which I thought we ought to be concerned—so the discipline ended up saying very little of substance about those big questions.{{14}}

Robert Putnam’s 2002 American Political Science Presidential Address, entitled “The Public Role of Political Science,” best displays the predominant response of the profession to these developments.{{15}} Putnam insisted that various scholars, including me, had overstated the tensions between “rigor and relevance,” and that “scientific rigor and public relevance” were in fact “mutually supportive,” just as “the founders of the APSA” had believed.{{16}} But he agreed that “in recent years” the “salience” of the goal of contributing to “public understanding and the vitality of democracy” had “dimmed” in the profession, though he also believed and hoped that political science was “nearing the end of a period in which activism has been de-emphasized and even de-legitimated by our professional norms.”{{17}} He advised his “more scientific” colleagues, “Better an approximate answer to an important question than an exact answer to a trivial question,” and his “less scientific” colleagues, “More precise is better.”{{18}} He called for a political science that used many methods, engaged many disciplines, and that ecumenically included both “problem-driven” and “method-driven” work while returning to “a phase of more active engagement in the world.”{{19}}

Putnam’s positions—early 21st century political science did need to seek more active engagement with real-world problems and needed to do so in methodologically pluralistic fashion, but all scholars should see the quest for scientific rigor, defined chiefly in terms of “counting and modeling,” as overwhelmingly “supportive” of these goals—capture well what I see as the prevailing sensibilities in American political science today. The discipline’s leaders endorse intellectual pluralism and the need to address substantively important questions more strongly than many did prior to the Perestroika “revolt,” while largely adhering to the view that formal modeling and quantitative methods generally if not always represent the most rigorous forms of political science. Most are skeptical, however, about rational choice theory as a candidate for a grand, unifying theory of all politics, rejecting claims advanced by some leading rational choice scholars from the 1970s through the 1990s.

Notable in this regard is Jon R. Bond’s presidential address to the Southern Political Science Association published in 2007. Bond professed his wholehearted commitment to the scientific method as conventionally understood. But precisely for that reason, he was “not persuaded that rational choice theory will provide the Newtonian breakthrough for political science,” because he saw it as “nonfalsifiable.”{{20}} Though we can test whether specific actors pursue particular goals rationally, we can also always imagine an alternate rational choice model in which the actors’ goals are defined as doing whatever they are in fact found to have done. So we cannot falsify the theoretical claim that all behavior can be deemed rationally instrumental to the achievement of some goals. At most we can find that some behavior was not rational for the goals we thought, perhaps incorrectly, that the actors held. While that finding may lead us to reconsider our characterization of their goals, it leaves the question of whether we should regard their conduct as rational unanswered. These realities meant that rational choice scholarship provides particular models that are falsifiable, but no testable general theory of politics.

Because many of the most scientifically committed political scientists like Bond have now reached this conclusion, and no alternative grand theory of politics has subsequently emerged, the discipline does now display considerable intellectual pluralism, though as much by default as by conviction. Scholars seeking to achieve a more scientific political science have felt compelled to identify that quest simply with the use of scientific methods, not with any particular substantive or theoretical focus. Those commitments have continued to arouse anxieties that too much modern political science research is purely “method-driven” and so does not illuminate important political problems in ways that can inform and advance debates and deliberation in the public sphere.

In the terms of Michael Burawoy’s 2004 American Sociological Association Presidential Address, “For Public Sociology,” which helped inspire the SSRC’s “Academia & the Public Sphere” essay series, the Perestroika dispute and its aftermath shows that political science today, like sociology, has many practitioners of “professional” political science who seek to develop and test scientific theories systematically. But the discipline also has many proponents of “critical” political science who challenge “professional” normative and descriptive assumptions and who, I would add, often also seek to address the larger substantive concerns of mainstream publics and counter-publics.{{21}} Yet despite Robert Putnam’s hope for an upsurge in publicly relevant research, and despite general disillusionment with the most sweeping ambitions of rational choice theorists, the different camps are still by no means equal in size or status. In my view along with many others, the historic trend toward the predominance of “professional”-style political science that neither aspires to nor achieves great “relevance” on major aspects of contemporary public issues has continued. There are, at most, a tiny number of contemporary American political scientists who are prominent contributors to public debates because of and by means of the ideas they have advanced in their professional research or teaching (a list that does not include me). The best-known political scientists, such as former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and CIA Director David Patraeus, are famous and influential for what they have done in public service, not for their political science scholarship.

The two closest candidates for “public intellectual” standing due to their “professional” scholarship are probably Nobel Prize Winner Elinor Ostrom and Putnam himself. As a crude measure of their public visibility, Putnam’s most cited work, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, has close to 30,000 citations on Google Scholar (which includes many non-scholarly sources), while Ostrom’s Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, has over 11,000. Yet Bowling Alone primarily addresses the forms of social life that are and are not conducive to the formation of “social capital.” It rarely directly addresses politics or most public issues, though “social capital” is found to be conducive to political engagement.{{22}} The same is true of Putnam’s more prescriptive subsequent book, Better Together: Restoring the American Community. Its emphasis is overwhelmingly on initiatives by community groups and businesses in civil society, not on government action—not even on why government action would be ineffective or inappropriate—though it cannot avoid discussing government as a sector pertinent to these initiatives.{{23}} In comparison, though Ostrom’s seminal book has found a wide audience among scholars and policy-makers, and though it does assess government responses to public resource issues among other alternatives, it has not put a signature idea into public circulation in the manner of Putnam’s “bowling alone” and “social capital” concepts. Insofar as it has had a broader impact, the book has conveyed a similar “civil society” message, suggesting that local voluntary associations are often better than national governments or markets for resolving resource development and allocation problems.{{24}}

There are, to be sure, a few other political scientists whose ideas published in their scholarly works have affected important public debates. Most notable, perhaps, are Samuel P. Huntington, whose Clash of Civilizations book and preceding article together have more than 13,000 Google Scholar citations, and his student Francis Fukuyama, whose End of History book and article have more than 10,000.{{25}} But unlike the Putnam and Ostrom books, few regard those works as employing the methods of rigorous “professional” political science. And while the New York Times has called Princeton’s Robert P. George “this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker,” and George’s ideas are laid out in his books, those works, too, are not seen as products of “professional” political science, and in comparison with the writings of Putnam, Ostrom, Huntington, and Fukuyama, they are not read nearly so widely in the profession.{{26}} George is most influential due to his advisory role with Catholic leaders, government agencies, and the Federalist Society.

Apart from Putnam and Ostrom, the work of “professional” political science that may have had the greatest public impact in the U.S. in recent years is Donald Green and Alan Gerber’s Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Your Voter Turnout, which has become the Bible for contemporary campaign organizations.{{27}} But this book, with just a bit over 200 Google Scholar citations, has influenced the tactical conduct of political professionals far more than it has public understanding of politics. Even so, by getting campaigners to knock on doors and talk to people instead of running more television ads, it may have done more than most academic work to inspire active participation in democratic self-governance.

Not only is the list of American political scientists whose professional scholarship has had a substantial public impact very short. It also has a political tilt that is in my view understandable but disturbing. Even though the authors of these works are by no means all conservatives or neo-conservatives—only George and at times Fukuyama have been politically active in those circles—their messages have nonetheless been broadly consonant with the conservative tide in American politics over the past generation. These works tend to celebrate many traditional American values and institutions, to express concern about loss of older civic virtues, and most importantly, to favor decentralized, civil society solutions to common problems—not big government, certainly not any radical egalitarian reform agendas. It is not surprising that political science scholarship that is more in keeping with the dominant political mood of an era should attract more attention than work that is out of step. But if one believes that there are at least aspects of that mood that warrant criticism, then it is questionable whether these patterns show that modern professional political science is doing all it ideally would to improve public life.

The patterns I discern in recent American political science fit broadly with the global trends portrayed by John E. Trent in his 2009 presentation to the World Congress of the International Political Science Association held in Santiago, Chile. Trent, a former Secretary General of the IPSA, based his remarks on his work as co-editor of a book series on the state of political science around the world and on papers presented at a 2008 IPSA conference in Montreal devoted to the condition of international political science. Trent argued that 21st century political science benefits from much better databases and improved quantitative methods, but rather than being entirely devoted to quantitative work, the discipline still displays “an eclectic, pluralistic set of approaches to political analysis.”{{28}} There is neither methodological nor theoretical consensus. Trent perceived that in particular “rational choice theory was generally condemned” as a candidate to be an overarching theory of all politics, and he also saw “greater appreciation of historical sociology and normative theory.”{{29}} Nonetheless, Trent reported that more generally, “almost all the political science research paradigms are severely questioned,” and tensions “run deep between ‘scientific’ and ‘political’ orientations,” with a “mainstream/non-mainstream division and deprecation between quantitative (e.g. empirical/scientific) versus qualitative (e.g., philosophical/institutional) practitioners.”{{30}} Overall, Trent portrayed a fragmented, over-specialized “discipline in search of its soul and out of touch with the real world of politics” and called for political scientists to have a greater sense of responsibility to be relevant to the concerns of “the public and the political class, society and democracy.”{{31}} He also thought, however, that these difficulties were mainly with “the theory and research side of the discipline, rather than our teaching.”{{32}}

His presentation drew a sharp response from former IPSA President and leading German political scientist Max Kaase, who noted that “many important scientific inventions were initially made without any concern for any broader social relevance” and that “differentiation and specialization lead to both academic and human progress.”{{33}} He thought any undue emphasis on quantification was primarily a North American, not a global problem, and he did not see it as a great problem anywhere, because he saw “research specialization” as “a conditio sine qua non for progress in political science knowledge creation,”{{34}} Yet Kaase also stressed, contrary to Trent, that the growing numbers of university students in many places, combined with the need for specialized research, was “probably increasing the distance between teaching and research.” Specialization, while good for “the development of the field,” was “clearly a challenge to teaching.”{{35}}

The Trent-Kaase exchange suggests that the trends discernible in American political science–the absence of any reigning grand theory of politics, attendant methodological and substantive pluralism, but with a long-term trend toward, and tensions over, claims that only quantitative political work is truly rigorous and scientific, all accompanied by concerns about declining relevance—are more than simply American phenomena, even though political science varies greatly in different locales globally. I am struck, however, by their differences over whether teaching is endangered by these trends; and though I am in many ways sympathetic with Trent, on this point I think Kaase’s perception is correct. More than I or the other AAAS conference participants recognized fifteen years ago, the development of higher education is producing new challenges in all disciplines to older models of professors as both researchers and teachers. But these developments, I argue, are particularly threatening for the research and teaching contributions of the discipline of political science, in ways that may well be damaging for the profession’s contributions to the public sphere. To understand why, it is useful to first review some of the recent transformations in higher education that are becoming all too familiar.

The Transformations in Higher Education and Implications for Political Science

The most important transformations in the U.S. are, first, the expansion of modern higher education that has fostered increased teaching needs, in America as elsewhere, as Kaase stressed, even as more and more colleges and universities have sought to become research centers, not just teaching institutions.{{36}} Second is the combination of higher university costs and declining public funding that has produced cutbacks in non-revenue generating programs; much higher tuition; and increased reliance on university-corporate partnerships, as well as corporate managerial styles within universities—as Michael Burawoy stressed in his essay to the SSRC Public Sphere forum this summer, and as political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg has detailed at book length.{{37}} Third, and resulting from the first two, is the increased reliance on adjuncts, graduate students, and other sorts of non-tenure track faculty members to do the bulk of the teaching in American research universities and even many American teaching institutions, accompanied nonetheless by higher teaching loads for tenured and tenure track faculty in many state universities and community colleges already oriented primarily toward teaching. Meanwhile scholars in more affluent research universities (including me) are being asked to do less teaching than in the past.{{38}} Such research scholars are, however, often expected to do more to win grants from foundation, corporate, and the shrinking numbers of government research funding programs—devoting their time to income-generating centers rather than to classrooms or to forms of academic research that do not attract large grants.{{39}}

As Joanna Scott and I have stressed, these transformations are massive in scale: in 1960, three-quarters of college instructors in the U.S. were full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty. By 2009, only 27% were, with adjuncts and graduate students providing most of the rest of the teaching.{{40}} And in the last 30 years, the costs of four-year public universities in the U.S. has risen almost 500%, while the main source of student financial aid for these institutions, Pell grants, rose much more slowly—so that these grants only cover 33% of public university costs, versus almost 70% in 1980.{{41}} As student consumers and their families have paid more and more for less and less teaching by senior tenured faculty members, sharp criticisms of the costly scholarship and teaching being provided by modern American colleges and universities and calls for substantial restructuring, including elimination of tenure, have mounted. Strikingly, the authors of many of these critiques are leading university administrators and academics.{{42}}

These transformations pose major challenges to all disciplines and all institutions of higher education, even though there are important variations: top private universities and a few elite public research universities are faring better than the bulk of public institutions. Scholars in the “STEM”—science, technology, engineering, and math—disciplines, along with health researchers, are faring better than most in the humanities and social sciences, in part because they became accustomed to relying on large-scale external research grants long ago. But throughout higher education, trends are working against maintaining the “symbiosis of multiple purposes” long achieved by having scholars who are both researchers and teachers, with great academic freedom to do both, comprise the bulk of the long-term members of post-secondary institutions.{{43}}

There are good reasons to think that the trends that are increasing the distance between research and teaching do have real costs, as Kaase suggested. Even in the STEM fields, one recent study found that graduate students who taught displayed greater improvement in their research skills than graduate students who did not teach, as evaluated by how their research proposals improved over time. A qualitative survey of economists produced a similar finding.{{44}} But many education reformers, including the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank associated with Texas governor and current presidential candidate Rick Perry, are arguing that “transparency and accountability” can be improved by instead “emphasizing teaching and research as separate efforts in higher education.”{{45}} They are thereby adding political reinforcement to the modern patterns in which more academics are becoming either researchers or teachers but not truly both.

Even so, it is not so much political pressures as the enhanced market competition for top scholars characterizing American universities in the recent decades—competition that education scholar Roger Geiger terms “the arms race”—that has generated the trends toward providing the most prestigious researchers with reduced teaching loads, while the high demands for college-level instruction are met by assigning other scholars teaching loads so great that doing serious research becomes difficult if not impossible.{{46}} The comparatively light teaching loads at top American research universities are being achieved and preserved through more visible embrace of the ties to wealthy donors, corporate and individuals on which, out of apparent necessity, those universities increasingly rely. For example, the leading public university political science department in the United States at the University of California at Berkeley is now officially the “Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science,” named for an alumnus donor who made a fortune in mineral development. A top private university, New York University, houses “The Wilf Family Department of Politics,” named for a family of real estate developers and businessmen that includes several NYU alumni. Of course, both public and private universities in America have always partly depended on gifts from wealthy alumni, often recognized in the naming of buildings and endowed chairs. But the recent overt identification of prominent departments with particular private donors symbolizes how this reliance is becoming a yet more significant part of modern American university life.

And though issues of declining governmental funding, mounting public criticism, increased segregation of research and teaching, greater reliance on teachers who hold less protected and less rewarded non-tenure-track positions, and greater dependence on private, often corporate sources of research funding and other donations are endemic to modern American academia, I submit that they interact with the traditional and still-present tensions in the mission of political science in ways that are distinctively consequential. However its goals may be conceived, political science is the one discipline above all that cannot avoid being “political.” Politics is the profession’s subject matter, and whatever methods its practitioners employ, whatever the particular substantive foci of their research and teaching are, political scientists are always likely, if not indeed certain, to produce results that are controversial from some political point of view—either because they question aspects of the political status quo, or because they affirm aspects of the political status quo, or simply because they emphasize some aspects of politics and neglect others. Even attempting to do “apolitical, pure science” research on politics involves making a highly contested political choice. There is no safe option.

As I discussed in my previous contribution to the SSRC’s “Academia & the Public Sphere” essay series, these realities were dramatized for American political scientists in the fall of 2009 when conservative Republican Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who is also a medical doctor, introduced an amendment to eliminate the small amount of National Science Foundation funding that goes to political science research.{{47}} Journalists perceived the Senator to be motivated by hostility to studies “tainted by left-wing biases.” And he probably was; but his largest target was the University of Michigan’s American National Election Studies, the survey research many regard as the bedrock of “professional” quantitative political science.{{48}} Coburn believed that even such work had “little, if anything, to do with science,” and he urged that NSF funds go to “finding solutions for people with severe disabilities, or the next generation of bio-fuels, or engineering breakthroughs,” leaving “political science” to “pundits and voters.”{{49}} Coburn’s amendment was easily defeated, but the incident shows that whenever scholars analyze politics in any way, there is always the inescapable risk of upsetting persons in power. And again, that is a risk that political science, more than any other discipline, cannot avoid without ceasing to exist.

I have also long contended that precisely because governments, major media firms, private corporations and non-profit think tanks of various stripes can and do hire skilled researchers to document and analyze politics, the profession of academic political science should see itself as having special responsibilities that only heighten these risks.{{50}} The intellectual agendas of all those researchers employed elsewhere inevitably reflect the interests of the government agencies, media outlets, corporations and think tanks that finance them to conduct certain studies. If academic political science is to make a distinctive contribution, its agenda should therefore be different from the work that such non-academic researchers are doing—even as it pursues both “critical” and “professional” forms of research.

In the manner of “critical” sociology and political science, academic political scientists should seek to question the empirical and normative assumptions and the adequacy of the data and analyses offered by these other, often more “public” researchers, along with those of scholarship generated within the discipline. Academics should also seek to identify and explore significant political topics that non-academic researchers neglect because they are irrelevant to or contrary to the interests of their funders. It is likely that many of those neglected topics will focus on the interests of those who are not wealthy, not powerful, and not socially influential, and I believe that promoting understanding of those interests can be a significant contribution to the modern public sphere in America and elsewhere.

Yet I want also to acknowledge, indeed to stress, that many of the subjects that academic political scientists should feel a special responsibility to pursue will be the standard fare of “professional” political science. Some political research topics are neglected because they present technical challenges that are too rarefied for most non-academic researchers to perceive, much less study. Others involve theoretical debates and extensive data collection endeavors that government agencies, corporations, and think tanks may not see as sufficiently connected to their immediate agendas to warrant support. Beginning with my 1996 paper, I have long argued that political scientists should see themselves as called to be “gadflies,” in the Socratic tradition and in keeping with more “critical” modes of research. But it would be wrong to deny that much irreplaceable work is done and must be done by academic political scientists who seek instead to be professional “worker bees,” industriously contributing to the collective project of building up a body of scientific truths about politics. Although some of this research appears to me to succumb to the temptations of over-specialization and disciplinary insularity at the expense of attention to important political questions that can enrich the public sphere, as both Putnam and Trent have also suggested, a great deal of it is undeniably necessary for intellectual progress in the study of politics, and much of it is substantively illuminating as well. The lesson of the Coburn controversy, again, is that these distinctive sorts of “professional” political science contributions, along with “critical” ones, are endangered by current trends in American higher education. When you are in the political arena, it appears, often all the buzzing of all the different types of academic insects around you sounds the same—and so you just start swatting.

Nevertheless, the fact that even “mainstream” quantitative political science is coming under criticism only shows further how the longstanding internal tensions in American political science, and the trends in the discipline’s responses to those tensions, are now interacting with the external developments in American higher education in ways that justify heightened concern for the profession’s intellectual vitality. The contested but still predominant internal trend to give priority to the goal of becoming more rigorously scientific over visible service to American democracy has been bolstered by the external trends separating research from teaching, and by the increasing need to rely on non-governmental funding for research, which goes primarily to what is seen as more “scientific” and “professional” work. But I believe that in fact the scientific rigor of the profession’s research is in important ways undermined by these developments. As scholars perceived to be doing “cutting edge” scientific research on politics are increasingly relieved of many of their teaching responsibilities, many have felt even freer to pursue highly technical, often esoteric dimensions of the discipline’s internal theoretical debates, since those topics are generally not suitable for undergraduate courses. At the same time, however, they are experiencing pressures to focus on dimensions of their research agenda that may have value in the eyes of the private individual and corporate donors on which universities increasingly rely. For those scholars more concerned to achieve what they judge to be scientific rigor than to address any particular substantive topics or to develop knowledge suitable for engaging teaching, the result can be research that is either substantively tied to donor agendas or that is remote from any major substantive political debates, or perhaps even both. This research is not likely to be accessible in form or illuminating in content for most participants in the world’s public spheres, because neither public accessibility nor public relevance rank high among its driving concerns.

And though political science courses remain popular at most American universities, fewer and fewer political science instructors are now having their teaching fueled by the insights gained from designing and executing significant research projects on a continuing basis—even as the work of research scholars in political science is becoming less informed by experiences of learning student concerns, of seeking to have something to say to them, and of learning how to communicate that content effectively. And many of the non-tenured teachers of political science who do the great bulk of modern American university instruction, and indeed many of the tenured faculty members who work at financially stressed public institutions, believe that their positions and their institutions may be endangered if they teach about politics in highly controversial ways. Those anxieties matter, because as is true of political science research, any political science teaching worthy of the name must examine controversial political matters and must present unpopular views concerning those subjects. The more teaching about politics is done by teachers who feel themselves to be in highly vulnerable positions, wary of offending taxpayers, governmental officials, or corporate donors, the more likely it is that political science teaching will be done in ways that simply canvass conventional perspectives, rather than promoting wide-ranging critical reflection and deeper public understanding of important political concerns.

I do not wish to exaggerate these dangers. My perception is that most political scientists in America today still feel very free to pursue the research that, for “professional,” “critical,” or other reasons, they regard as important, while most teachers of political science in modern American higher education classrooms, regardless of rank, still feel they can challenge students with a range of critical perspectives. But I think it is entirely possible that for many of us, these beliefs are already partly a form of denial, because at some level we in fact know that we run risks if our research or teaching goes very far in unpopular directions. It also seems likely that if current trends continue, these pressures on both “professional” and, especially, “critical” political science research and teaching will loom larger. Indeed, literally as I was typing the preceding sentence, the Chronicle of Higher Education published online a report that the University of Texas’ Board of Regents has just adopted a “sweeping plan” that seeks to quell “the bitter disputes that have been raging across Texas over the proper balance of teaching and research and the need to control costs” by creating a “dashboard,” an “interactive, online database,” to give students, parents, and legislators” detailed data on “departments’ and colleges’ productivity and efficiency.”{{51}}

To be sure, the new Texas accountability plan represents an effort to forestall, not to comply with, the program to separate teaching and research advanced by the aforementioned conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, which nonetheless applauded it as a positive step forward.{{52}} And I wish to stress that it is not only politically unrealistic, it is not defensible for political scientists or other academics to seek to be wholly immune from accountability to the governments, private donors, and citizens who supply the resources that enable us to do the research and teaching that we do. Being a professor of political science or anything else is not a matter of divine right. But it also remains true that to study and teach about politics well, political scientists cannot have their agendas or their messages dictated closely by any powers that be, including government officials, wealthy corporations, foundations, or individuals, or even democratic public opinion. The price of excessively heightened vigilance from these sectors may precisely be the academic liberty essential to the profession’s mission. In that case political science’s contribution to the public sphere may become only the provision of an echo chamber for the voices of the powerful, rather than the supplying of valuable new political facts or freshly conceived political ideas.

Yet the road forward cannot simply be a road back. These trends largely are not reversible, nor would many types of reversal be desirable. In regard to the tensions within the discipline, more extensive and reliable databases and more sophisticated quantitative methods cannot be ignored if we are to improve political science research. Instead, their potential must be utilized and they must continue to be improved. Nonetheless, improvement also involves, I continue to maintain, recognizing that scientific rigor is achieved not by systematic data collection and hypothesis testing alone, vital though those endeavors are. Still more fundamentally, rigor requires intellectual honesty about the presumptions that drive our research, about how certain our findings really are, and about what bearing the substance of our research really has on the important substantive political concerns that it is the discipline’s mission to address. The intellectual honesty that is the heart of true science also involves communicating the aims and results of our work, in our scholarship and in our teaching, in terms sufficiently comprehensible to our various audiences so that they can judge whether we are doing work that matters in their eyes. Our research must be presented in ways that at least have the potential to be understood, assessed, and perhaps even utilized productively in the public sphere. For if the reality is that what we are doing, accurately understood, simply does not matter for the public sphere in the eyes of virtually all its participants, it is likely that we are deceiving ourselves about whether the political knowledge we are providing is really worth our efforts, or anyone’s support. That is not good science.

Seeking to insure that our work is communicated effectively risks, of course, intensifying the pressures arising from external trends. Many in the public may be even more dissatisfied with us when they really comprehend the sorts of questions we are pursuing and the sorts of findings we are producing—particularly when our questions and findings are highly relevant to them, well-conceived and executed, and deeply disturbing. The main response of contemporary American academics to these risks, apart from ignoble choices to write on obscure topics in impenetrable fashion, is to seek to protect academic freedom by maintaining the institution of tenure. It appears increasingly likely, however, that we American academics will not be able for too much longer to continue to justify having jobs for life, without even mandatory retirement, when no other sector of the American economy enjoys such privileges. If so, our battle will have to be not for tenure per se but for long-term contracts that can protect academic freedom without appearing to eliminate all accountability.

And then we have to use our professional protections and privileges well. It will be clear that I think this means that we have to do both our “professional” and our “critical” research in ways that address more effectively topics that matter to participants in modern public spheres. But I also believe that in America, perhaps much more than in other nations, political scientists particularly need to resist the pressures and temptations to move further away from the researcher/teacher model of academic life and toward disciplinary segregation into those who are almost exclusively researchers and those who almost exclusively teach. Despite the volley of recent critical studies, the evidence from enrollments is that many parents and teachers still greatly value political science teaching in institutions of higher education, probably more than they value the great bulk of our “professional” and our “critical” research. Many seem unconcerned if our teaching raises serious questions about American institutions, values, and practices, so long as we do it in ways that are informative and thought provoking, not heavily polemical and one-sided. Most value the development of capacities for critical, independent thought, and most recognize that this goal requires challenging inquiries into conventional ways of conducting politics. At the moment, most in the American public are not too happy with the state of contemporary American politics—so many are receptive to hearing at least some critical perspectives. And in an era of declining resources, the discipline of political science sorely needs the public support that teaching helps to generate.

Indeed, given the limited public impact of most late 20th century and 21st century American political science scholarship, I submit that it is possible, even likely, that today we American political scientists contribute to the public sphere more extensively and distinctively through our teaching than we do in any other way, just as many in the public appear to believe. As I have suggested, there is also good reason to believe that combining teaching and research, difficult as it can be to do, ultimately strengthens both—meaning that if we in American political science strive harder than we have been doing to resist recent trends and maintain, or indeed strengthen, our commitment to being both active researchers and active teachers, then both our research and our teaching may become more valuable to more people. If for much of the 20th century, leading U.S. political scientists decided late in their careers that the quest to be more scientific should not in the end take priority over the quest to strengthen democracy in America, then early in the 21st century, it may be time for modern American political scientists to decide humbly that the best path to strengthening our contributions to the public sphere involves not only doing better, more substantively significant, and more accessible scientific research, but also striving to maintain and strengthen our teaching, seeking to combine both and to do both as well as we possibly can.

Initiative on Academia & the Public Sphere

[[1]] The results were published in Daedalus 126, no. 1 (1997) and in Thomas Bender and Carl E. Schorske, eds. American Academic Culture in Transformation: Fifty Years, Four Disciplines (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).[[1]]
[[2]] My thanks to Roy White for excellent research assistance and to Anne Norton for helpful discussion of the themes of this essay.[[2]]
[[3]] My contribution was Rogers M. Smith, “Still Blowing in the Wind: The American Quest for a Democratic, Scientific Political Science,” in American Academic Culture, 271-305.[[3]]
[[4]] John E. Trent, “Should Political Science Be More Relevant? An Empirical and Critical Analysis of the Discipline,” European Political Science 10: 191-209 (2011).[[4]]
[[5]] Smith, “Still Blowing,” 271, 273-275.[[5]]
[[6]] Charles A. Beard, “Politics,” in James Farr and Raymond Seidelman, eds. Discipline and History: Political Science in the United States (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 127.[[6]]
[[7]] Ibid.[[7]]
[[8]] American Political Science Association, “Core Objectives.”[[8]]
[[9]] Smith, “Still Blowing,” 275.[[9]]
[[10]] Ibid. 276.[[10]]
[[11]] Ibid. 277-278.[[11]]
[[12]] Ibid. 288, 291.[[12]]
[[13]] For overviews see Kristen R. Monroe, ed., Perestroika! The Raucous Rebellion in Political Science (New Haven: Yale University Press); Sidney G. Tarrow, “Polarization and Convergence in Academic Controversies,” Theory and Society 37: 513-36.[[13]]
[[14]] See e.g. Rogers M. Smith, “Should We Make Political Science More of a Science or More About Politics?” PS: Political Science and Politics 35: 199-201 (2002).[[14]]
[[15]] Perspectives on Politics 1: 249-255 (2003), PDF available at here.[[15]]
[[16]] Ibid. 251.[[16]]
[[17]] Ibid. 249, 251.[[17]]
[[18]] Ibid. 252. As a target of Putnam’s thoughtful and courteous criticism, let me note that I agree entirely with both these admonitions, though not entirely with the designation of the groups as “more” and “less” scientific.[[18]]
[[19]] Ibid. 252-253.[[19]]
[[20]] Jon R. Bond, “The Scientification of the Study of Politics: Some Observations on the Behavioral Evolution in Political Science,” Journal of Politics 69: 095 (2007).[[20]]
[[21]] Burawoy, Michael. 2004. “Presidential Address: For Public Sociology,” American Sociological Review 70: 7, 9-10. Burawoy broke these activities down into further categories.[[21]]
[[22]] Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).[[22]]
[[23]] Robert D. Putnam and Lewis Feldstein, with Don Cohen, Better Together: Restoring the American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003).[[23]]
[[24]] Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).[[24]]
[[25]] For the books, see Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), and Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).[[25]]
[[26]] David D. Kirkpatrick, “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker,” New York Times, December 20, 2009, MM24; Robert P. George, Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). This work, George’s most influential, has roughly 425 citations on Google Scholar.[[26]]
[[27]] Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber, Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Your Voter Turnout, 2d ed. (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2008). For participant-observation evidence of the impact of this work, see Rasmus Nielsen, “Ground Wars: Personalized Political Communications in American Campaigns,” doctoral dissertation, Columbia University School of Journalism, 2010.[[27]]
[[28]] Trent, “Political Science,” 193-194.[[28]]
[[29]] Ibid. 194-195.[[29]]
[[30]] Ibid.[[30]]
[[31]] Ibid. 196-197, 199.[[31]]
[[32]] Ibid. 204.[[32]]
[[33]] Max Kaase, “Should Political Science Be More Relevant? A Comment on the Paper by John E. Trent,” European Political Science 10: 228, 231 (2011).[[33]]
[[34]] Ibid. 231-232.[[34]]
[[35]] Ibid. 230-231.[[35]]
[[36]] Roger L. Geiger, Knowledge and Money: Research Universities and the Paradox of the Marketplace (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 2.[[36]]
[[37]] Michael Burawoy, “Redefining the Public University: Developing an Analytical Framework,” August 5, 2011; Benjamin Ginsberg, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), esp. ch. 6; Geiger, ibid. 3, 24-25, 29-33, 41, 44, 47, 180-231. On financing see also Donald E. Heller, “Financing Public Research Universities in the United States: The Role of Students and Their Families,” in Robert L. Geiger, Carol L. Colbeck, Roger L. Williams, and Christian K. Anderson, Future of the American Public Research University (Rotterdam/Taipei: Sense Publishers, 2007), 35-53.[[37]]
[[38]] Geiger, ibid. 170-172.[[38]]
[[39]] Ibid. 172-179.[[39]]
[[40]] Samantha Stainburn, “The Case of the Vanishing Full-Time Professor,” New York Times, January 3, 2010, ED6, cited in Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Rogers M. Smith, “Teaching: The Issues Perestroika Neglected,” PS: Political Science and Politics 43: 751 (2010).[[40]]
[[41]] Scott and Smith, ibid. and Kevin Carey, “That Old College Lie,” Democracy 15: 2010.[[41]]
[[42]] See e.g. Derek Bok, Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do about It (New York: Times Books, 2011); Richard Arum and Josipa Roksum, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Naomi Schaefer Riley, The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For (New York: Ivan R Dee, 2011). Bok is the former President of Harvard University. Hacker is professor emeritus in political science at Queens College, City University of New York, and Dreifus is an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University. Arum is a sociologist at New York University and director of education research for the Social Science Research Council, and Roksum is a sociologist at the University of Virginia. Riley, whose book is devoted to making the case against tenure, is a Harvard graduate and daughter of an accomplished political scientist.[[42]]
[[43]] Geiger, Knowledge and Money, 13-14.[[43]]
[[44]] Dan Berrett, “Want to Be a Good Researcher? Try Teaching,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 18, 2011.[[44]]
[[45]] Ibid.[[45]]
[[46]] Geiger, Knowledge and Markets, 13, 59-60, 237-238.[[46]]
[[47]] David Glenn, “Senator Proposes an End to Federal Support for Political Science,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 7, 2009.[[47]]
[[48]] Ibid.[[48]]
[[49]] Ibid.[[49]]
[[50]] Smith, “Blowing in the Wind,” 276-278.[[50]]
[[51]] Katherine Mangan, “U. of Texas Adopts Plans to Publish Performance Data on Professors and Campuses,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 25, 2011.[[51]]
[[52]] Ibid.[[52]]

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