speri.comment: the political economy blog

Why is political science not in crisis as a result of the crisis?

Economics is beginning to rethink many of its presuppositions as a consequence of the financial crisis, but political science sails blithely and complacently onwards

Professor Mick Moran, Member of SPERI's International Advisory Board & Professor of Government, Alliance Business School University of Manchester

Mick Moran

Mick Moran

It is a commonplace that the financial crash of 2007-9 also caused an intellectual crisis in the discipline of Economics.  That sense of crisis has had healthy results: while a minority of economists still maintain the view ‘do not adjust your mindset, there is a fault with reality’, for most there has been a refreshing willingness to think again about the presuppositions that led so much of the discipline to act as a cheerleader for the madness of the markets during the ‘Great Moderation’.  This makes a striking contrast with the situation in what might be called mainstream political science.

The separate discipline of International Political Economy was indeed sensitive to the dangers of ‘casino capitalism’, in Susan Strange’s graphic phrase.  But political science just hived off these concerns.  Indeed, not only was it blind to the dangers of a crash; it was largely blind to the very importance of power in financial markets, despite the fact that, since Robert Dahl, its very stock in trade was supposed to be the analysis of power.

Moreover, since the great crash, while International Political Economy has produced a stream of analyses of the crash, political science has been largely silent.  It is striking that the most graphic narrations of the crash and the political processes that led to it have come from outside political science: from journalists with a training in anthropology, like Gillian Tett; from high-class investigative journalists, like Michael Lewis; from policy-focused economists, like Simon Johnson.  There are indeed exceptions in political science, but their fate emphasises the obtuseness of the discipline.

I recently read an outstanding comparative analysis of the politics of banking regulation in the crash.  It tries to answer the question: why did some countries escape the crash, while others suffered its full weight?  The paper was rejected without going out to review by a leading US political science journal on the grounds that it failed to offer a theoretical contribution!  Explaining the most catastrophic economic event for seventy years is thus less valuable than advancing the theoretical frontiers of political science.

The crash was as big an intellectual challenge for political science as for economics.  But, whereas the latter has begun to recognise this, political science sails blithely and complacently on.  The roots of this stupidity plainly do not lie in the obtuseness of individuals concerned.  They are more alarming, because they lie in the historical mission of the discipline, and in its established intellectual practices.

Political science emerged as a significant discipline after the rise of its main sister – or rival – disciplines: economics, law, history, anthropology were already entrenched in universities when political science began to expand, principally in the two decades after World War Two.  That created an obvious institutional problem: how could political science carve out a place for itself in the expanding university systems?

The answer is neatly expressed by Bob Goodin in his history of the discipline: it invented itself as ‘the discipline of the state’.  It prospered by accepting a division of labour: the past was left to the historians; the economy to the economists; and politics outside the state to the anthropologists and the sociologists.  Political science ‘did’ the state, and the processes like elections that abutted onto it.  It left everything else to its rivals – and in the madness of the ‘Great Moderation’ left the politics of financial markets to others.  That is how we arrive at a state of affairs where the best ‘political science’ of financial markets is done by anthropologists, journalists, and analysts in business schools.

The disciplinary project I have sketched here was of course hugely successful.  In the Anglo-American world in particular it laid the foundations of great academic empires: big university departments that could rival the economists and historians, and eclipse the anthropologists, in university politicking; a thriving world of professional associations and journals; plus big graduate schools that are still in fact expanding.  Political science has become a respected ‘profession’.  Indeed, this is precisely the word that leaders of the discipline now routinely use to describe the activity of being a political scientist.

Yet, in its very obsession with its own internal professional conversations around ‘the discipline of the state’, it is now suffering the disease of professionalism: it has retreated into its own self-reflexive world and, in so doing, defined the greatest economic crisis for two generations as the business of others.

The first step to dealing with any and all crises in life is the recognition that you are faced with one. Economics, for all its continuing shortcomings, has at least taken that first step.  Political science has yet to do so.  The crisis is also its crisis.

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Categories: Economics, Political theory, SPERI Comment | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 comments

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Comments (6)

  1. Very interesting post. I am sometimes concerned that political science is developing in a way that the study of English literature did. English was my best subject at school but I decided not to pursue it at university because I found that detailed textual analysis destroyed any pleasure in reading plays or books. I still remember with dread the Arden Shakespeare volumes in which there were often more footnotes on the page than lines of the play. Does political science needed to be more concerned with politics rather than searching for even greater methodological rigour, resulting in articles that are dull to read and inaccessible to a wider concerned public? Is it not possible to write about contemporary political issues in an engaging way without being partisan or abandoning the proper use of evidence? I am not calling for polemic, but for a greater willingness to address contemporary issues. But I suspect, as Moran suggests, that there is little interest in facing these issues.

  2. Is it because political science isn’t a proper empirical discipline? Seems to be just the opinions of the authors to me.

    • “Is it because political science isn’t a proper empirical discipline? Seems to be just the opinions of the authors to me.”

      I disagree. Good political science (a significant chunk of what gets published in my view) is empirical. If economics is about how things work – or how problems should be solved in an economy – then politics is about how you actually put it into practice.

      A large body of economists, for example, would tell us that free movement of labour within the EU is a good thing for the UK economy, but putting it in practice is entirely political (as we’ve seen with the recent surge in opinion against it within the UK). There’s a big difference between establishing something empirically from an economic standpoint, and actually having the political capacity to do it (and for that we need to know how politics works).

  3. There are two separate criticisms. One is the criticism that political science has concentrated unduly on state structures. One is that a process of professionalization has led to political science becoming opaque. It’s important to keep these two things separate. I’m not sure why a broader notion of political science, with added political economy special sauce, would be immune to opacity. Indeed, anyone who wants to understand DGSE models of the economy has to become used to a fair degree of opacity.

    It’s also important to argue for these criticisms. I’m not clear on whether undue concentration on state structures is to be deplored because it (contingently) led to a process of professionalization, or because it’s intrinsically undesirable, or because this is just an expression of the author’s preference (and in matters of taste there is no argument).

    Additionally, I’m not *entirely* clear why opacity (and here it seems to be opacity to a general public) is a bad thing, all things considered. We might wish to say that it would be desirable if things were transparent to a general public; but sometimes in order to explain better we have to use particular techniques which are hard to explain to a general public, and that we’ve chosen to explain better at the cost of opacity to a general public.

  4. @Chris H.

    I think you make some fair points regarding this blog post – it’s only the very bare bones of an argument.

    However, surely the issue that it zeroes in on is that here we have one of the major events of our lifetime, one that you cannot disconnect from government or politics – and yet political science has nothing to say about it – and indeed political science has developed a methodological focus which largely prevents it from having anything to say about it.

    At some level, that has to puncture the pretensions of political scientists – but it appears not, from your comment.

    Of course, I have an anthropology background, so I find the “black boxism” of political science deeply questionable and rather on a par with neoclassical economics in looking a lot like “a handmaiden to the powerful.” In the end, political science posits mechanisms, but shys away from causes… especially root causes. That’s just “electoral sentiments” or “changes in views about …”

    And no, this short post isn’t going to match up to anyone’s standards of a full argument either…

  5. I think, if anything, economic crisis makes more people interesting in paying attention to and investing in political science – it’s how future change will be enacted.

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