The Public Responsibilities of Political Science

Rogers M. Smith, University of Pennsylvania

Michael Burawoy’s 2004 American Sociological Association Presidential Address, entitled “For Public Sociology,” painted a complex picture. He delineated multiple public sociologies, particularly “traditional” public sociology, aimed at prompting discussion among mainstream publics generally, and “organic” public sociology, developed in close connection with a particular active public or, more often, “counter-public.” And he contrasted these public sociologies with “policy sociology,” aimed at providing expertise to policy-makers; “professional sociology,” aimed at developing and testing scientific theories; and “critical sociology,” concerned to interrogate the normative and descriptive assumptions of professional sociology.{{1}} He also twice referred to the “Perestroika Movement” in political science, in which I have participated, as an “oppositional” force promoting more critical as well as institutional perspectives in my discipline, countering trends to focus exclusively on “rational choice modeling.”{{2}} His arguments have stirred much subsequent discussion, including excellent recent contributions by Herbert Gans and Craig Calhoun to this Forum, with which I broadly agree.

Here I lay out a further, two-part argument regarding the public responsibilities of modern scholars that is particularly but not exclusively pertinent to political science. The first part of the argument contends that—whether we focus on what I will term, partly following Burawoy, “professional” political science or “critical” political science—we must recognize that political scientists request societies to support us in research that when, done well, often seems either to have little immediate broader benefit, or to be potentially subversive. That is why it is not altogether surprising that Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn recently tried, unsuccessfully, to eliminate National Science Foundation funding for political science research.{{3}}

The second part of my argument is that rather than retreat from either “professional” or “critical” political science, which are both enterprises necessary for the discipline to be intellectually defensible and humanly valuable, we scholars of politics should emphasize and seek to strengthen another contribution we make to public life: teaching people knowledge and skills useful for understanding and participating in politics, as well as for doing much more. I believe that increasingly, we in political science and perhaps other social sciences may not be able to persuade modern societies to support our most important forms of research based on the results of our research alone, whether cast in more purely academic or more public idioms. To sustain such support, we need to show that social scientists, especially those at leading universities, are doing better at teaching—something that, I fear, we are in danger of doing less and worse. The public’s sense that we are fostering the development of valuable knowledge and skills may be the contribution that will maintain for political scientists the material foundations needed for both “professional” and “critical” work. And however deflating it may seem, such teaching just may be on balance our greatest contribution to the public realm.

In regard to the first argument, let me note that as one would expect, political science displays all the variants that Burawoy depicted in sociology. There are political scientists who provoke debates among mainstream publics, like Francis Fukuyama and Robert Putnam, and ones closely tied to “counter-publics,” like my colleague Adolph Reed, long deeply engaged in left-labor politics. There are almost innumerable “policy” political scientists offering governments expertise on countless issues, including two of the last four Secretaries of State (one of each party). But the great bulk of political scientists at research universities are “professional” political scientists, concerned to accumulate well-theorized and tested scientific knowledge about politics. I wish to focus on this group and also on those I will term “critical” political scientists—but I mean by that designation something broader than what Burawoy defined in 2004 as “critical sociology.” By “critical” political science, I mean scholarship that takes as its task critical interrogation of not just, or even primarily, the assumptions of “professional” political science. Rather, the main targets of its critiques are the empirical and normative beliefs that reflect and contribute to the existing political institutions, policies, practices, leadership, and structures of power within every political society and across the globe.

The intellectual ancestor of “critical” political science is Socrates, who examined the beliefs about justice, the good, civic obligations, the structuring of political power, and other politically salient topics in ancient Athens. His questioning and sometimes debunking of conventional views on those topics eventually led to his conviction for corrupting the youth, though he was immortalized in the writings of some of the youths he influenced, especially Plato and Xenophon. The intellectual ancestor of “professional” political science might be said to be Aristotle, Plato’s student, who wrote what is probably the seminal systematic treatise on politics in the Western scholarly tradition. But since Aristotle, many intellectual figures have claimed to “found” a new, more scientific science of politics, from Machiavelli to Hobbes to Hume to Publius to Bentham to a series of figures who actually held American professorships in political science, including John W. Burgess and other comparative institutionalists in the late 19th century, Charles Merriam and other early advocates of “behavioralism” in the 1920s and 30s, the various proponents of “pluralist” group theories in the late 1940s and 1950s, and William S. Riker and other “rational choice” scholars in the 1960s and 1970s.{{4}}

Today, even though the statistical and formal modeling skills of many political scientists still tend to be regarded with condescension by many mathematicians and economists, “professional” political science is clearly more technically sophisticated than ever before. But much of the scholarship that many “professional” political scientist value most highly is written using specialized terminology, equations and data sets that render the work impenetrable to many non-quantitative political scientists, much less to the general public. Many “professional” political scientists acknowledge, moreover, that, though they seek to address very large issues of politics, the sorts of reliable data they can obtain and the kinds of experiments they can conduct generally mean that they are trying to pin down answers to only relatively narrow aspects of those large issues. It is too much to try to answer definitively what spurs political participation generally; what we can learn from, for example, randomized field experiments is how much more effective door-to-door canvassing is in turning out voters than phoning or sending mail, as my erstwhile colleagues Donald Green and Alan Gerber have shown.{{5}}

Or, perhaps, it is too soon to try to answer many political questions definitively. One highly accomplished “professional” political scientist has argued to me that it took centuries to get from Newton to the achievements of modern physics. Since in his view truly scientific political science began in roughly the 1950s, we cannot expect really substantial, reliable knowledge to accumulate for many years to come. Another has suggested that, for similar reasons, it is in fact too early to theorize broadly about politics. We need to spend decades or more performing rigorous experimental tests of fairly narrow, specific political hypotheses before we will know enough to attempt to knit those hypotheses together into anything grander.

They may be right; and in any case, this commitment to cumulative progress through a long series of small steps does not mean that the results of contemporary “professional” political science are all currently inconsequential. The research by Green and Gerber has affected how American campaigns are conducted; and other products of “professional” research legitimately enable many political scientists to be able “policy” political scientists. Yet it remains true that a great deal of “professional” political science now asks questions whose terminology has to be translated if they are to be comprehensible to more general publics; whose significance has to be elaborated if they are to appear more generally interesting; and whose answers often still seem disappointingly limited. We ask the public to support what seems to many to be arcane and trivial work on the faith that many years from now, we will produce more immediately substantial results. Senator Coburn is not alone in lacking that faith. The Perestroika protest in political science was motivated in part by widespread concerns that the discipline was investing too much in work that sought to do too little.{{6}}

Even so, proponents of “critical” political science, among whom I count myself, generally are not nearly so faithless as Senator Coburn. Many of us believe that “professional” political science is making cumulative progress, even if we are not sure how far that progress can extend, and even though we regard it as part of our task to critique the often debatable assumptions that structure otherwise rigorous quantitative and formal scholarship. But most of us also focus on what we see as other tasks appropriate for political science. Like Socrates, we believe it is part of the mission of our profession to question the prevailing empirical and normative beliefs that help structure actual political institutions, policies, and practices. And we believe scholarship makes a contribution if it collects and develops the best evidence and arguments available to decide whether one politically potent empirical characterization or normative claim is on balance more defensible than another, even if it is not possible to conduct randomized experiments or to collect extensive quantitative data sets to aid those analyses. So we often address larger questions than “professional” political scientists, in at least somewhat more accessible terms (for many years my own central question was whether, despite popular and academic views to the contrary, racial conceptions of American identity had historically been serious candidates for political predominance in the U.S. Using evidence from citizenship laws, I answered yes).{{7}} Many “professional” political scientists acknowledge that “critical” work helps them to form better questions, based on more defensible premises. But understandably, much “critical” political science is seen as making at best indirect contributions to the efforts to accumulate scientific knowledge that are central to “professional” political science—and sometimes it is seen as a barrier.

“Critical” political science is also understandably regarded with suspicion by many political leaders like Senator Coburn—because the purpose of such political science is in large part to interrogate the arguments used by political leaders to justify the policies they enact, the institutions they head, and the power they wield. As was sometimes true for Socrates, the questions “critical” political science advances are meant to explore whether the claims of the powerful about whom their actions benefit and harm, and even about what count as benefits and harms, are empirically false or logically incoherent. Socrates described himself as a “gadfly” on the body politic, and there are few bodies or heads of bodies that enjoy being repeatedly stung by gadflies. Mainstream political leaders, and many in the general public, may therefore regard what can seem likely relentlessly critical work as useless or even subversive, and they will not always be wrong. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates makes the case that this “gadfly” role is nonetheless beneficial. But unless one imagines him embarking on new inquiries concerning the afterlife, he was not then rewarded with a research grant.

So it may seem that “professional” political science is too rarefied, and “critical” political science too rebellious, to prompt public support. In fact, the “public relations” problems of the discipline are even worse than that—for the subject matter of political science, of whatever variety, is always politics. Senator Coburn’s examples when he sought to end NSF funding for political science were all drawn not from the writings of “critical” but “professional” political scientists. He derided the value of the University of Michigan’s venerated American National Election Studies, as well as research on “why white working-class voters voted Republican in recent national elections.”{{8}} It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Senator Coburn did not like the suggestion that there was anything at all questionable about white working-class voters voting Republican, and that he was wary of the explanations other political scientists might give for conduct of his electoral supporters.

And he was probably not wrong to fear that some of these studies might reach conclusions he would find unpalatable and would wish not to have publicized, such as evidence of self-interested racial and religious motives. But this was very mainstream political science research—the point being, it is inherent in the very nature of all political science to explore questions about politics that might be disturbing to powers that be or want to be. That is true to some degree, no doubt, of many disciplines, but it is centrally true of political science. Any political science, “professional” or “critical,” “policy” or “public,” that failed ever to raise challenging questions about prevailing patterns of politics would be an impoverished, inadequate, bad political science. You can’t make good political science omelets without breaking some political … eggs.

That is why I think the tension between doing good political science research and sustaining broad public support for such research is ineradicable. It only gets worse in economic hard times. To be sure, there will always be some, perhaps a lot, of political science research that many leaders and members of mass publics will see as harmless, even useful. And there will always be even more research that is particularly congenial to certain leaders and groups. But if political science research is worthy of both its names—if it is really about politics as well scientific—then it not only can’t please all of the people all of the time. A good deal of scholarship will annoy some of the people some of the time, and some scholarship may even outrage virtually all of them.

Whether we pursue “professional” or “critical” political science, there is no defensible way out of that bind. Political scientists can and should nonetheless champion the value of all their different forms of research, highlighting those works that make contributions according to conventional notions of public benefit and seeking to clarify the value of those works that do not. These efforts have in the past been sufficient to gain a small but meaningful measure of public support. According to Senator Coburn, the NSF has given political scientists about $112 million over the last decade, or a little over $11 million a year, which is 1/3 the cost of one Army cargo helicopter.{{9}} Foundations provide additional support. But the basic support system for political science research accompanies employment in public and private universities and colleges. And virtually all those institutions depend on tuition dollars. They expect political scientists not only to provide the world with the benefits of their research, but also to teach.

Institution of higher education do so, moreover, despite the fact that in their classrooms as in their research, political scientists raise sharp, probing questions about prevailing understandings and norms of political conduct and governmental policies. At least, they do when they teach well. This teaching does sometimes spur public criticism, particularly when critique turns into advocacy and even indoctrination—though I believe most political scientists understand that crossing that line is a betrayal of good teaching and they strive to stop short of it. But there is ample evidence that students and most of the broader public, in the U.S. and in many modern societies, nonetheless value university and college teaching about politics, rather highly. Students enroll in classes, parents pay tuition, voters support the establishment of public universities that they know will distribute their tax dollars to, among others, political scientists. Of course students, parents, and voters do so in part because they know that a college degree is a pre-requisite for many well paying jobs and a step on the way to further professional credentials, which many political science students expect to be a law degree. But they also do so because students, parents, and voters believe that it is beneficial for lots of people to learn more about politics, and to learn to think critically and write and argue about politics, even if that means being confronted with sometimes disturbing questions and rival points of view. Many may believe such knowledge and skills enhance economic productivity, directly or indirectly, not implausibly. But probably many also believe they are worthwhile in themselves. It is a mark of how much many societies in the modern world differ from ancient Athens—not wholly but still substantially—that they characteristically are far more willing to devote public resources to teaching and learning about politics, despite the inherently subversive or “gadfly” features of such activities, than were the otherwise civic-minded Athenians.

Consequently, when I think of the relationship of political science to the public realm today, I share the desires of scholars like Burawoy, Gans and Calhoun to establish more generative places in the discipline for “public” political science that speaks compellingly to important political issues in accessible ways. But because I think all forms of political science must often ask unwanted questions if they are to be good forms of political science, I believe political science as a profession must rest its case for public support more heavily on the more widely valued contributions of our teaching. This is, I know, not a conclusion that many readers will readily embrace. Adherents of “critical” political science generally want to “speak truth to power” in dramatic and perhaps even effective ways. Proponents of “professional” political science want to devote most of their time to adding as many well-crafted bricks to the slowly growing edifice of scientific knowledge of politics as possible. Because the latter group predominates in the modern American discipline, the trend is for political scientists, following as closely on the heels of the economists as they can, to seek permanently reduced teaching loads, even in what are predominantly teaching institutions.

To be sure, the political science profession can honestly boast of many marvelous teachers, including spellbinders who fill huge auditoriums like Michael Sandel of Harvard and Theodore Lowi of Cornell, and also many superb advisers of individual student researchers, both graduate and undergraduate. Still, it remains true that prestige in the profession goes overwhelmingly with influential scholarship, so that many of us grumble when we have to take time away to teach, or to prepare to teach, or worst of all, to grade. Consequently, most political scientists with ladder faculty positions disparage but do not resist the undeniable national trends to have more and more teaching done, in political science as in other fields, by low-paid gypsy adjunct instructors, rather than by “real” scholars. Many of these adjuncts are in fact superb teachers. But government officials overseeing public institutions of higher learning; many donors to private institutions; and many parents and students are aware nonetheless that the people with the most privileged academic positions are doing less than they once did of what these suppliers of our resources value most.

Are they wrong to value our teaching most? Even though the U.S. is currently engaged in a frenzy of educational assessment, the truth is that establishing the impact of teaching, especially over time, remains enormously difficult if not impossible. All we really know is popularity. We cannot say with confidence that any stimulating and improving of young minds we do through our work in the classroom contributes to a better world, as much or more than the impact of our scholarship, whether “professional” or “critical”—even if we are fairly modest or even cynical about those impacts. But not knowing is not knowing. Our ignorance means we cannot say with any certainty that we are doing less when we help students become more accurately and fully informed and to think and write more clearly about politics than they did before they came to us. The one thing we can be sure of, I believe, is that more people judge our teaching to be worth their support than judge our scholarship to be worth their support, for reasons that are inherent in the nature of what political scientists do—if we are doing our work well.

The implication is surely clear. It is probably less stirring to think of the relationship of political science and other disciplines to the public realm in terms of the contributions of our teaching than it is to picture ourselves as great public intellectuals, changing the course of mighty streams of political discourse and public policies through the sheer force of our works, able to prompt the building of new institutions with a single tome. Even many those who see themselves only as contributing their mites to the centuries-long building of cathedrals of scientific knowledge picture that endeavor as more majestic than their efforts to keep eighteen year olds awake and, sometimes, intellectually engaged. I imagine that, a number of paragraphs back, many readers experienced a sense of disappointment when they realized that these remarks would point to the importance of teaching; and many may have themselves already disengaged, not finding this the sort of thing they want to think about. But if we are serious about the question of the contributions of political science to the public realm, and of many other disciplines as well, I believe we have to give more serious attention than we are currently doing to our teaching contributions. If we do, we may well gain greater appreciation for this part of our professional work and we may find ways to contribute even more. If we do not, I fear we may find in the decades ahead that we have many fewer resources and opportunities for any kind of contribution at all.

[[1]] Burawoy, Michael. 2004. “Presidential Address: For Public Sociology,” American Sociological Review 70: 7, 9-10.[[1]]

[[2]] Ibid., 23-24.[[2]]

[[3]] “Senate Defeats Amendment to Eliminate Political Science from National Science Foundation Funding” at, accessed December 6th, 2009.[[3]]

[[4]] For a still usefully provocative history of the American discipline, see the late Raymond Seidelman’s Disenchanted Realists: Political Science and the American Crisis, 1884-1984 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985).[[4]]

[[5]] Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber, Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 2004).[[5]]

[[6]] For an overview see Kristen R. Monroe, ed., Perestroika! The Raucous Rebellion in Political Science (New Haven: Yale University Press).[[6]]

[[7]] Rogers M. Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).[[7]]

[[8]] “Coburn Amendment 2631,” accessed December 10, 2009 at”[[8]]

[[9]] “C-H 47 Improved Cargo Helicopter,” accessed December 10, 2009 at[[9]]

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