Welcome Back: Studying politics: It’s about real people, not abstract research

Each fall, college freshmen arrive on campus eager to begin the next chapter of their lives. During this time, choosing an undergraduate academic discipline will be one of the most important decisions they make.

For those interested in law, government or politics, political science seems like an obvious choice. But be warned — political science today is actually living up to its name. Political science is, well, the “science” of politics.

So, what’s wrong with that?

The answer to this question is clear. If the study of politics and government is treated like a hard and detached science, disappointment follows. 

Quantitative data in social theory is important but cannot be the foremost emphasis in political study. In today’s highly technological world, academics are turning to black and white claims supposedly supported by black and white research. 

Each professor has his or her own approach and not every scholar subscribes to this methodology. But a large number does, and this way of thinking is passed down to students from such professors, whether the students like it or not.

For instance, in an introductory level comparative politics class, students yearning to better understand differing political systems, institutions and cultures will instead become more familiar with empirical and theoretical abstractions, such as regression tables originating from academic journals and the popular social science concept of game theory. These concepts may keep academics curious and entertained but they are not the most effective methods of political study. 

Quantitatively speaking, numbers are good for polling and viewing demographic landscapes. They are not as reliable for larger, more encompassing and complicated matters like the causes behind political and social actions and responses.

Politics is not only local, as Thomas Phillip ‘Tip’ O’Neill, Jr.  — a previous Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives —  would say, but also personal. Voters, politicians and bureaucrats are not thinking about the “prisoner’s dilemma” or a professor’s most recent quantitative analysis of a narrow problem in an unrelatable area. They are thinking about their position, their upbringing, their surroundings, their wishes — all of which are often hidden behind larger and older problems. For instance, unrest in the Middle East exceeds the simple presence of petroleum or Islamic fundamentalism. It traces back to the succession of Muhammad, opposing tribes, years of wars with Christians, the Ottomans, Western imperialism, the 1919 Paris Peace Treaty, etc. It’s incredibly complex. 

Theorists and academics can try to construct the perfect political system built upon the foundation of quantitative research, but turmoil all over the world — like that in Iraq, Ukraine and Nigeria — will continue, unceasing in its disregard for the semantics of political theory. The political actions of peoples and governments are driven by the forces of the past and the modern sociological realities resulting from them. A failure to prioritize historical and cultural understanding over academic statistical empiricism and theory will result in very real policy failures. This is evident by the government’s failure in Iraq — a government system devised in the proportional, scientific manner,that is studied in such introductory courses. 

Classes based on quantitative data very rarely study actual historical, cultural, sociological and political comparisons. Practical knowledge — the real life functioning of opposing political systems or historical comparisons of national leaders — is basically missing. Most students walk away with the ability to read through an obscure, redundant and abstract academic report about state centralization — without having any real knowledge of the content within such reports and analysis because it wasn’t explored in class thoroughly, if at all. 

In regard to teaching the next generation of political thinkers and political leaders, the current over-reliance on pure statistics and data is only doing them — and society — a great disservice. Students are ingesting too much theory and too little reality.

Studying government should be focused on studying people — real people — not just artificial research participants. Government, no matter how big or small, no matter how free or unfree, is nothing more than the actions of those who comprise it and the responses of those who live under it.

Professors should realize this and convey it to their students. Introductory political science courses should focus on teaching students this essential information first, providing them with the basis of politics before ever jumping into the theory.

James Madison and the framers of the world’s greatest national constitution were not focused on the latest narrowly contrived statistical data set. Rather, they studied the past — its people, its philosophies, its cultural developments, its triumphs, its failures and its impact on the present. They thought deeply about ideas on paper but also, more importantly, about how such ideas would play out in reality.

The world, which includes its peoples and governments, is an extraordinarily complex place. Attempts to quantify that which is not truly and wholly quantifiable is folly. Overreaching abstract ideas and narrow quantitative tests will not supply tomorrow’s leaders with the adequate understanding and wisdom needed to lead the world of tomorrow. Students who wish to gain knowledge of real life should then consider themselves students of history and government, not students of the pretentiously named “political science.” This study should incorporate not only brief introductions to historical realities within the government class, but actually require students to take in-depth history classes in order to gain a more thorough, clear and deep understanding of context. 

Scholars cannot reflect on past events through a modern lens. Politics and history are inseparable and a failure to grasp this — thus relying solely on quantitative analysis — is an ignorant approach to government scholarship.

Write to Matt at [email protected]

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