Critique of the Final Report for Interpretive Methods

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Expand view Topic review: Critique of the Final Report for Interpretive Methods

Re: Critique of the Final Report for Interpretive Methods

Post by nbreznau » Mon Jun 10, 2019 4:55 am

Thank you Bill Kelleher for pointing out the overlapping terms of interpretivist and empiricist.

Regarding Kelleher's reference to empathy, confidentiality and transparency, I would see these as a reason interpretivist forms of knowledge construction often do not get their rightful place in the cannon of social science or on the payroll of funding agencies. Empathy, to take his example, is learned and experienced, but the experience of empathy certainly can be documented. Again, this idea of, "trust me, I'm a human being and I feel empathy" is not very convincing. The researcher him/herself can reveal how empathic they are and why they are experiencing empathy in a given situation. If the researcher is studying people who experienced death of loved ones and grief, a researcher who has no personal experience with this would react very differently from a researcher who does have such personal experience, for example. Probably both would have empathy, but how and why? The researcher with experience would have a much deeper understanding, whereas the researcher without these experiences might have a more general reaction, something similar to what they would have for any observable human suffering, but we cannot learn as much about the situation from an unexperienced researcher. Moreover, what does the suffering look like? Here the observational data can be anonymized, no need to reveal sources, and detailed descriptions of the situation and the experience can be revealed in an appendix. If a quantitative researcher should spend months preparing hundreds of pages of code and additional analyses, why not a qualitative researcher also with detailed (anonymous) notes? This is my understanding of transparency.

Moreover, the researcher can provide evidence of their experiences with empathy or whatever the situation is that they are studying. Maybe they have taken courses or had psychological training. Maybe they have other researchers who have observed their empathy, or other qualities relevant to the topic. There are people in the world who do not have empathy. How do we know the researcher is not one of them and simply making it up? Humans are capable of cheating, and without transparency we cannot trust them. We have seen time and again that highly funded and published researchers turned out to be faking their data. I see no reason to think that qualitative or quantitative researchers are more or less capable of this.

Re: Critique of the Final Report for Interpretive Methods

Post by Bill Kelleher » Sat Jun 08, 2019 4:50 pm

Nate Breznau raises some interesting points. Here are three responses that come to my mind:

First, the term “empiricist” does not exclude the term “interpretivist,” except in the usage of the dominant positivists. Interpretation, especially of the ethnographic sort, requires the personal participation of the interpretivist in the empirical. The meanings upon which political actors act are as real, and hence as empirical, as the bodies containing those meanings.

Second, the term “transparent” has been given a self-serving meaning by the positivists, which, for one example, threatens the existence of interpretive methods by requiring the disclosure of confidential sources. There are other ways to say what is "transparent."

Third, to require a statement of the “clear steps” taken between participant observation and interpretation, is to misunderstand how interpretations are arrived at. Empathy is an intuitive process, employing both natural ability and cultivated skill. Nobody can state how they did it.

But that element of “transparency” is not relevant for criticizing the studies in interpretive political science. What is relevant is the consensus in the community of experts as to the validity of the knowledge claims made. In this, criticizing the method of the study, and the logic and reasonableness of its conclusion, come into consideration.

For a more detailed discussion, see my post on this site at, How the Rule of Transparency Can Become Self-Destructive for Political Science

Re: Critique of the Final Report for Interpretive Methods

Post by nbreznau » Sat Jun 08, 2019 7:16 am

Bill Kelleher's comments about empiricists having captured much of the attention and funding in social science sounds accurate in my experience. Let me state that I fundamentally value the interpretivist approach to knowledge. I'm not even a fan of such 'boxing-in' terminology to put researchers in, but will do so for sake of this discussion. What I take issue with, is Kelleher's suggestion that "transparency" as recommended by DA-RT somehow favors empiricists or positivists. I believe that interpretivists could recapture limelight and funding if they were more transparent. What observations about the world and its social, political and economic relations led a scholar to interpret meaning is often missing from interpretivist publications.

I find it very useful to consider the position staked out by Kelleher, because it speaks to a problem of conflict among the social sciences. We are experiencing a similar fissure in sociology in Germany with the German Sociological Association (DGS) having splintered and the Academy for Sociology forming as an empirical group frustrated by a lack of representation or perhaps a lack of transparency from those 'interpretivists' and 'constructivists' (again, I'm only using such 'boxing-in' terminology to try and have a discourse about this).

If I could summarize the empiricists position or stereotype on interpretiivists, it is that they seem to make their points about reality or some social problem or situation as true simply because they say so, without clear steps of how they went from observation to interpretation to theory construction. Such a lack of transparency is very similar to that among quantitative and qualitative empiricists who, for decades, have regularly published without sharing their original data and/or programming code.

Nate Breznau
Postdoctoral Researcher
University of Bremen

Critique of the Final Report for Interpretive Methods

Post by Bill Kelleher » Mon Jun 03, 2019 3:15 pm

While a crystal clear analysis and critique of mainstream positivism’s antiquated and ill-fitting methodological paradigm for political science, as I will argue below, the Final Report’s “Recommendations” lack practical substance.*

The problem is that the positivists have already captured the profession, its prestige and resources, and will not let it go. Their numbers crunching, unempathetic, mendacious neutrality defines “Political Science,” as the APSR, our main journal, shows in every issue. While the profession retains its nonthreatening lackey posture before Washington, DC, graduate students who dare defy the dominant doctrine risk serious damage to their careers. Interpretivism is being falsely branded as somehow less than “science.”

The Final Report is correct that the DA-RT “transparency” issue is a Fake Ideal, meant to trap the unwary, and preserve positivist domination. But its “Recommendations” seem too timid and overly deferential.

Rather than the presentation of an alternative comprehensive interpretive definition of the political science profession, the Final Report appears to suggest that a concession be given the interpretivist dissenters. Their praise of Perspectives on Politics (POP) seems to be an offer that interpretivists be given POP, APSA’s second level journal; thereby allowing the positivists to keep their APSR, and their dominant position in the profession.

In my view, this won’t do. Interpretivists have a better point of view. We have an approach that is true to, reflective of, and sensitive to the subject matter of political science – i.e., the political behavior of individuals and groups within a political system. I have articulated this point of view in the interpretivist’s APSA Section 37 Newsletter, QMMR, at,
William J. Kelleher, “Letting Easton Be Easton—An Interpretivist,” Qualitative & Multi-Method Research 15:2 (Fall 2017), pp. 22-28.
Open Access at,

The Final Report is also confused about the relationships of facts and values in the practice of political science, and about the role of political philosophy in political science as a science. Yes, facts and values are not separable in reality, and political philosophy is inseparable from political science. But the Final Report lacks an understanding of how to keep the profession from degenerating into the muck of party politics.

Actually, David Easton clarified this relationship way back in the 1950s. But it has been misunderstood and misrepresented by positivists and protestors, alike. I explain this in my essay in New Political Science at, William J. Kelleher, “Back to the Future: How Understanding David Easton Can Give Guidance to the Caucus for a New Political Science,” New Political Science 39:4 (2017), pp. 473-486. Open Access: ... al_Science

Also see, Clyde W. Barrow, “There are Better Alternatives than Easton:
A Critical Rejoinder to William J. Kelleher,” New Political Science 40:1(2018), pp. 186-198.
Open Access: ... J_Kelleher

The practical problem, then, is to displace the dominant paradigm, with an approach to which members of the profession can happily and heartily commit themselves. Interpretivists already have an understanding of political science which will liberate our researchers and writers to engage in a wide mix of methods without fear of undue journal rejections or negative career repercussions. Perhaps, rather than asking for concessions, the time has come to formulate standards and a strategy for naming and shaming the dominant positivists who are enabling the marginalization of Interpretivist Political Scientists. Public shaming will put that paradigm to pasture.

William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.

*The Final Report for III.2 Interpretive Methods by Lisa  Björkman, Lisa  Wedeen, Juliet Williams, and Mary  Hawkesworth is available at
Full report: