My aim in this blog is to write about the field of political science (one I’ve been working in for a couple of decades) and particularly my worries about whether the field is making progress.
In 2013, Senator Tom Coburn proposed that the government zero out NSF funding for political science because it hadn’t done enough to save lives, create jobs, and promote economic growth. While I wouldn’t agree that these are the main standards by which political science should be judged, I think it would be a good if political science had better answers about how it has both progressed and contributed to progress.
When I studied economics as an undergraduate, it seemed that the field had all the answers. Economists can mostly agree on a good number of theories not to mention policy recommendations. They are widely respected among policymakers and even bookbuyers (consider all the book titles that trade on the cachet of “economist” from Freakonomics on down). And students have voted with their feet to make it one of the most popular majors at elite schools. Economics of course has its blindspots, sometimes large ones, but it does seem to have passed some basic market and reality tests.
How well does political science do on these same tests? I worry that I’ve attached myself to a field that doesn’t have as much to show for itself. What are our great theories? Our great insights? Are we accumulating knowledge? Do other fields borrow our ideas? Do policymakers and the public respect our analyses? Are students flocking to our courses?
I’m not quite sure that we’ve passed these tests. This isn’t to say that there aren’t great political scientists out there doing great work. There are and I look up to them and aspire to their standards. There are even classics that repay continued rereading. But have we gotten far enough as a field that we can show the world our achievements? I’m not sure. I think we’re heading in the right direction, but at a not particularly rapid clip.
The point of this blog will be to think through these issues based on some work that I’m doing and the work of those who have thought more deeply about these matters than me. I’ll even try to come up with ways that political science might progress faster. And I’ll intersperse this with some of my own biography and perhaps some of my interest in culture, sports, education, and postcommunist Europe. I’m happy to hear comments, criticisms, and suggestions. As Stan Lee would say, Excelsior (Ever Upward).
PS: The blog’s title is supposed to be a reference to Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress, which I have obviously not read. Hopefully my lack of familiarity with it will not be an omen for what comes next.
PPS: Personal information about me and my work can be found here: https://sites.google.com/site/robertspolisci/