We cannot even choose a side

10 08 2017

After the election of the current occupant of the White House, I considered pitching The Atlantic on a story about the unpreparedness of Americanist political scientists for the new regime.

Like with so (too) many things, I never got around to it, but, today, reading Anthony McElligott’s Rethinking the Weimar Republic, I circled back around to this idea.

Political science, as taught in the US, is often divided into 4 fields: American politics, comparative politics, international relations, and political theory. Sometimes comp & IR are combined, and in some of the larger departments, there may be slots given over to methods/quantitative analysis; theory (my field) is almost always the smallest portion of a pol sci dept.

Anyway, one of the big issues in analyzing the rise and fall of the early German republic is the role of institutions: the attempt of the republic to create new, representative ones, and the role of reactionary institutions (namely, the judiciary and the army) in either not supporting or weakening the republic.

And that’s what brought me back to a consideration of Americanists, and their general lack of consideration of institutions qua institutions.

Let me explain. Here’s [my sense of] how the different fields break down, in terms of what’s studied:

  • American
    • Institutions (govt-specif)
    • Policy (general and specif)
    • Parties
    • State politics
    • Interest groups (oft in conjunction with policy and/or institutions)
    • Political psychology (attitudes & behavior, incl voting behavior)
    • Elections (oft crossed with pol psych, parties, state politics, interest groups)
  • Comparative
    • Institutions (qua institutions)
    • Specific countries/regions
    • Human rights
    • Political culture
    • International law/institutions
    • Political economy
    • Non-governmental organizations
  • IR
    • Diplomacy
    • War
    • Militaries
    • International law/institutions
    • NGOs
    • Political economy
  • Theory
    • History of pol thought
    • Ideologies
    • Specific theorists
    • Specific traditions (e.g., critical theory)

(Again, this is simply my impressionistic take; were I writing a paid piece, I’d test this against something more solid.)

As a general matter, all fields except theory rely on quantitative methods, Americanists probably most of all; Americanists and comparativists may also use qualitative methods. IR, comparative, and theory are variously broadly and narrowly historical, while Americanists are usually only narrowly historical.

What do I mean by “narrowly historical”? They might consider the history of the use of executive power, say, or of the evolution of various House or Senate procedures—that is, they’ll look at the history of a policy or institution in terms of that policy or institution, not any wider trends.

And by “institutions, specific”, I mean, the institutions of government and the various procedures therein; they are generally not considered within a larger context of the institutionalization (“qua institutions”) of the American federal republic or American political culture. A while back I asked someone (Daniel Nexon?) on Twitter—or maybe it was Nexon at Lawyers, Guns & Money—whether there were Americanists who studied institutions in terms of institutionalization, and Stephen Skowronek was the only name he could come up with.

And American political culture? There’s plenty of stuff out there, but little of it done by Americanist; for that, you need to hit up the historians.

Think I’m kidding? Type “American political culture” into Google Scholar and see what pops up: historians and comparativists, some sociologists, and yes, a few political scientists (however narrowly focused).

But not a lot.

This is not a criticism of any particular Americanist. I follow Sarah Binder and Amy Fried, both grad school colleagues, on Twitter, and Sarah’s my go-to scholar for Congressional procedure. And it’s not as if Americanists won’t talk perceptively about what the hell is going on in our country on a conversational level. But bringing scholarly weight to bear on these matters? Not so much.

Okay, it’s getting late, so I won’t stretch my speculations any further. Let’s just say I think Americanists need to—perhaps they already have or are doing so!—broaden their focus and deepen their (historical) analysis if there considerable knowledge is to be of any use in making sense of our current, disintegrating, era.

And theorists? Have I mentioned it’s late. . . ?

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4 responses

11 08 2017
dmf

how does one go about deciding whether or not a situation in the current scene (given all the differing, and somewhat fluid, parts/players) is different or like enough to some other past happening for useful analysis?

12 08 2017
15 08 2017
22 08 2017
absurdbeats

Well, that’s where some level of judgment comes in. Reading a number of accounts of a similar phenomenon, even if those accounts disagree, can help one to figure out what were significant factors. One can then compare the current era to that past era to see if any of the past variables are in play today.

This is, at best probabilistic, and even then only loosely. Rather, one may be able to lay out various scenarios, offer possibilities, offer ways to prepare for those possibilities. That’s it, but that’s not nothing.

Social scientists can get too hung up on prediction, which means they (we) focus on phenomenon which are apparently discrete enough to allow for the measurements which make predictions possible. But there’s so much of political phenomenon which does not lend itself to multiple regression, which means they (we) miss or trivialize significant dynamics.

Thus, I think we have to look to the past in order to try to make sense of our present, and be less concerned with predicting the future.

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