Methods Debates for Humanists

One of the benefits of working in an interdisciplinary field is the opportunity to witness how different academic communities view one another. From the position of a political scientist, I commonly hear say, historians or anthropologists summarize what they understand political scientists to believe. Having done a fair bit of participant observation within the tribe of the tsitneics-lacitilop, those descriptions are often frustrating, describing something akin to what I understand were debates within the discipline during the 1990s. It is now 2016.

Personal frustrations aside, such outdated or erroneous views of what “political scientists believe or argue about” are problematic for a couple of more general reasons. For one, they may stand in the way of interdisciplinary collaboration by proposing that political scientists do not study certain things or work in certain ways. They also encourage fence-building between disciplines, by portraying disciplines as having settled debates, doing work that is essentially uninteresting to those elsewhere. Finally, they affect how political scientists teach and recruit students. To preview some of the discussion below, if historians are teaching their undergraduate students who have an interest in comparative politics that political scientists only do rationalist or cross-national statistical research, then we might miss the opportunity to recruit some of the more promising graduate students who could be doing field research.

In what follows I first recount the common misunderstandings I encounter about political science, and then offer my own perspective on what our core debates actually are. I make no claim to have correctly captured the views of all humanists, just those who occupy the particular corner of the academy where my interests intersect with theirs (Asia, Islam, colonial history). Nor do I make the claim to speak for all political scientists. The main audience for this exercise is non-political scientists—in particular, anthropologists, historians, and those working in the more humanistic disciplines. However, I suspect that political scientists too might find the discussion below interesting as one attempt to summarize some of the main methodological debates within our discipline. I welcome friendly amendments in the comments.

With all that throat-clearing aside, let me start with the misconceptions.

Two Common Misconceptions

The most common misconception that I encounter is that political science is divided along a cleavage of quantitative scholars and rational choice theorists versus qualitative or historical scholars. The errors here are two. First, this view lumps together “rational choice theory” with quantitative methodology, which both mistakenly equates theory and methodology and misses that some of the strongest critiques of rationalism in political science come from a quantitative behavioral origin (and vice versa). Second, it misses the extent to which quantitative methods are used in service of historical arguments, and the extent to which rationalist arguments are frequently grounded in qualitative insights. There is probably much more to write on this, but the idea of a discipline characterized by this singular cleavage on this particular axis always makes me cringe. It is probably not even anachronistic, just plain false.

The second most common misconception is that quantitative methods means cross-national regressions. This view is especially erroneous as a description of comparative politics and international relations, the two subfields of political science that scholars of Asia, Islam, and colonial history will encounter. In reality, there is a growing tension (I will address it below) between quantitative cross-national research and quantitative within-country research, with the latter having the upper hand at the moment. The most recent issue of the American Political Science Review contains no article whose evidentiary base is purely cross-national regressions.

There are surely other misconceptions, but these are the two that I encounter most frequently.

Actual Debates

Without coming down in favor of any particular position, let me now describe what I view to be the most important actual methods debates or cleavages within mainstream political science at present.

The first will almost certainly surprise humanists who work within a qual-versus-quant framework: quantitative social scientists are the biggest critics of other quantitative social scientists. This is a result of the identification revolution in the social sciences (in economics often termed the “credibility revolution“), which grounds statistical methodology in a theory of causality. The stakes for current quantitative research are extraordinarily high, because the body of data that can be analyzed using quantitative tools is much larger than the set of credible causal inferences that can be drawn from that data. For one recent articulation of how this new identification revolution, see Samii 2016 (pdf, ungated).

Some related debates that arise include the following.

  1. Is it better to do statistics right, or not at all? It seems easy to conclude that of course we should only do statistics the right way, but if the standards for correct are formidably high, are we prepared to abandon whole areas of inquiry as unstudy-able? There exist quantitative political scientists who believe that we should basically never run cross-national regressions, for example.
  2. Experiments versus observational data. Experiments offer control, but almost always sacrificed realism in service of that control. What is the optimal balance between the two? On what terms should we make tradeoffs between the two?
  3. Microfoundations and macrostructures. Regardless of whether data is observational or experimental, research designs tend to be more straightforward with micro-level data than with aggregate or macro-level data. The problem of reconciling micro-level evidence (what individuals say or do) with macro-level phenomena (how institutions, countries, policies, and/or international systems work) will be, I suspect, one of the core issues that political scientists confront over the next decade.

To reiterate, my point in this post is not to come down on one side or another on these debates, but instead to highlight that these are the terms upon which methods debates are occurring at the moment.

A second methods debate in contemporary political science is between what we might call positivist qualitative synthesis and the post- or anti-positivist alternative. In essential terms, is there or is there not a single template that unites quantitative and qualitative research? If yes, then quantitative and qualitative research is ultimately doing the same thing, and can be viewed as two complementary endeavors with common goals. If no, then qualitative research is not and should not be made to be consistent with some version of a quantitative template. This is a debate within the qualitative methodology community.

(And in fact, this debate is actually even more complicated than this due to the presence of qualitative comparative analysis, which expresses a fundamentally positivist but not quantitative template for comparative research. QCA has never really caught on in the United States but enjoys more interest overseas.)

A third debate was addressed partially above, in my discussion of the first common misconception about political science. This is between logically consistent theories and credible empirical research. As with most debates this seems to be a false one—who would object to either? In practice, however, reconciling theory and empirics is a thorny problem in the philosophy of science, as Clarke and Primo (one of my favorites) argue. Suffice it to say, the discipline of political science remains unsettled. Positions range from “enough! no more theories!” to “enough! no data analysis without a deductive theory!” to “enough with this ‘testing your theory’ business!”

What are the implications of these debates for humanists? One is that, as I observed in Sojourn recently, you probably know less about political scientists than you think just by knowing their disciplinary identity. More importantly, though, there is much more space for interdisciplinary collaboration than is commonly believed, because many things that historians and others care about are also of interest to many political scientists. The question for interdisciplinary work is not whether or not the political scientist care about history, national or regional specifics, or the details of particular cases. It is instead about how to reconcile those interests with the demands of theory and causal inference, something that scholars working in other disciplines may find more vexing.

Comments 4

  1. Pingback: Important read for comparativist political scientists « An Africanist Perspective

  2. cartokurtis July 1, 2016

    (mobile typing) I agree with your argument. It was a thorn in my backside during the core courses of diplomacy in grad school. Needless to say, I am pleased to be within my concentration. However, I find constructivism serves me well by having the space to accommodate both quan. and qual. disciplines. Great article, thanks.

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