Policy-Relevant Political Science: Evidence from Me

Tom Ricks is trolling the entire political science profession, alleging that research that looks like political science is not relevant to policymakers. (I would link to his latest post—he distinguishes “numbers and methods” from “facts and narrative”—but I object to Foreign Policy‘s insistence that you and I register to read.) His latest evidence is Michael Desch’s argument that “emphasis on method is marginalizing security studies.”

Let me offer a different perspective. I happen to have had a busy couple of months interacting with various branches of the U.S. Government, from State to Treasury to AID and others. My own personal experience tells me that the policy community is deeply interested in conceptually nuanced, methodologically advanced, and—yes—highly technical research by political scientists. It is not a world in which there is a big divide between policymakers and political scientists. It’s the exact opposite: one in which the policy world wants more engagement with political science.

Here is a list of some of the work by political scientists that proved useful, both to me and to the communities with whom I was interacting. (These are just arguments that I can remember explicitly invoking, there’s a lot more out there too that I did not explicitly mention.)

  1. Guillermo O’Donnell on accountability.
  2. Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi on democracy and economic development.
  3. Scott Mainwaring on multiparty presidentialism
  4. Jeff Chwieroth on ideas and capital account policy.
  5. Edward Muller and Mitchell Seligson on civic culture and democracy.
  6. Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way on competitive authoritarianism.
  7. Anirudh Krishna and Sheri Berman on social capital.
  8. David Patel, Val Bunce, and Sharon Wolchik on diffusion.
  9. Christine Fair, Neil Malhotra, and Jake Shapiro on support for militants.
  10. Lots on experiments. (This is hugely influential, and precisely because of—not in spite of—the methodological advances.)

Again, there’s more, but I needn’t go on. None of these works is easy going for a non-specialist, with the possible exception of O’Donnell (who was writing for non-specialists). And yet my interlocutors were perfectly willing to learn from them.

Now what do we make of this? I’ve just claimed that in a number of separate interactions with very different parts of the U.S. policy community, political science has proven useful. Perhaps I’m the only one, and that by pure chance, I have found all of the various parts of our foreign, development, and defense policy communities who claim to care about what political science can tell them. But I think that that’s pretty unlikely.

What’s more likely, I suspect, is that we are seeing just another iteration of the continuing debate between those who measure policy relevance in terms of Big People with Big Ideas versus those who focus on operational influence from narrow-bore analytical work. I’m perfectly willing to concede the point that security studies is becoming marginalized—I’m not sure that it is, but if Ricks and Desch say so then I trust them. But political science? Not in my experience.

And I can’t help but wonder if this helps us to make sense of the purpose of outlets like Foreign Policy.

Rothkopf’s unfortunate position starts to make sense if we understand that Foreign Policy is not out there for those doing policy, it’s out there for the commentariat who talk about policy.