III.2. Interpretive methods

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William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
Independent Scholar
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Joined: Thu Apr 07, 2016 4:38 pm

Paradigm Politics in Political Science After QTD

PostFri Nov 17, 2017 4:52 pm

Paradigm Politics in Political Science After QTD

The central theme in the history of the political science profession, at least since WWII, is the rise of the positivistic understanding of “science.” The adherents of that understanding now control resources such as a privileged position in the competition for grant money. Their definitions of what it means to be “professional” set the requirements for assessing good work in the field. Grad students who buck those standards are less likely to be helped along the path to a successful career. Their chances of being published in high status journals and publishing houses will be reduced, as will their chances of being given tenure track positions in “top” schools. There are strong pressures sustaining positivism in political science.

The math-oriented, transparency-pushing, promoters of “replication” have a conception of “science,” which they firmly believe is true. They understand their transparency and replication requirements to be completely in-line with their view of what science is for social and political science. This is their paradigm. They won't be persuaded to drop it by picking at it with criticism, or pointing out anomalies from the interpretivist point of view. These efforts will appear to them as a nuisance and lacking credibility. They might even dismiss their critics as really not understanding the requirements of science (as they see it).

Furthermore, their paradigm unifies them as the power elites in the profession. Criticisms of their paradigm will be seen and treated as efforts to subvert their power and prestige. Their wagons have been circled, and their defenses put on alert. Criticisms, for them, are something to be fought off, not something to be considered or to which they would concede. Their game is power politics, not open minded intellectual deliberation.

Some comments here have suggested a kind of “why can’t we all just get along” pluralism. But positivists will only allow interpretivists to have pluralism so long as their lion’s share of control over the profession is not threatened. That’s what “Trust us!” means.

The Draft Report proposes that “the peer review system, already in place” be the interpretivist answer to positivist domination. What kind of change is that? The Report respectfully requests that the APSA “embrace a plurality of standards for research excellence,” like they do at Perspectives on Politics.

Maybe APSA will let the interpretivists continue to publish in PoP, but does anyone really think that this will bring interpretivism up to the level of respect and authority given articles in APSR?

Positivists have an understanding of verification that is intolerant of mere approval by peer review. They expect “objective” verification, not intersubjective agreement. In their view, real science is verified by the replication of studies. Empathic interpretations rendered by participant observation might qualify as interesting literature, when they’re feeling generous, but not as science. Studies like those of Goffman (On the Run) and Desmond (Evicted) are one shot deals. You couldn’t send a distinguished professor like Arthur Lupia into an urban ghetto to replicate those studies, and expect the same results. Interpretivists who have some familiarity with urban culture can exercise their professional judgment and deem Goffman’s and Desmond’s books a contribution to knowledge. But you’ll never read that in the APSR.

Interpretivists who can’t be content with being a merely tolerated side show in political science must take more responsibility for their marginalization, if they are to change it.

How are we responsible? In short, we have no unified paradigm to put up as a possible alternative to positivism. Politely asking for tolerance is not a strategy that will enable the emergence of a unified opposition with which to challenge positivism’s unified paradigm.

Interpretivism ought to be the very definition of political science method, not a tolerated eccentricity of undisciplined mavericks.

To achieve that position, we must confront the positivists on their own territory. That is, we must fess up to the dual tasks of fashioning a clear alternative definition of “science” that accommodates our approach, and then commit ourselves to propagating it within the profession. We need a coherent point of view that can persuade our fellow PhDs, and grad students working towards a PhD, that the interpretivist understanding of political science as a science is more appropriate for the field than the positivist paradigm.*

The philosophy of “letting a million flowers bloom” is politically naïve and self-defeating. Only if we can agree among ourselves as to what science means can we begin to fashion, through organizational politics, a political science in our own image.

William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.

*I have proposed an interpretivist theory of “science” in the current issue of New Political Science, QMMR (forthcoming), and at https://independent.academia.edu/WilliamJKelleherPhD

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