• Tue. Oct 26th, 2021

An assessment for political science

ByChris J. Taylor

Jan 14, 2021

PPolitical scientists working in the polarized (indeed, explosive) backdrop of contemporary American politics have grown accustomed to the potential for backlash – from politicians, media figures, college and university donors, and, at times, academics. students and their parents. Last week, however, the American Political Science Association – the leading professional organization representing professional political scientists in the United States – found itself faced with the wrath of another group: its own members.

On January 7, APSA issued an unsigned statement condemning the “violent insurgency” on the United States Capitol and the politicians who “spread lies and disinformation …[ing] doubt and mistrust in the democratic process ”, contributing to the attack the day before. The verbiage was in many places vague, refusing to define “harm” or the factors that led to it.

But it was not so much the substance of the conviction that posed a problem for the members of the organization; that’s what came next. In the last paragraph, APSA urged “both sides” to “do better and work together to dismantle the systems and structures that [sic] to evil ”, and promised the help of political scientists to undertake the work of“ reconciliation ”. Thus, despite its condemnations, the organization ended its statement by repeating and legitimizing the forced and false equivalences offered by the Republican political elites who disavowed personal and partisan responsibility for the insurgency.

The history of American political science – like American democracy – is also a history of white supremacy.

Along with the evasive nature of the statement, the appearance of establishing a moral or political equivalence between the two “parties” was indeed infuriating – a point the APSA granted in later issuing a heavily revised statement. But what caught my attention was not the language of the “two sides”, but the question of the relationship between political science and politics, and therefore the role that political scientists should play at this time – a question which the statement both evaded and implicitly answered. Moving on to “the hard work of rebuilding our institutions and our democratic standards” and affirming the will of political scientists “to support the work of our elected officials to chart the way forward”, the declaration hailed an unspecified and presumed “us” . and enlisted political scientists in the service of the American state.

How to think about the relationship between the current crisis in American politics and the work of professional political scientists? Do political scientists have a responsibility – to themselves, to their students, or to the American regime – to help the state in its work? How can political scientists carry out their work – research and write about Politics – while remaining somehow above the fray of politics? Is this even a realistic goal? Is it desirable?

As John G. Gunnell argues in his 2003 book, Imagining American Politics: Political Science and the Discourse of Democracy (Penn State University Press), it’s an old dilemma. It is rooted in the domain’s attachment, on the one hand, to the American statehood project, and its need to establish its scientific objectivity – its status as a “real” science – on the other hand. The consequence is a strange (and not quite stable) relationship between the research subject and the researcher. As Gunnell writes, “It is only by staying away from politics that the discipline could acquire the scientific authority which, in the end, would give it a political buy.” If political science is to shape politics, it must move away – to a large extent – from politics.

As contradictory as it may sound, the concerns that motivate it are not unwarranted, nor are they simply a holdover from the discipline’s past. In 2012, the United States House of Representatives voted to exclude political science projects from eligibility for National Science Foundation grants on the grounds that such funding wastes taxpayer dollars. Jeff Flake, then Republican Representative for Arizona’s Sixth Congressional District, introduced the bill; in his remarks to the House, he highlighted NSF-funded projects on climate change, women in politics and the political preferences of ordinary citizens as particularly problematic. His working hypothesis was that in order to obtain funding and carry out their research, political scientists must not only be scientifically objective, but also firmly avoid any research subject deemed to be partisan. This urgent insistence, we are not partisans; we are objective! – came out loud and clear from the APSA press release.

It is of course useful to try to distinguish scholarship from political advocacy, however confusing the line may be in practice. But this cautious and scholarly distancing – the difficult balance between the standards of science and the makings of politics, or between the demands of partisan political actors and the needs of the discipline – obscures a darker reality. As I watched footage of the Capitol rioters dressed in neo-Nazi clothing and waving Confederate flags, as I noticed their expressions of shock and rage at being embarrassed by the police force whose guns (they insisted) should be trained on Black Lives Matter activists, I haven’t thought about how political science can contribute to democratic norms or national reconciliation. Nor did I think about the need to preserve the appearance of ideological neutrality.

IInstead, I thought of the domain’s historic entanglement with colonization, imperialism, racism, and conquest. Scratch beneath the surface, dig a bit into the past, and you’ll find that the history of American political science – just like American democracy – is also a history of white supremacy.

The foundations of political science as a modern academic field, Jessica Blatt recently demonstrated, were built “in response to evolving scientific notions of race and the political imperatives of racial order at home and abroad. “. This is as true for the subfield of American politics as it is for three other subfields – international relations, comparative politics, and political theory – as scholars such as Robbie Shilliam, Robert Vitalis, Michael have shown. Hanchard, Joel Olson and Charles Mills. As their research demonstrates, the deep connections between the academic field of political science and the concrete political orders of white supremacy are more than just a historical backstory. The conceptual foundations of the racial world order continue to live on in the concepts that structure our field (although they are often taught, discussed and debated as if they had little to do with race): popular sovereignty, property, contract. , citizenship, security. , development, state capacity, democracy itself.

The field is only beginning to accept this – a belated calculation that may be linked to the lingering problems of political science with the diversity and long-standing marginalization of the study of race (within or beyond the discipline). In 2010, 88.9% of professional political scientists identified themselves as white – an improvement from 30 years ago, but not by much.

Beyond demographics, nearly all scholars of race, ethnicity, and politics have a plethora of stories about all the ways they have been told that race is a niche topic in the discipline – the number of times they have been asked how their work on race relates to “real” political science or “mainstream” political theory, the number of times they have been warned that a study of black populations , Latin or indigenous would not be useful for the field per se.

Yet there are political scientists and political theorists who do this job anyway. It is through their work that we can trace the stories of white supremacy, colonization and imperialism in our subdomains. It is through their work that we can come to terms with how American political science reproduces ideologies that mask violence, exploitation and systemic injustice under the guise of American democracy.

This is where “two-sided” language – and the fear of being seen as partisan that motivates it – becomes a danger to political science itself. He endorses the idea that critical and serious studies on urgent, contentious and perfectly Politics the topics – including white supremacy, settler colonialism, immigration, and climate change – are too partisan for the social sciences, or must be forever balanced by a ‘other side’ perspective. This position makes academics who do this kind of work – many of whom are academics of color underrepresented in the field at large – increasingly vulnerable to marginalization and attack from the right.

I don’t know, in the end, what to do. There is unlikely to be a single answer to the question of how political science should relate to politics, and there is no reason to believe that the field as a whole could reach consensus. But consensus is not necessary, and that is not the point. It’s the conversation that matters. Avoiding the problem or offering a rigid adherence to a fair performance as a solution has always been untenable. This approach does not meet the demands of scholarly reflexivity and the promises of critical social sciences. It is also politically dangerous and irresponsible.

A full review is long overdue.


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