12 May 2011

Should political scientists learn political theory?

The question, from a backbencher: "Should political scientists learn political theory?"

The answer: I retract my previous equivocations on the subject and affirm that they should, unreservedly.

Like Evelyn Waugh's Mr. Salter, though, I will caveat my policy by saying that political scientists need to know political theory up to a point.

There is no contradiction between these two statements, even though superficially they are plainly opposed. Rather, what I mean to suggest is that the role of political theory in the training of empirical political scientists needs to become something more like the role of methodologists in the training of the same. Just as we expect researchers to know enough about methods to be competent in their field, so too should we demand that they have reflected sufficiently about the normative implications of their work and of the real-world debates into which their work may enter.

This is an unabashedly utilitarian view of theory. Many theorists might object that this, then, devalues their work. After all, shouldn't it stand on its own? Isn't political theory a field in its own right, with its own claims, and with its own research? The answer to all of these questions is very much yes, but that is beside the point. I am not adjudicating what the role of political theory in the discipline should be, nor attempting to regulate its external affairs. After all, the same questions could be posed of methods research, and I would respond in the same way in that case. The distinction I am drawing is not one that demeans theory (or methods) but which merely underscores what is obviously true: that political science research is conducted by people who have scarce time and limited interest in debating the good, the just, and the true. If they had greater interest in discussing those topics, then they would be political theorists themselves.

Yet my analogy is exact. In the same way as we believe that methods training is an essential part of bringing up scholars to adhere to community standards and to producing reliable research, we should similarly believe that engagement with theory has the virtue of warning off scholars from making claims about their work, or assumptions within their models, that are either laughably wrong or dangerously naive. This is, consequently, a strong affirmation of the value of theory training, albeit one that is studiously agnostic about which of the different camps of theory should be employed. I leave that to the theorists, such as Mr. Williams.

With one exception. Such courses cannot linger too long on the ancients. I once described my university's required theory course as covering the sweep of theory from Plato to Aristotle. That was an exaggeration, as others promptly reminded me: The course also covered Augustine. Actually, teach Plato and Aristotle, and teach Augustine and Machiavalli too; teach Hobbes and Locke, but teach them better than they are normally treated; but mostly, treat people whose principal concerns were those relevant to the work of contemporary political science. Thinkers who deal with the nature of the state in its modern form (and the polis is not, in the end, a modern state), who deal with the questions of justice both within and among political communities, who deal with the questions of nationalism, and who deal with the nature of questions of personhood (of identity, of gender, and of race) are vastly more relevant to empirical social scientists than exegeses. That's a lot to cover in a semester, but better to serve up tapas that might be nibbled than an entree that will be left uneaten.

No comments:

Post a Comment