Thursday, November 3, 2005

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)

No one let Alan Wolfe study international relations

I see that Alan Wolfe has an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education decrying the state of the political science discipline.

Wolfe makes a few well-worn but not completely worthless points -- and then we get to this paragraph:

Putting reality first would not only make political science more interesting, it would also make it more scientific.... Suppose, for example, we want to predict whether negotiations between historically hostile parties will produce an accord, or fail and result in war. Rather than search for universal laws, we are better off examining a concrete case — for example, the negotiations that brought Nelson Mandela to power in South Africa — and then seeing whether the conditions there are similar or different from those in, say, Northern Ireland or the Middle East. The real world contains a great deal of uncertainty, which makes perfect prediction impossible. But it also offers enough regularity to permit modest generalization, especially if we are willing to acknowledge the possibility of error and to revise our expectations accordingly.

I have two reactions to this suggestion. The first is to stop and gaze with awe at Wolfe's ability to unconsciously mimic those Guinness-in-the-bottle ads that were all over television last year:

Alan Wolfe: I've invented a new way of studying crisis negotiations... it's called the "case study".

Random Political Scientist: The Case study? BRILLIANT!!!

My second reaction is to ponder the logical implications of Wolfe's suggestion. Surely Wolfe must be aware of the dangers that come from generalizing from the study of a single case -- there are too many possible explanations. Wolfe would likely respond that the way to compensate is to assemble as many relevant examples of the category of interest as possible, and then determine what combination of factors is important.

Now there's a name for this kind of approach in political science -- behavioralism. Such an approach can be useful (see, for example, the CIA's State Failure Task Force from the 1990's) but presents two rather important problems.

First, these approaches -- just like any other social science technique -- generate methodological controversies (see, for example, Gary King and Langche Zeng's methodological rejoinder to the State Failure Task Force, or this summary of the debate in Nature). Methodology doesn't just matter for its own sake -- there are real world implications.

Second, pure behavioralism of the kind suggested by Wolfe is tricky without any theoretical guidance. Throwing a kitchen sink of variables at a question is not of much use unless the researcher has a good grasp of the relationships among these seemingly independent causes. Rational choice approaches are one useful tool, but there are others as well.

If Wolfe had provided an American politics example, I probably wouldn't have written this post (and, to be fair, Wolfe is riffing off of Ian Shapiro's latest book, The Flight From Reality in the Human Sciences, which I haven't read but is likely worth reading). But the IR example he offers is a powerful suggestion that Wolfe hasn't peered into the pages of either International Organization or International Security in quite some time. There are case studies -- as well as statistical analyses, formal models, social theory, and other types of analysis -- in those journals.

If the rest of the discipline wants to copy international relations more closely, fine with me. But I don't think Wolfe has lookec closely at how IR is actually studied.

I think that I've demonstrated my subfield's close attention to the real world, so if you'll excuse me, I have to run to hear a paper presentation.

[What's it about?--ed. Sovereignty and the UFO. You're f#@%ing kidding me!--ed. No, I'm really not.]

posted by Dan on 11.03.05 at 12:30 PM


I was at the talk... it was, well let me say interesting. That is of course until i fell asleep

posted by: dan kimerling on 11.03.05 at 12:30 PM [permalink]

The veterinary pathologist W.I.B. Beveridge (1961; 140) argued that:
“More discoveries have arisen from intense observation of very limited material than from statistics applied to large groups. The value of the latter arises mainly in testing hypotheses derived from the former.”

Beveridge, W.I.B. (1961) The Art of Scientific Investigation. (New York: Vintage).

posted by: Acad Ronin on 11.03.05 at 12:30 PM [permalink]

Methodological self-understanding in the social sciences is piss-poor. A great book to read about this is Bruce Caldwell's recent "Hayek's Challenge." His emphasis is on economics, for obvious reasons, but his conclusions apply to political science as well, particularly as it is being colonized by econ departments.

posted by: Youcandobetter on 11.03.05 at 12:30 PM [permalink]

I don't understand why the "20 question" approach hasn't been tried. The 20Q "neural net" game can come up with correct answers by asking question like "will it fit in a microwave." Feeding in all the data from history you would expect all the incorrect and insignificant data to cancel. Then you could ask "will Paris be burnt to the ground in the next five years?"

posted by: Huggy on 11.03.05 at 12:30 PM [permalink]

Please comment on or direct me to a copy of Wendt and Duvall's presentation on Sovereignty and the UFO. Please.

posted by: Mike on 11.03.05 at 12:30 PM [permalink]


The truth is out there.

posted by: Fox on 11.03.05 at 12:30 PM [permalink]

The Chronicle is kind of like Playboy...if you're reading it for the articles, you're really kind of missing the boat.

posted by: Arr-squared on 11.03.05 at 12:30 PM [permalink]

W.I.B. Beveridge

I've slowly come to the realization I can never be a British academic --- I ain't got no middle name!

posted by: Mitchell Young on 11.03.05 at 12:30 PM [permalink]

Hmmm... does this mean that the Weekly World News was right, and Bush's real reason for invading Iraq was to stop Saddam from building superweapons with advanced technology from crashed UFOs? ;)

posted by: John Steven on 11.03.05 at 12:30 PM [permalink]

Wolfe's article borders on the pathetic. For example, his personal short-list of 8 political scientists who allegedly do not publish in the APSR, contains 4 scholars who have published there in the last couple of years (Skocpol, Hacker, Mansbridge, Putnam). Another bad practice: "people just don't write books like [insert your favorite classic] anymore." Sheesh. Finally, it is kind of odd to write a polemic in favor of case studies and end with the assertion that advancing one's pet methodology is not what we should do. Indeed we shouldn't.

posted by: zaoem on 11.03.05 at 12:30 PM [permalink]

I would post a copy of the paper, but they did not give out electronic copies. Also, I have the feeling that the paper is in the early stages, and they want to submit to the APSR as well...

posted by: Dan kimerling on 11.03.05 at 12:30 PM [permalink]

He also makes this remark in the first paragraph.

If you were not one of them, you might think that political scientists follow political events, propose hypotheses designed to explain them, and collect data to test those hypotheses. Alas, or so argues Yale University's Ian Shapiro in his new book, The Flight From Reality in the Human Sciences (Princeton University Press, 2005), that is not always, not even often, the case. In most of the social sciences and humanities, but especially in political science, Shapiro writes, subject matter does not drive methodology; in all too many cases, method comes first, and subject matter is chosen to conform to it.

Not sure where these people are teaching, oh yeah Yale, but down here at non ivy tower institutions we are given a subject and told to stick a method on it. At least thats how I'm instructed.

He also says the case study method should be used in IR. Umm, excuse me, but doesn't CQ Press already do that?

Plus, I don't have many upper level courses that dont use the case method and these cross the various fields in PS.

posted by: Reagan on 11.03.05 at 12:30 PM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?