On advocacy, activism and political science

21 November 2016, 1206 EST

What is the role of political science and political scientists during contentious social and political moments? This question seems foremost in the minds of many political scientists (read Jeffrey Issac and Jennifer Victor). Political scientists are uniquely positioned to understand the institutions of government, processes of democratic consolidation and decline, and the power and influence of civil society, social movements and advocacy. Political scientists study populism, civil rights movements, xenophobia, nationalism, autocracy and democracy; we have invaluable insights to add to the conversation. My position is that in our roles as political scientists, our job is to educate our students, our communities and the general public. Doing so does not compromise our objectivity or make us partisan advocates.


On “objectivity”:

One view of the profession is that political scientists should adhere to their role as objective analysts of politics. While other disciplines, such as sociology, more comfortably embrace the normative implications of what they study and their role in it, mainstream political science still espouses objectivity as a guiding principle for how we study and teach politics.

Yet, what does objectivity mean in our discipline? By studying government are we not implicitly accepting that democratic government and institutions are the best way to organize political life? As Daniel Nexon articulates here on the Duck, it is about the institutions, we may not agree on how government should work or what policies to pursue, but we certainly share a common belief in preserving the institutions of democracy and human rights. This belief reflects a normative position deeply mired in a shared understanding that human rights and democratic government are indeed desirable.

Studying government or human rights or peace are not value-free positions. A human rights perspective, for example, takes for granted that all people are equally entitled to basic human rights and dignity. Human rights claims are enshrined in international law, but a human rights perspective also makes a normative statement that all humans should have access to basic human rights. Given the unequal application of human rights worldwide—i.e. denying women the right to an education—teaching courses on human rights makes a political and normative statement. At the most basic level then, objectivity means teaching all sides of an issue; for example, the promises, pitfalls, challenges and critiques of the human rights regime.

Saying that objectivity is a grand principle of the discipline also ignores the plurality of epistemological and methodological traditions in international relations. Critical theorists, those who use Marxist, feminist, postmodern, queer or postcolonial approaches to study international relations already reject the idea of objectivity in the questions they ask and how they approach their topics. Critical theorists pose highly normative questions that criticize the status quo both in the theorization and practice of international relations.

Likewise, scholars on the positivist-end of epistemology spectrum accept that we can observe “objective” social facts, study reality in terms of stable meanings and believe that neither prevalent ideologies nor the researcher’s own judgments have a significant impact on the resulting analysis. By contrast, scholars on the post-positivist end of spectrum view social facts as “inter-subjective”; meanings are constructed by dominant actors, contested and inherently unstable. Scholars that adopt post-positivist methods, such as ethnography, participant-observation, or active research, already reject the notion that they are objective observers when conducting research. They understand that by observing and studying social phenomena they impact and influence what they are studying.


On “advocacy” vs. “education”:

For me, the difference is quite straightforward, as educators, I do not think we should tell students what to think (advocacy), rather we should teach them how to think (education). However, it is absolutely our job to critically examine contentious politics and evaluate the implications for all areas of government and democracy. This is not advocacy, this is education.

By engaging in these discussions now, rather than say last year, are we implicitly being advocates against the incoming administration? No. See point one. By engaging in these discussions now, we recognize that the data points we currently have on the incoming administration’s policy might negatively impact democracy, democratic institutions and civil rights. Our failure to engage in public debate and civic engagement in the past does not mean we should not do so going forward.

So what do we bring to the table? In the current context of anti-intellectualism, fake news, and distrust in institutions the most important thing we can do as educators is teach our students how to create connections, think critically, and use analytical reasoning. In every activity, the focus should be on shared values of American democracy—civil rights and freedoms, rule of law, human rights—rather than on partisan positions.

Create connections We know from decades of research that social trust and social capital are bedrocks of democracy; we also know that American society is extremely divided in the present moment. Our classrooms reflect America’s incredible diversity and an opportunity to start sowing empathy and understanding.

(1) Last week, I used the following activity to start building empathy, relationships and connections in my classes.

  1. Organize the classroom into a circle.
  2. Start off by acknowledging that we may not all agree about our political positions, that there are certainly supporters of every candidate in the class, and this is not a discussion about the election.
  3. Set the ground rules: We agree to listen to each other, we will not cross-talk or respond to each other’s points of view. Our job is to speak and listen for understanding and not for persuasion.
  4. Instructions: Each student may say two words, two sentences, or pass in response to the question prompt. We will go around in a circle so that each student participates.
  5. Start off with a version of “How is the election and its aftermath affecting you?” Follow with questions adapted to your content area, so in my Global Governance class I asked: “What are the implications for security cooperation?” etc.


Be prepared to hear difficult feelings and emotions. Students shared that they felt “unwanted,” “unsafe,” “heard for the first time,” “vindicated,” and “threatened.” To create connections, students need to hear each other and start conversations from a place of civility and mutual respect. If we are partisan advocates in the classroom, we create echo chambers and students will only share and validate views that align with our own.


(2) My colleagues in the International Peace & Conflict Resolution and Counseling programs have developed a “one-pager” on how to interrupt hate in its tracks. They offer a three-step plan, complete with video examples, of how to step in and interrupt hate acts. The “one-pager” is designed to provide a strategy for intervention and can be adapted to any situation where an individual might be a victim or witness to hate.


(3) Students and faculty at some colleges and universities (here, here, and here) have conducted Unity Rallies with the dual focus of denouncing racism, sexism, hate and building community resilience and connections around shared values of democracy and human rights. Unity Rallies create connections on a larger scale than classroom activities and might be organized around the shared values of the college/university or American democracy.


Critical thinking I followed my classroom activity by asking students to think through how the new administration’s policies might impact global governance. For example, I asked them to apply our lectures on balance of power politics to a scenario where the US pulls out of NATO. What does that mean for security cooperation? For the balance of power? How would the EU react? The objective was to show students the value of their social science education, how to apply and use their analytical skills, and how to make sense of the world using social science.

Numerous students have told me that they dread going home for Thanksgiving because their families are divided by this election. I have encouraged them to take these critical thinking skills and engage with family members in a civil way. By modeling how to use data and analysis to approach emotionally charged topics, I hope they feel equipped to handle these conversations.

Analytical reasoning Teach students how to recognize credible news and scholarly sources. Teach them the different types of logical fallacies and how to recognize them. Have them explore the internet and media sites and show them how to spot fake news and logical fallacies. Work with your university or college’s social science librarians; they can share a wealth of resources on information literacy.


On public engagement:

Let’s face it, we know how government works, most of our neighbors do not. We are important resources for our communities. We should all engage our communities right now. Use the political scientist’s guide to responsible public action. Public engagement might take the form of reinforcing the institutions of democracy by instructing our neighbors on how to contact their representatives; participating in ongoing voter registration; getting out the vote and encouraging voter participation in local, state, and federal elections; and conducting talks on democracy, civil society, and electoral politics that are open to the community. It might involve civil disobedience, advocacy, organizing, social protests, or community mobilization when democratic values and institutions are under threat. Whether you decide to engage in more institutional or radical forms of activity depends on your comfort level and frankly, your privilege—whether you feel safe and protected to do so. But I firmly believe that our world needs more, not less, political science right now. What better way to demonstrate policy relevance than showing what we know?