I had a disagreement with someone recently. It was a couple, actually. They insisted that the scientific method was responsible for all advances of human knowledge and that ALL things can be measured. I'll admit to being a bit shell-shocked. To put it mildly, I disagree. What a narrow vision of human knowledge! I thought to myself. And then it hit me, this is exactly the type of ideology that has seeped into most political science departments.
A little background:
There are two kinds of knowledge. Ideographic knowledge is knowledge of the particulars. Nomothetic knowledge is theoretical or abstract knowledge. So, for example, if a scholar collects information about a party system in one country, they are producing idiographic knowledge. If they are working at a more abstract level, assessing multiple party systems and thus still using idiographic knowledge but for the purpose of uncovering a larger theoretical relationship, then they are doing nomothetic knowledge.
The scientific method offers a highly organized way of assessing theoretical (nomothetic) knowledge. But it is limited since it privileges the theoretical over the particular. This is not an issue as long as idiographic knowledge is also being produced. And, in our age, data is being produced in record quantities. So it makes sense that some people argue for a hegemony of nomothetic knowledge within the discipline of political science. They think that there is so much data out there in the world that we don't need scholars out digging in the trenches. We need scholars doing meta-theorizing. I think this is a tenable position, but it is not one that I hold.
I see serious risks of a discipline solely examining the theoretical:
First, all nomothetic knowledge is grounded in idiographic knowledge. In order to build a dataset of party systems, a scholar will refer to a huge body of idiographic knowledge. In and of itself, this is not an issue. All scholars build on other scholars.
The issue is that the economy of knowledge is beginning to look a lot like our market economy. People who do a tremendous amount of work to make the whole enterprise function are denied grants, publications, positions, tenure and a host of other goods in order to privilege those who do idiographic work. Even those who do idiographic work have to (or at least do) pretend they are doing nomothetic work. I see it all of the time. It is silly.
Secondly, I frequently see the tyranny of the method. People are wowed by fancy methodology. They are impressed when new tools are brought to bear on the study of politics. Once again, in and of itself, this is not an issue. It is exciting when a new tool is identified and it yields important advances in the study of politics. The issue arises when there is a lack of quality control on a publication because it uses a fancy methodology. Regardless of how you measure it, you must first start with conceptualization and you must defend your conceptualization to your audience. You must then convince the audience that your methodology is appropriate for your concept. This step is too frequently skipped.
Third, there is also the opposite issue. There is sheer obsession with methodology in political science, and scholars approach one another's work with a huge degree of skepticism. Even collegial departments approach individual scholars' work with the intent of figuring out how they are being misleading. There is an assumption that the scholar presenting his or her work intends to exaggerate their conclusions. Why? Because scholars frequently do! And they frequently have to due to structural reasons that are totally beyond the scope of this enormous blog post. This has to stop.
Scholars ought to give one another the benefit of the doubt in certain matters. Some data just cannot be collected. It does not exist. Some data is not worth using, a government made it up. A nomothetic scholar is much more likely going to be faced with access to data that they know is hogwash. It is their perogative if they choose not to use it. A nomothetic scholar may also have access to information that she is not privileged to share, or that it is unwise to share. She may also have close relationships with people in the field that encourage her to trust certain people over others. There is no way for the nomothetic scholar to communicate some of these points.
These risks are intimately rooted in the bias toward nomothetic knowledge in the discipline. If it were really acceptable for scholars to focus deeply on one case, there would not be pressure to exaggerate the extension of one's findings.
What about solutions?
For over a year now, I've been mulling over the idea that the social sciences need to return to looking at the arts as a reference. Remember when you got your Bachelor of Arts in Political Science? There was once recognition of the relationship between the study of human beings and the artistic process, but our undergraduate classroom, graduate training, research design process and publications suggest a much stronger emphasis on understanding politics through the lens of the sciences.
I will certainly agree that much has been learned, and will be learned, from reference to the scientific method. What I'm suggesting is that this emphasis is narrow, and has risks (inadequately enumerated above) and discourages good people from the study of politics, people who would make strong contributions and have innovative approaches to the examination of nebulous and abstract concepts. I'm suggesting that people within the discipline already feel sidelined and many are taking their round selves and trying desperately to fit in a square hole. I know, because I've done this before.
An examination of the artistic process as an alternative foundation for research design, will open the discipline to more scholars, encourage creativity and innovation in research design and could change the culture of skepticism that pervades political science departments.
I intend to harp on this issue on Fridays. So, if you're interested in learning more, y'all come back now, ya hear?