The Duck of Minerva

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Relevant? Who Me?

September 16, 2010

OK, I’ll bite. Lots being written these days about the relevance of political science. The latest today from Stephen Hayward at American Enterprise Institute.

I’ll join with John Sides that this is an intellectually sloppy caricature of the discipline. But, I’m always struck by the question — often posed by political scientists themselves — are we relevant? Here’s a little thought experiment on the IR/Comparative side of the discipline: let’s say that all IR scholars (security and IPE) and comparativists simply stop their formal and informal advising to the US government, think tanks, NGOs, and the US media. No more participation on panels/reports at USIP, Brookings, the Atlantic Council, or the Wilson Center (whose executive summaries are on every LA’s desk on the Hill); no more briefings at INR, FSI, or out at Langley (that often are noted in memos up the chain). No briefings, lectures, or conferences at NDU, NATO, or anywhere in the Pentagon (that are frequently plagiarized in subsequent briefing slides); no more background conversations with the Times or NPR or local media outlets around the country.

The reality is that all of these institutions rely to some extent on the scholarship of political scientists who do field work (especially in countries and regions not always on top of the fold), who compile data and systematically compare historical and/or contemporary cases, who think about broader trends, and yes, who develop models and use various types of methodologies to do more rigorous testing of empirical evidence. Hundreds of political scientists descend on DC every month to present their work and share their insights at these institutions.

If relevance is defined by the frequency of citation by Washington-based journalists, then yeah, I’d agree political scientists seem to be living in backwater.

But, if relevance is defined in terms of transmission of knowledge and information, albeit incomplete and often probabilistic, to help inform internal policy debates, my experience tells me there’s plenty of relevance. In the past few years alone, we can see the influence on policy discussions and development from scholarship on the democratic peace, smart sanctions, the complexities and limitations of state building, as well as a lot of region/country specific scholarship on the challenges in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.