A short, compelling paragraph that I wish more people would read and think seriously about (from Gary King’s essay, “Restructuring the Social Sciences: Reflections from Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science”):
Because most of the advances in the social sciences have been based on improvements in empirical data and methods of data analysis, some argue that the theorists (economic theorists, formal theorists, statistical theorists, philosophers, etc.) have no part in this type of center. This makes no sense. In every social science field, and most academic fields, a friendly division exists between theorists and empiricists. They compete with each other for faculty positions and on many research issues, but all know that both are essential. The empiricists in your center will need to interact with theorists at some point, and the theorists will benefit by conditioning their theories on better empirical evidence. The fact that the big data revolution has enabled more progress on the empirical front does not reduce what theorists can contribute.
Moreover, theorists don’t cost anything! They require some seminars, maybe a pencil and pad, and some computer assistance. There is no reason to exclude them, and every intellectual (and political) reason to include them. ↩
Ironically, I’m now grading graduate comprehensive exams in political theory at my new job (at a department with a terminal MA program). My previous position was at a flagship university with a political science PhD program that does not offer ANY theory courses (?!!).
Based on the recent article I co-authored with my friend, Mihaiela Ristei Gugiu, the short answer is: not really, no.
In a recent article in Political Analysis (.pdf available here), we analyze democracy scores produced by a range of different indexes (Freedom House, Polity, others). We find that the indexes are able to distinguish democracies and non-democracies. But they’re not able to distinguish very well between democracies.
This is more than just a simple intellectual exercise. It has very important consequences. It calls into question a lot of the research out there that uses democracy “scores” as a variable (whether as dependent or independent) in large-N statistical analysis. We suggest that the errors introduced into such models make their findings highly suspect. Why? Because we find that democracy—at least as measured by the existing indexes—simply is not a linear or continuous variable. The difference between democracies in Spain and Brazil and South Korea is not a product of “degree” (how close they each approximates some point on a democracy continuum), but a difference of “type” (provided all three are accepted as democracies).
Really, the result is rather humbling. And suggests we (political scientists) need to go back to the drawing board when it comes to empirical studies of democracy (and democratization). We (Mihaiela and I) have some ideas, but it mostly involves going back to mine Dahl’s classic Polyarchy.
But, in the meantime, if you’re simply looking for a way to clearly distinguish which countries are democracies and which are non-democracies. Well, have we got an index for you!
See, while it might surprise most of you out there reading this, very little political science actually talks about politics. This is particularly true in the subfield of “American” politics (the one that people like Coburn care about). That is, if you were to pick up a political science journal — especially but not exclusively the APSA’s American Political Science Review, the alleged leading journal in the field — it would be incomprehensible to you. You would see row after row of calculus equations arrayed in models that purport to analyze some political phenomenon or another. You wouldn’t think of it as analyzing politics at all.
In which Politicalprof succinctly explains why most outside observers don’t think we are worth funding. Read the whole post. It’s part of the angst many in my profession are currently feeling after the government decided to end public funding (or at least subject it to an “American interests” litmus test) of political science.
The problem is that we (political scientists) have clearly done a terrible job of convincing the public at large—and probably most of our own students—of the public utility and value of a political science education.
In fact, last year a colleague and I did a survey of all the 100-level political science courses (over 1,300 students that semester in intro American, Comparative, and IR courses). We measured student attitudes on a variety of indicators, and also asked them a battery of demographic questions. We found that individual student political efficacy actually dropped, even when controlling for race, gender, social class, age, etc. And even when controlling for median class GPA and teacher evaluation averages (we wanted to control for teacher effects). The findings were fairly robust. It was depressing: Taking a course in political science was likely to reduce a student’s internal and external political efficacy (that is, the belief that he/she can understand and effectively participate in, politics).
Oh, we also asked them about their interest in political science. Their interest dropped between the first and last weeks of the semester. Depressing. Which is why I haven’t yet pulled the paper back out and sent it to any journal. Though perhaps I should.