Friday, December 15, 2006

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The limits of political science

The November 2006 issue of the American Political Science Review is a special one: "The Evolution of Political Science." Commemorating the 100th anniversary of the APSR, it consists of about 25 short essays discussing how the APSR has treated various political phenomena.

There's something for everyone in this issue. History of political science is not as widely taught as history of economic thought, but those who are interested should check out the whole issue -- particularly Michael Heaney and Mark Hansen's take on "The Chicago school" of political science. Conservative critics of the academy will delight in laughing at Michael Parenti's rant about how political science is a conservative discipline.

World politics types will likely find Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's essay worth of perusal. The one that stands out for me is Andrew Bennett and John Ikenberry's "The Review's Evolving Relevance for U.S. Foreign Policy 1906-2006"

Bennett and Ikeberry go back over all of the IR contributions to the APSR. Their chief finding? Even in the "good old days" when the APSR actively publshed policy relevant work, political scientists did not appear to be clued in to the brewing problems of world politics:

To read early issues of the Review is to be reminded that aspiring toward policy relevance is quite different from achieving it, and that any policy influence the profession does achieve will not necessarily be in directions that future historians will find praiseworthy. Just as the Review and the political science profession in general failed to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the Review before 1914 conveyed little sense that a cataclysmicworld warwas imminent.The journal did publish an article on the Balkans (Harris 1913), but it did not focus on the larger power transitions taking place in Europe until publication of a rather realist analysis of “The Causes of the Great War” after World War I had begun (Turner 1915). In this same time period, the Review was filled with articles putting a favorable emphasis on international law as a means toward peace.

After World War I, the Review played a role in the “idealism-realism” debate of the 1920s (Carr 1940), largely favoring the idealist side with more than a dozen articles through the decade on the League of Nations or international law. Former President William Howard Taft, for example, launched a staunch defense of the League of Nations in the Review (Taft 1919). Only one article in the journal in the 1920s included the term “balance of power” in its title, and this article strongly criticized balance of power politics and argued that the building of international institutions was the best answer to the problem of war (Hoard 1925). In the 1930s, a handful of articles began to focus on the issues that would precipitate World War II, including the Manchurian crisis, nationalism, and the geographic bases of states’ foreign policies, but no articles were fully dedicated to assessing the international implications of the rise of Hitler or Germany. Articles sympathetic to the League of Nations process, on the other hand, continued right up until the spring of 1939 (Myers 1939), although an article critical of international law appeared in 1938 (Wild 1938).

It is an interesting piece of trivia to know that not one, but two presidents have published in the APSR.

UPDATE: Commenters point out a possible selection bias question -- it might be that political scientists did generate useful predictions, but these predictions were simply not published in the APSR.

This is a valid point, but I think it applies better to the post-1945 environment than the pre-1945 one. Most of the major IR journals -- International Organization, World Politics, International Security, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Conflict Resolution -- did not exist before 1945. All of the policy journals, except for Foreign Affairs, were not in existence. Therefore, prior to '45, the APSR would have been the predicted outlet for scholarly work on world politics.

On the other hand, Foreign Affairs might have siphoned off a few articles. I know of at least one person who received tenure at a major research institution, when their only publication was a Foreign Affairs article.

posted by Dan on 12.15.06 at 09:31 AM


Dan,If looked at by methods and how political science fits into the academy it is a pretty conservative enterprise. You have to admit there are lots more mindless leftists over in English!

posted by: msj on 12.15.06 at 09:31 AM [permalink]

I feel like I've read so many incarnations of the whole "academia is really pretty conservative" argument. This one, like all the others, essentially starts from what most would consider to be an extreme left stance and notes that the academy seems friendly to those on his right. If, to boil it down and oversimply a little (but not much), we have two flavors of people in the world - Marxists and conservatives, then yes, it can be argued that academia can be a pretty friendly place for some conservatives.

Of course, when an author points to Daniel Patrick Moynihan among the examples of conservative success stories, the game is given away. It takes a certain, shall we say, special vantage point to make such a claim. Somewhat akin to Vern Troyer looking at Gary Coleman and saying "my god, that man is tall!"

posted by: Howard on 12.15.06 at 09:31 AM [permalink]

I don't think the American Political Science Review was representative of thinking on IR in the 1920s and 1930s. Foreign Affairs was the preeminent journal in those years for practitioners and thinkers in international relations. Most of the journal's contributors reflected the year to year evolution of thinking but I don't think the major events or signs of trouble were overlooked.

posted by: David Billington on 12.15.06 at 09:31 AM [permalink]

Nice post Dan.

I found the recent issue of the APSR both interesting and helpful in describing and explaining the evolution of the field. Also agree that the article by Bennett and Ikenberry was fascinating. They articulate a series of mechanisms by which academic research (and teaching) might influence foreign policy. They offer reasonable speculations and some preliminary evidence for some of these mechanisms and point out where more work needs to be done in nailing down exactly whether these various mechanisms matter, and if so, how much.

As one of your previous posters suggests, in order to test these ideas systematically one would have to expand the sample of coded articles beyond the APSR. But Bennett and Ikenberry perform a service by pointing the way forward.

On the other issue generating comments (that political science is full of conservatives), I think I would agree with Howard on the relevance of perspective. From POV of American politcs, the answer is pretty clear. In late 2004 my colleagues and I surveyed IR scholars in the U.S. One question we asked was something like: How would you describe your political ideology?


14% - Extremely Liberal
36% - Liberal
19% - Slightly Liberal
18% - Middle of the Road
8% - Slightly Conservative
4% - Conservative
1% - Extremely Conservative

If you are interested in seeing the whole report go here...

More recent data on this and other questions that compliment the Bennett and Ikenberry article are forthcoming in Foreign Policy in early 2007.

Mike Tierney

posted by: Mike Tierney on 12.15.06 at 09:31 AM [permalink]


"Therefore, prior to '45, the APSR would have been the predicted outlet for scholarly work on world politics."

You are certainly right in pointing out that academic political science was not as developed as it is today, and the APSR was almost certainly the best barometer of the discipline. The question is really to what extent IR was understood at the time to be a branch of political science. The distinction between political science and modern history in the field of international relations was not as sharply defined as it is today, and the field still had residual ties to the nineteenth century study of international law. But I agree that Bennett and Ikenberry have provided a very useful approach that can easily be extended.

posted by: David Billington on 12.15.06 at 09:31 AM [permalink]

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