Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Did American political science miss the linguistic turn?

If you missed the Kevorkian Center's research workshop yesterday, you missed what I and a few of my colleagues considered the best one we've had since our time at the Kevo. The workshop featured Lisa Wedeen, a prominent political scientist at the University of Chicago and author of the highly esteemed work "Ambiguities of Domination."

During the workshop, Wedeen elaborated on the shortcomings of American political science in the modern Middle East, as well as on the problematic nature of the dominant methodologies in that discipline. She specifically targeted American political science's affinity for rational choice theory and its emphasis on quantitative analysis, drawing attention to the notion that these methodologies are embedded with normative claims that are rarely explicitly recognized as normative. This lack of self-reflexivity among political scientists betrays a wider lack of healthy skepticism in the discipline as a whole, including a reluctance to challenge the prevailing assumptions and normative claims that underlie these methodologies.

In her paper discussed at the workshop, Wedeen grapples with the "elective affinity" between liberalism and science, and how the coalescence of the two with the presumptive exigencies of US foreign policy have organized and reproduced our imaginings of politics in the Middle East. For instance, the prevailing liberal and scientific notions about the individual have given rise to "democracy experts" that have offered their services to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in post-war Iraq. Nevermind the fact that this notion of democracy and good governance is loaded with normative claims, and as such, is disembedded from the local context, history, and power relationships that govern the society in which it is implemented. It is not entirely surprising then that this ethos of procedural democracy appears to be stumbling in Iraq, as the political forces in that country currently try to navigate a deep constitutional crisis.

Another interesting point that was brought up concerns why the linguistic turn appears to have never really taken root in the discipline of political science. For example, why does the Rousseau-ian notion of culture as an explanatory device still seem to hold water in political science, despite the fact that this conceptualization of culture has been widely discredited in other disciplines?

One possible answer that was discussed deals with the political economy of status. Notable political scientists who may not be highly regarded in academia happen to wield formidable influence in the power corridors of Washington. The likes of Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis (though a historian), among others, have been very popular with certain government and think tank types despite the fact that their conceptualizations of culture places them in a discredited minority in academia. Nevertheless, this political economy of status tends to foster particular kinds of practices and intellectual thought which empower the individual political scientists that subscribe to them.

This political economy of status represents an impediment for a more intellectually honest discipline of American political science. It fosters a reluctance to recognize the problematic epistemological notions that underpin the discipline, and promotes the use of particular quantitative methodologies that masquerade as science.

How can this trend be reversed? Perhaps a greater emphasis on political ethnographies would be a step in the right direction. But as to whether or not it will have an impact on the political economy of status, one can only be pessimistic.

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