The Duck of Minerva

Weberian Activism

22 March 2007

A piece that I wrote with Stuart J. Kaufman of the University of Delaware has just been published in Perspectives on Politics, an American Political Science Association (APSA) journal that isn’t precisely a research journal (although it does publish pieces that I can only describe as “research notes”), although it is peer-reviewed. PoP, as it is sometimes called, is the place designated by the APSA for the publication of articles that do a bit more meta-reflection on the study of politics and the practice of Political Science, which is precisely what Stuart and I do in this article.

I have posted a pdf of the article here.

I mention this not just to toot my own horn and gain readership, although that’s a nice ancillary benefit of announcing things (like the talk I gave yesterday at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies on my 2006 book; there’s an mp3 audio file of the talk over on my website) here on the Duck. Instead, I’m mentioning this because I think the argument of the article is pretty good and quite relevant to the contemporary situation of anyone who considers themselves to be first and foremost an analyst of politics rather than a full-time political activist. That and the fact that a couple of people who disagree with me have told me that they plan to blog responses — which means that I’d better get my own thoughts out there first!

It’s not a very long article, but let me briefly summarize the basic argument:

As should be not too surprising to anyone who knows me, my basic orientation towards the political world is that of a scholar, not that of a practitioner. It’s a logical distinction I have in mind here, and I draw a lot of inspiration for the distinction from Max Weber’s seminal reflections on “science” and “politics” as vocations. [Because Weber’s notion of science is a lot broader than the English word usually implies, I will talk here about scholars rather than scientists.] The difference is that the scholarly orientation is all about creating and revising our knowledge about things (in this case, about politics), while the practitioner orientation is all about changing those things (in this case, changing some political configuration or direction). Scholarship is about knowing; activism is about doing — which doesn’t mean that knowing is not a form of doing, but that knowing about something is different than doing something (or anything) about it.

The difference between these two orientations is, I think, ideal-typical rather than concrete and empirical; although the two orientations should be completely antithetical to one another in theory, they tend to blur and intermingle in practice. Where is the precise line between a scholarly claim and a political one? In any concrete case it’s hard to say, especially since the drawing of that boundary is often a rather political action (such as when government officials question a scientific claim by suggesting that it might be “political,” a move that is usually pretty transparently intended to promote some specific political agenda). And I’m actually not suggesting that we can or should use the scholarship/politics distinction to code particular statements or initiatives. Instead, I’m suggesting that we should perpetually remain aware of the distinction, and continually ask ourselves whether whatever we are doing is on the correct side of the line — where “correct” means “correct for our purposes.”

To put this more bluntly: If you are acting as a political activist, then don’t mis-characterize your claims as “scholarship.” If you are acting as a scholar, avoid simply making “political” claims. And regardless, always ask yourself where your actions fit and what they mean.

In that article, Stuart and I use the example of a campaign that we (and many others, including Dan Nexon) were involved in coordinating back in 2004. This campaign was, we feel, a good example of what it means for scholars to try to intervene in a political debate without giving up their scholarly credentials: Weberian activism, in short. The campaign sought to highlight a remarkable scholarly consensus about the war in Iraq: basically every professional analyst of international relations in the United States not directly connected to the Bush Administration in some way felt that the existing occupation of Iraq was a bad idea, and that a change of course was urgently required. We drafted an open letter, obtained about 850 signatures, put up a website…and made precisely zippo impact on the course of Iraq policy, as far as I can tell. But we did retain our scholarly integrity, inasmuch as we abstained from the conceit that somehow scholarship could solve the political questions involved in the invasion and occupation of Iraq; rather, what we could and did do was to spell out the likely consequences of the Administration’s policies, and highlight the ways that those policies were undermining even their declared political goals. To go further would have been to step over the thin line separating politics from scholarship, and we (wisely, in my opinion) refrained from taking that step.

The interesting thing about this position is how much criticism it gets from all sides of the theoretical and political spectrum. Many Critical Theorists argue that knowledge is supposed to contribute to human emancipation, so the goal should be to bring politics more into line with scholarly knowledge. Many post-Marxists, Foucauldians, and feminists argue that knowledge is just a political weapon, so the construction of knowledge ought to be properly subordinated to political goals. Most neopositivists endeavor to set politics on a properly rational footing by providing scholarly answers to political problems. And in the policy world, “scholarship” sometimes functions as a rhetorical trump card, lending an air of enhanced authority to some particular claim — and to its advocates as they struggle with the partisans of other claims. My Weberian position has qualms about all of these positions, although I’m much less comfortable with the latter two than I am with the former two properly understood.

But I’ve gone on long enough. The article’s short, and I’m curious to hear readers’ reactions.