The Role of Political Science & Political Scientists

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The Role of Political Science & Political Scientists

 

Adal Isaw

adalisaw@yahoo.com

March 7, 2013

 
It is a presumption; “the primary purpose of empirical theory in political science is to explain a political phenomenon—not to justify social engineering or political reform.”  In other words, political scientists seek to uncover “what is, not what ought to be.”  And this narrowly tailored approach arguably is what distinguishes opinionated social engineering or political reform from a “positive” science.  However, if political science is to matter to better the conditions of human life, the prevailing presumption about the role of political science and political scientists may need a pointed review.

 

Few assumptions make up the prevailing presumption about the role of political science and political scientists, and the very obvious ones are that, political science has to be “value-free” and that political scientists have to be devoid of their human passions.  These assumptions are also two paradigmatic goals, pursued with “trust” that political scientists work scientifically without their human passions at play—“to formulate an empirical theory with the highest level of generality possible.” How valid are these assumptions? And how possible is it for political scientists to completely detach themselves from their human passions?          

 

These assumptions may have limited validity; and it is nearly impossible for political scientists to completely detach themselves from their human passions.  If the purpose of empirical theory is to aspire to the “highest level of generality” and to produce valid knowledge by merely explaining a political phenomena, but not by engineering social or political reform, why then pursue knowledge for the sake of it? 

 

It can be argued that the untold purpose of seeking valid knowledge is to better the conditions of human life.  In fact, evidence shows that political scientists are likely to undertake a research project with hope to better the conditions of human life.  C. Wright Mills “centered at rationalization, to practically apply knowledge to achieve a desired good;” James Q. Wilson “was more than just a scholar, and one has to look at the introduction of community policing and zero-tolerance crime policy in New York City, to see his contribution very clearly.”  Modeled in good part on an idea he promoted in a 1982 cover story for The Atlantic Monthly called “Broken Windows,” Wilson, as a political scientist, has bettered the lives of his fellow citizens.  Another example of a political scientist, who defied the mythical code of conduct of doing an empirical research just for the sake of valid knowledge, is Judith Shklar.  Judith Shklar would tell her students that she wanted to study political science not only to find valid knowledge as a result, but also “…to prevent the racist totalitarianism that her family had witnessed in Eastern Europe.” 

 

Evidence suggest that it is nearly impossible for political scientists to completely detach themselves from their human passions—to only pursue “value free” empirical theories.  If any, it is the human problem that they like to solve, which gives political scientists the cue to research and find out as to what is causing the problem to begin with.  For example, in “Theory that Matters: The Intellectual Legacy of Richard L. Sklar,” by Halisi and Bowman, what partly induced the work of Sklar was the daunting socio-economic development problem faced by an entire continent—Africa.  Sklar stayed committed to empirically find valid knowledge without bias, and, his exemplary work, as he planned it, has nonetheless ameliorated the socio-economic problem of Africa.  Africa is now a changed continent in pursuit of further socio-economic development, in part, it can be argued cogently, based on Sklar’s scholarly work.  For example, Sklar’s work on the elastic nature of democracy, I would argue, has given African nations, including my own country—Ethiopia, the basis to argue that our concept of Revolutionary Democracy is not necessarily a political idea that warrants a rejection.         

 

The fact that Sklar began his research work in response to daunting socio-economic problem of Africa, entails in it the unstated but nevertheless obvious desire of Sklar to do his scholarly work beyond explaining a given political phenomena.  And hence, I would argue that it is not realistic to expect a world of political scientists devoid of the human passions that they are made of, especially when they are faced with a political problem devastating many human lives.  To insist on having political scientists devoid of their human passions is therefore tantamount to asking political scientists to first and foremost become something that they are not. 

 

Political scientists are as human with passions as their non-political scientist counterparts—albeit with differing degree of knowledge about humanity in some respects.  But fearing that human passion may ruin the path to valid knowledge, the paradigmatic view of scientific method and theory of political science tells us otherwise.  The fear may be is a reasonable point to entertain in a world of partisan politics and disparate cultures and traditions, since knowledge attained in route from biased angle for any reason may not be desirable at all.  In addition, knowledge of the desirable kind that suits all cultures and disparate political persuasion may not be that easy to attain as some scholars have argued.  But in some specific instances, however, there is political knowledge of the desirable kind that can be advanced to engineer a solution to daunting human made political problems.  In this regard, I sense no “disciplinary violation” by political scientists if they venture out to research on how to end wars, hunger, corruption, economic meltdown, environmental degradation and so on—in order to promote better conditions of human life. 

 

Promoting better conditions of human life does not mean that the purpose of empirical theory has to be always laden with normative values to arbitrarily serve self-interest.  Equally, a passion to better the conditions of human life does not necessarily lead political scientists to make a hasty generalization that may re-route their inquiry away from valid knowledge.

 

Just that you know; the myth of having political scientists devoid of their human passions is not a peculiarity to the field of politics.  The myth transverses academics and other expertise, and even sees judges as “free” arbiters of the law without bias to adjudicate.  The myth assumes that judges are trained to detach their human passions and their environment—the very basis of their conscious or unconscious bias in their adjudication.  Quite obviously, therefore, there is a parallel that can be drawn between what is expected of political scientists and judges.  In the former, it is expected that they merely explain political phenomena, and in the latter, to simply render justice without bias.  And these are two cases where attainments of the conceptualized “value-free” or “unbiased” goals by political scientists and judges are clearly beyond the reach of sound logical deduction.  In any case, the role of political science and political scientists should be to better the conditions of human life. 
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