This Academic Life
  Science, not politics!
Science, not politicsI posted the Fish op-ed to a listserv where fellow academics discuss similar issues. I got a lot of negative reactions, so I posted a couple of replies, excerpts from which are below:

I find the generally negative reaction on this list to Stanley Fish's op-ed quite fascinating, in that it concretely demonstrates a rather profound shift in [this group, which] was more narrowly focused on two concerns that I think entirely proper to our vocation as academics: the relatively closed character of many of the top journals in the field to work that did not utilize formal or statistical techniques, and the dominance of the APSA by a small group of scholars whose interests were not broadly representative of the field of political science as a whole. These concerns speak to two of the dimensions of our vocation: the first speaks to our scholarship, and the second speaks to our professional lives.

(Largely absent from most of our subsequent discussions, has been what I would regard as the most important piece of our vocation as academics, namely pedagogy; we've talked a fair amount about how do make our journals and our association more methodologically diverse, but not much about how do teach our students how to appreciate and conduct research that is grounded in very different ontological and epistemological positions. Personally, I would argue that diversifying the journals and the association is a means to an end, and that end is having more research that can be used to make students confront the "uncomfortable facts" with which their own perspectives have trouble dealing. That's why I want there to be a lot of research floating around in the field that utilizes presuppositions and techniques with which I do not personally agree, because it saves me the trouble of having to invent such things for pedagogical purposes.)

I never signed up for "a more (politically) engaged political science," and I am very skeptical about "speaking truth to power." In my understanding we already have a more politically engaged political science; it is practiced (as appropriate, I think) outside of the academy at various research institutes and think tanks and consulting agencies. This seems appropriate because, as far as I am concerned, deploying the mantle of "social science" in an effort to affect state policy is politics, not science. The difference, as Weber put it, is that politicians use their words and concepts as "weapons of war" and not as analytical tools for making sense of complex situations -- politicians are not methodologically rigorous, nor should they be. "Speaking truth to power" is an exercise of power -- unless one buys the Enlightenment-era metaphysic that separates the two moments. While I feel that Foucault pretty definitively eliminated that position, I can certainly understand that others might disagree -- and a methodologically diverse political science should have room for that debate too. But by the same token it should have room for those like me who entered academia precisely because we didn't feel strongly enough about a particular issue to want to devote our lives to advocating for it.

I shudder to think of myself -- or any of us -- as "experts" who can resolve political questions with our superior knowledge. Isn't that the kind of philosophical position that got us into this methodologically homogenous mess in the first place? If there is a One True Way That The World Is (to invoke Richard Rorty's terminology), doesn't it follow almost necessarily that there must be a One True Methodology That Can Reach That World, or at the very least a One True Set Of Insights That Can And Should Legitimately Drive Out Others Which Are False? For me, methodological diversity is implacably opposed to "Truth" understood as divorced from power and perspective and cultural values. Promoting methodological diversity means abandoning the (misleading) hope that we will be able to resolve pressing political issues through our superior scientific (or humanistic, or interpretive, or whatever -- these are in my opinion minor variations within the same Enlightenment-era dualist metaphysic) techniques.

I still think that Weber got it right: academics are supposed to teach students by making them question their pre-existing assumptions about the world, and to conduct research that is founded in ideal-typical versions of particular cultural values. There is a Nietzschean perspectivism at the heart of this endeavor, and it vitiates the notion that we can come to a definitive and solid resolution of the most pressing questions. Of course we academics are not somehow constitutively separate from the wider world which we study and in which we live. But it does not follow that we should use our positions in society to engage in narrowly partisan battles, or that this is all that we can and should do. Instead, I think, our research embodies and instantiates particular value-commitments and *may* thus contribute to a broader public debate about the utility of those values, but such a debate should not be our proximate goal.

As for the production of democratic citizens, well, I have to agree with Fish that I have no idea how to do that. I do know how to bring students into dialogue with perspectives and facts that are remote from their presuppositions, and I do know how to promote notions of scholarly integrity and methodological consistency. If those are "democratic" values, then fine -- they seem to me to have little to do with democracy per se and much to do with the scholarly endeavor that is proper to our vocation.

And as for International Relations in particular being a "practical" field like organizational management, I can do no better than to quote Hedley Bull from the conclusion of his book The Anarchical Society:

"The search for conclusions that can be presented as “solutions” or “practical advice” is a corrupting element in the contemporary study of world politics, which properly understood is an intellectual activity and not a practical one. Such conclusions are advanced less because there is any solid basis for them than because there is a demand for them that it is profitable to satisfy. The fact is that while there is a great desire to know what the future of world politics will bring, and also to know how we should behave in it, we have to grope about in the dark with respect to the one as much as respect to the other. It is better to recognize that we are in darkness than to pretend that we can see the light."

[Posted with ecto]

<< Home
"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



Powered by Blogger