Why Political Science is Boring

Since 2017, the economics major has surpassed the political science major in popularity—something that last happened 56 years ago in 1961. Only 1.77% of all bachelor’s degrees now are awarded in political science, the lowest level ever recorded. By contrast, economics has experienced continual growth with no ceiling in sight. How did this happen to political science, the “architectonic science,” to use Aristotle’s phrase? Why are students opting for data, numbers, and models rather than the human grip-and-grin and give-and-take of politics?

Although it does not directly address this question, Emily Hauptmann’s marvelous and illuminating book, Foundations and American Political Science: The Transformation of a Discipline, 1945–1970, provides reasons why this has transpired. Hauptmann is a Professor of Political Science at Western Michigan University and helped found the Association for Political Theory (APT), an organization that wants to retain political theory as a relevant field of study within the discipline (full disclosure, I’m a member of APT and you should join, too). For those who are political scientists, organizations like these are critical to maintaining space for non-quantitative scholarship—be it qualitative, theoretical, comparative, or philosophical—because the discipline of political science has been almost completely colonized by mathematical models, data analysis, and numeric reasoning.

Since the 1950s, political science has been preoccupied with establishing a scientific identity, drawing from logical positivism to establish empirical models and explain political behavior. This “behavioral revolution” was sparked by political scientists like David Easton and Robert Dahl, who sought to have the social sciences imitate the natural ones as the standard of knowledge and the mode by which to conduct inquiry. While there have been occasional backlashes against the predominance of behavioralism in political science, the discipline remains largely defined by this paradigm. A glance at the latest issue of the discipline’s flagship journal confirms this, with titles like “Measuring Misperceptions” and “The Spatiotemporal Autoregressive Distributed Lag Model for TSCS Data Analysis” being typical of the scholarship that is produced. While quantitative analysis is important for our understanding of political science, one wonders whether such dominance in the discipline crowds out more insightful ways to understand politics.

Outside Help

In The Descent of Political Theory, John G. Gunnell traces how political theory has become marginalized in the discipline of political science with the rise and prevalence of behavioralism. While Gunnell looked at the people and organizations within the discipline, Hauptmann shows how private philanthropic foundations like Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller played an instrumental role in changing the practice and values in political science. These foundations promoted behavioralism in political science and cultivated academic expertise in international relations—all believed to help the United States win the Cold War. If American social scientists could unlock the secrets of human motivation and behavior, then democracy could be installed around the world. As Hauptmann notes, “these programs still sounded a common theme: the United States could not accomplish its strategic and ideological aims in the Cold War without the help of the social sciences.”

The expansion of political science programs in the 1940s and 1950s was also in response to the sharp increase in the number of new students. During this time, new programs like political communication studies, public opinion survey research, and international and area studies were created. Foundations acted as an intermediary between the university and federal government, forging “lasting networks linking social scientists to multiple potential clients for academic expertise.” Foundations funded a range of projects, designing radar systems or learning about psychological warfare. Later these were picked up by the federal government, the new patrons of American higher education.

Hauptmann looks at the universities of Michigan and Berkeley to see how foundations transformed their political science programs and the discipline at large. At Michigan, foundation and government patrons provided funding for the establishment of the Institute for Social Research (ISR) and its spin-offs like the Survey Research Center (SRC) and the Inter-university Consortium for Political Research (ICPR). The external funding of these research centers dwarfed the political science department’s own sponsored research income.

It also did not help, as Hauptmann observes, that the department faculty’s “conceptions of worthwhile scholarly activity did not mesh with the emerging imperatives of the postwar research university.” This lack of funding in turn led to the marginalization of studies like political theory and public administration in Michigan’s political science department.

While there were linkages between the ICPR, ISR, and SRC and Michigan’s political science department, the department had access only to a portion of these funds and, with support to foundations and federal agencies, the faculty of ICPR et al. were in a strong position relative to their political science colleagues. As Hauptmann states,

Their research agenda, the extensive infrastructure they required, and the array of programs for training new cohorts of survey researchers were all sustained by income from external grants. This gave them several specific advantages in realizing their ideas for transforming political science at Michigan.

This transformation was placing political behavior and research methodology front and center as the department’s identity, a paradigm that eventually would spread across the country.

Political science has become boring to students. Professors see the fulfillment of their academic lives in scholarly publications that only a few people read rather than introducing students to the study of politics or explaining to communities why political science is a public good.

Whereas well-funded research organizations outside the department transformed the teaching and reproduction of political science at Michigan, Berkeley’s political science department became research oriented when the university system adopted the research paradigm for the entire institution. Thus, the transformation of the discipline at Berkeley was internal rather than external.

The grants from Ford’s Behavioral Science Program and Rockefeller’s Legal and Political Philosophy Program accelerated these changes in Berkeley’s political science department. The initial grants of the Ford Foundation were intended to develop the academic capacities in the behavioral sciences at Berkeley; however, the foundation later shifted its priorities to international and area studies. The Rockefeller grant supported political theory, specifically theoretical approaches to international relations and comparative politics. But, like Ford, the Rockefeller Foundation shifted its priorities with later funding for comparative politics and, to a lesser extent, political theory.

The favoring of behavioral sciences, international and area studies, and comparative politics eventually led to the exit of the public administration faculty to form their own Graduate School of Public Affairs. Political theorists tried to depart but were prevented. The student-led movements of the 1960s enabled political theory to remain a relevant area of study at Berkeley, even though many elements of political theory eventually ran into dead ends. Still, it is one reason why political theory continues to resonate at Berkeley with those political scientists who struggle “to define our stance toward educational institutions we find deeply wanting but also do not want to leave.”

A Blueprint for the Future?

The period of 1945–1970 that Hauptmann examines in her book was the golden age of external funding for political science programs—first from private philanthropic foundations and later from federal government agencies, like the NSF. These organizations had a profound influence on the practice and reproduction of political science in universities where behavioralism became the predominant paradigm for the discipline. When foundations tampered down their commitments to universities and the federal government cut the NSF’s budget in the early 1980s, it was an end of an era. Nevertheless, this approach to politics—the adoption of quantitative methodology undergirded by a fact-value distinction—is still perceived as the gold standard among political scientists today.

There is a problem here. This paradigm for political science was “born in boom times,” but this “midcentury foundation-initiated research ethics works poorly, even perversely, in times of austerity.” As Hauptmann rightly observes, the result is an overproduction of “hyper-specialists in research who are either unsuited for or uninterested in academic jobs not focused on research.” Newly minted Ph.D. political scientists know one particular area of scholarship in depth, but universities need professors who can teach a wide range of courses. Nevertheless, political science graduate programs continue to churn out students who believe that the most important value in the discipline is specialized research rather than teaching students or public service.

Political science consequently has become boring to students. Professors see the fulfillment of their academic lives in scholarly publications that only a few people read rather than introducing students to the study of politics or explaining to communities why political science is a public good. Because of their training, professors want to teach hyper-specialized and esoteric topics that almost nobody is interested in, other than their five academic friends. Topics that students get most excited about, like political theory and public administration, are marginalized because they cannot be quantified and therefore do not qualify for political analysis. Instead, students are required to enroll in more courses in Bayesian analysis. But, if you are going to do that, then you might as well study a field that is entirely mathematized, like economics, and work on Wall Street.

Despite this depressing state of affairs, I do think there is hope over the horizon for political science. Ironically it comes from private philanthropic foundations, like the Jack Miller Center and Heterodox Academy, which fund programs that are oriented towards teaching and public service rather than pure research. Like the post-World War II period, these foundations and organizations are asserting themselves again into academic disciplines like political science. Let’s just hope this time they shape the discipline into something that students and the public truly care about; otherwise, we’re just going to continue to bore ourselves to death.