I AM a political scientist by university training and by profession. And I’m certainly upset when someone accuses my discipline of not being scientific enough.
I’ve heard of colleagues winning places in these annual awards given by our national science bureaucracies and bodies who are asked to explain the legitimacy of their presence among die-hard scientists.
I AM a political scientist by university training and by profession. And I’m certainly upset when someone accuses my discipline of not being scientific enough. I’ve heard of colleagues winning places in these annual awards given by our national science bureaucracies and bodies who are asked to explain the legitimacy of their presence among die-hard scientists. Admittedly, it is a bitter reality check when we are challenged for our inability to predict a revolution when natural scientists are able to predict the onset of a typhoon and even its trajectory. We can only timidly defend ourselves by pointing out that even scientists on Earth cannot predict the actual occurrence of earthquakes.
We always go back to the usual defense that we have. We differentiate ourselves by citing that we are a social science, not a natural or physical science. As such, we study human behavior, and not that of animals, plants and inanimate objects. Thus, we cannot be reproached for having as objects of study people like us who have our own free will, and can lie, deceive, pretend and say nothing even though we have a lot to say. We even have this strange ability to behave differently by will if we know we are being observed or studied, which typhoons are not able to do.
What is more important is that as social scientists who study political phenomena, we do our best to systematize our investigations, following the basic framework used by the natural sciences. Simply put, science asks us to base our claims on the analysis of hard data, whether deductively to prove a provisional claim made, or what we call a hypothesis, or inductively to describe a particular phenomenon. or formulate a theory about it. But certainly what makes our work as political scientists more difficult is the fluidity and indeterminacy of human behavior as people grapple with the main political question of how power is exercised to establish, maintain. and transforming order in a society that is otherwise prone to conflict because it is made up of individuals and groups with diverse and competing interests.
But the main question remains and continues to haunt us. Are the methods and assumptions of the natural and physical sciences appropriate or even sufficient to endow us with the capacity to understand human behavior? In the first place, one of the main objectives of science is to know the dynamics of a phenomenon not only in order to understand it, but also to be able to control and predict its behavior. When we apply the scientific method to the study of revolutions, or corruption, while we can certainly increase our understanding of its causes and impacts, we cannot predict when it will happen at the precise moment. The best that can be done is to describe the context of its eventual emergence, including under what conditions it may occur.
This is where the scientific nature of political science is challenged. How can we privilege our knowledge as a science, over people who express an opinion on politics but only based on what they have googled on the internet. How can we claim a special mandate for our expertise when our discipline, which is oddly the only social science with the word “science” in its name, cannot predict with certainty in the same way that epidemiologists say something about the behavior of viruses, or economists on the onset of inflation, or psychologists on the behavior of people with a particular mental health problem.
It becomes especially vexing in these times when we now face a major political exercise with the 2022 national elections just four months away. Many of us in the discipline are called upon to sit on media panels or interviewed by print journalists. Collectively regarded as political analysts, we are asked to interpret the results of the investigation. Some even ask us for our own predictions, or challenge us to get into the inner minds of politicians. We are asked to venture into areas of knowledge that are not even on the standard curriculum of political science, or contained in our dominant epistemological assumptions.
We political scientists should start telling our investigators that our so-called science does not teach us to predict the precise occurrence of political outcomes, like elections. Most of us have very little or no exposure to political culture and political psychology, with these courses either appearing as mere electives in the core political science curriculum or not even appearing in the curriculum. all. Whatever attempts we make to predict election results, or probe the inner minds of politicians, are less scientific scholarship, but are at best the expert opinions of people called political scientists.
The challenge, therefore, for the political science profession is how to transcend the scientific boundaries of the discipline and increase our ability to build scenarios and probe minds. The areas that need to be developed and should be the focus of attention are political culture, political communication and political psychology. Skills that need to be honed in addition to traditional areas of expertise should include imaginative theorizing, or that which would extend the limits of political analysis beyond what the data says, to things that are obviously not being said. With politics becoming more and more simulated or executed, where the distinctions between the real and the image are blurred, the role of the political analyst would henceforth come closer to a forensic analysis of languages and actions.
The field of political analysis is now transgressed even by those who have no formal training in the discipline. We who practice it with our formally acquired credentials, must be wary of the fact that if we do not innovate and adapt, our discipline could be torn from the political discourse which will soon be dominated by those who are not shackled by the shackles. self-imposed of our discipline.