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Revolution from within
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There’s a battle being waged in political science to determine the discipline’s future. As usual, Chicago has a front-row seat.

The box lunches were an edible reminder that much has changed in the world since 1955 when newlyweds—and newly minted Harvard political-science Ph.D.s—Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph drove their Land Rover across Europe and Central Asia and into India. Then just a babe among democratic nation-states in what was rapidly becoming a post-colonial world, India and its political development would become the subject of the Rudolphs’ fieldwork for the next 45 years.

They had hit upon a hot topic—which in academia means that research funding flowed quickly and easily. The following year the Rudolphs were among the second round of the Ford Foundation’s Foreign Area Training Program, designed to stockpile “area experts” as empires splintered; later came grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Institute of Indian Studies. For every three years the Rudolphs spent in classrooms, first at Harvard and then at Chicago, they spent one traveling in South Asia, immersing themselves in the region’s language, culture, and politics. Books (often cowritten) about India’s and Pakistan’s distinct versions of modernization, about South Asian cultural policy, education, and political economy filled the Rudolphs’ c. vitae; many remain landmarks in the South Asian–studies field. They raised three children who “speak Hindi and cook Indian,” as Lloyd Rudolph once told the Christian Science Monitor, and they helped to birth a social-sciences field called “area studies.”

So when, at a conference held in the Rudolphs’ honor this April, a South Asian–studies scholar with an interest in Latin America pointed out that the grilled-chicken sandwiches were dressed with “mango-chipotle chutney,” it was more than just a comment on his affinity with the event’s caterers.

The conference, Area Studies Redux: Situating Knowledge in a Globalizing World, was convened to address big questions in area studies. Isn’t it passé, for instance, to specialize in an “area”—living there, learning its language and customs—while vast numbers of the world’s populations migrate and meld? What, for that matter, counts as an “area” amid globalization: a sovereign nation-state or region comprising several nations, or a strip of curry and kebab houses springing up in a white working-class London suburb? Wouldn’t researchers’ time be better spent, as we all become one big mass of Dasani-drinking, Googling, mango-chipotle-dressed global citizens, searching for universal themes that transcend “areas”? And, perhaps most difficult of all: if area specialists do persist, where will the funding for their cost-heavy research and fieldwork come from now that grant-making agencies have transferred their allegiances and grants to the hot research topics of the past decade: globalization and transnational studies?

As the attendees finished their lunches Susanne Rudolph, the William Benton distinguished service professor emerita of political science, delivered the last panel’s final comments. Current area-studies scholars, Rudolph noted, are witnessing an “epistemological moment,” one in which “area studies are seen as parochial and narrow. We’re urged to become more theoretical, comparative, global.” A petite woman whose faded blue eyes retain the characteristic spark that lights up old photographs of her at work in India, notebook in hand, Rudolph pronounced herself, in social-science speak, an optimist. “I continue to have this hopeful idea of agency,” she told the audience. “We can be agents in our discipline.”

It wasn’t the first time during the three-day meeting—which attracted 130 attendees, including 55 of the Rudolphs’ 210 former doctoral students—that the death knells tolling for area studies were hushed by calls for area specialists to master their own destinies. Earlier that morning, for example, University of Michigan political economist Ashutosh Varshney had remarked that, even as globalization relaxes the cultural distinctiveness that had long been the bread and butter of area specialists, such scholars can find opportunity within this “crisis”—mainly by folding their specialized research into a larger, global context. Stanley Katz, a Princeton professor of public and international affairs (and former Chicago legal-history professor), who keynoted the conference, urged area specialists to go on the offensive, to make the case that “knowing about localities and regions is extremely important in the current jingoistic, anti-multilateral, American-exceptionalism environment.” Several scholars, including one visitor from India, pointed out that American area specialists have failed to recognize that their field itself has globalized or to find allies among area specialists in other countries. And one attendee, Michael McIntyre, AM’87, PhD’92, a DePaul University political scientist, twice insisted that his colleagues should be more creative in their search for resources. “We’re worried about how we can sustain ourselves without the institutions [like the Ford Foundation] that created and sustained us,” he said. “There are other sources—like the World Social Forum. We just have to cultivate them.”

All good suggestions, as long as area-studies specialists, Rudolph said, stick with their “interpretive” mandate. Her reminder initiated a subtle shift in the conversation, away from whether area studies matter or how to make them matter or where to find funding and toward why area studies matter: the methods used by practitioners and their humility in employing them. “In describing,” she said, “we know we are committing an act of creation. No data can be selected in a neutral way. Our goal is the elucidation of meaning.” The most an area specialist—or any social scientist—can be, she insisted, is a lens on a time and a place and a society or political system.

To the layperson in the audience, Rudolph’s advice underscored that much was at stake during this conference and in its participants’ careers. When she finished speaking, a man in a gray V-neck sweater rose. “I’d like to return to this idea of agency in the disciplines,” said John Echeverri-Gent, AM’76, PhD’87, a comparative South Asian specialist at the University of Virginia. “One of the most interesting developments in our field is the development of methodological awareness. We need to be sensitive to our choices. We must develop a healthy respect for the different methods, to learn them, if only to be able to criticize them. Area studies has some real strengths. We’re messing in the nitty gritty. We help build theoretical concepts—by testing them in particular areas and seeing how they play out.”

It was as if Mr. Perestroika had crept into the room.

Nobody knows for sure who “Mr. Perestroika” is, but one Chicago political scientist (who also prefers to remain nameless) surmises that the anonymous critic of political science—who sparked a discipline-wide movement with a single e-mail—has a sheepskin with a phoenix on it.

Maybe, maybe not.

Yet it is striking how many Chicagoans, both alumni and faculty, have rallied behind “P.,” as s/he now signs correspondence. In October 2000 Mr. Perestroika issued an e-mail manifesto damning the American Political Science Association (APSA) and its flagship journal, the American Political Science Review (APSR), for excluding solid qualitative research in favor of abstruse mathematical modeling by “poor game theorists” and “failed economists.” The resulting storm of sympathetic electronic communications soon turned into a Yahoo! group, perestroika_glasnost_warmhome (“Weclome,” its well-intentioned if typo-plagued home page states, “to Perestroika’s Home: Plural, Diverse and all Inclusive. Please sit down and lets discuss political problems over a cup of Chai!! We have Java Coffee too!”). By April of this year the group had 709 members—about 5 percent of APSA’s membership of 13,500—and anecdotally, at least, a good number of political scientists who see virtue in the cause without actually signing on themselves.

Items on perestroikans’ agenda range all over the map. They call for more balance in the APSR. One arm of the movement has rallied around the fact that, unlike other social-science associations, APSA’s executive slate is not democratically elected; officers are selected by a nominating committee appointed by the past two presidents. There’s also been much fretful discussion within the movement about political science’s growing irrelevance in the outside world—even in wartime.

But perhaps the single most important point on perestroikans’ agenda is, like Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform policies from which the movement takes its name, to upset the status quo. In this case the status quo is a discipline increasingly dominated by scholars who emphasize the “science” part of their field’s name and rely on formal models such as rational-choice theory and “large-N” statistical analyses (which use large sample sizes) to identify universal or quantifiable explanations for political behavior. These quantitative types, say perestroikans, exert hegemonic tendencies, ignoring or dismissing research that they don’t consider “scientific”—for example, interpretive research by area specialists like the Rudolphs, based on fieldwork in a specific country or among a specific people, or theoretical work such as that done by Chicago international-relations realist John Mearsheimer, which relies on a few carefully chosen case studies and historical context to prove a point.

Perestroikans, Mearsheimer points out, have had an unfortunate tendency to lump all quantitative researchers together under the term “rat choicers,” which not only fails to recognize the differences between formal models and statistical methods but also doesn’t do much to endear the group to its adversaries. Formal models are to “large-N” studies as theoretical physics is to experimental physics: on the one hand are the scholars who spend their days at dry-erase boards devising equations that rely on theoretical strings and extra dimensions; on the other are the experimentalists who smash tiny particles together a million times in search of hard evidence of patterns that will contribute to a unified theory of the universe.

Since the mid-1980s rational-choice theory has been the dominant formal model used in political science. Borrowed from economics, the theory assumes that all humans, regardless of race, ethnicity, and political or historical circumstances, act rationally to further their own ends. Another often-used formal model is game theory (analyzing a situation according to gains and losses for the opposing players). While some perestroikans may use formal models in their work—including Mearsheimer, whose 2001 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics is based on a rational-choice model—what they don’t use is math. And that, says Mearsheimer, is what distinguishes perestroikans from the hegemons. What the movement is about—as Susanne Rudolph reminded her audience at the Area Studies Redux conference—is methods and whether both storytelling and number crunching can peacefully coexist in the discipline. Perestroikans believe they can: “pluralism” has become their mantra.

In a February 2002 essay posted to perestroika_glasnost_warmhome, Greg Kasza, an Indiana University political scientist currently visiting at Harvard and a staunch perestroikan, lamented the passing of the days when “substantive political ideas identified most schools: we were elite theorists, pluralists, modernization theorists, dependency theorists, neo-statists, etc. Now,” he wrote, “methods identify the major schools: we are game theorists, quantifiers, or qualitative researchers.... Fewer political scientists today dream of forging a new theory of class conflict than of concocting a new form of regression analysis or a new puzzle like the prisoners’ dilemma.”

The shift from ideas to methods is, as Mr. Perestroika charged, reflected in the discipline’s most prestigious journal’s marked tendency to favor rational choice and statistical research. In their study “Methodological Bias in the APSR” David Pion-Berlin, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside, an outspoken perestroikan, and his student Dan Cleary assessed APSR content from 1991 to 2000, finding that 74 percent of its articles were based on empirical statistical analysis or formal modeling. Only 25 percent involved political theory, and just 1 percent were qualitative case studies of particular governments or institutions. In a “publish or perish” world where jobs and research funding are doled out according to APSR appearances on c. vitae, qualitative researchers, as Mearsheimer puts it, “are considered dinosaurs.”

Many of those dinosaurs rallied at the August 2001 APSA meeting in San Francisco, the movement’s formal launch, wearing blank red buttons and packing conference rooms for panels titled “Perestroika: Undisciplined, Unpunished,” “Shaking Things Up? Future Directions in Political Science,” and “Political Science Methodology & Perestroika.” Eight of the 22 panelists in these sessions either teach or have taught at Chicago or hold U of C degrees. Several names turn up repeatedly in perestroikan circles: the Rudolphs; Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison distinguished service professor in political science; and Kristen Renwick Monroe, AM’70, PhD’74, a political economy and empirical political-theory professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Chicagoans’ support for the perestroika movement isn’t surprising. After all, Chicago, along with Yale, is considered one of the discipline’s few remaining bastions of pluralism. “This institution has maintained a boutique-like quality,” says a Chicago assistant professor who prefers to remain off the record. “This is one of the few places where you can get an education that includes both game theory and semiotics—and that makes both relevant to politics. Folks here value innovation and risk taking.” Indeed, at the 2001 APSA meeting, professor emeritus Lloyd Rudolph called for a discipline modeled on the motto “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” (The phrase comes from Mao Tse Tung’s “Let a hundred flowers bloom” campaign during China’s Cultural Revolution. “Hopefully,” Rudolph said, “the APSA will be spared the deluge that followed but benefit from the spirit of change and openness” that perestroika and flower metaphors invoke.) Among the flowers that have bloomed in Chicago political science are rational-choice pioneers and some of its leading proponents, including Stanford’s David Laitin and New York University’s Adam Przeworski, both former Chicago faculty.

So far perestroika has racked up several victories. Under editor Lee Sigelman of George Washington University, in the past year the APSR has moved to create more balance among the quantitative and qualitative research published in its pages. This March the APSA introduced Perspectives on Politics, a general journal whose mission statement is to publish “rigorous, broad-based research and integrative thought...[and to] enable members of different subfields to speak with one another.” And in February 2002 Susanne Rudolph was selected by the APSA nominating committee as the association’s president-elect; she assumes the one-year position this July from Harvard’s Theda Skocpol, also sympathetic to the perestroikan cause.

Rudolph and others quickly point out that Sigelman had proposed reforming APSR a full month before P.’s call to open its pages, and that plans for Perspectives were also already in the works when the e-mail was sent. The journal “knew it was in trouble and was on the path to rectify itself,” Rudolph says. “Perestroika became an enormous constituency to push against a half-open door.” Under Sigelman, she says, the journal is indeed more pluralist and inclusive. “APSR looks very different today than it did a year ago.” Although Sigelman himself warns, “We can never be sure of what might have happened under other circumstances,” a few articles that he suspects “wouldn’t have been published under prior editors, perhaps because they wouldn’t have been submitted in the first place,” include: Columbia political scientist Robert C. Lieberman’s “Ideas, Institutions, and Political Order: Explaining Political Change” (December 2002), Harvard political economist Tim Buthe’s “Taking Temporality Seriously: Modeling History and the Use of Narratives as Evidence” (September 2002), and UVA political scientist Lawrie Balfour’s “Unreconstructed Democracy: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Case for Reparations” (February 2003).

Perhaps perestroika’s greatest victory, though, is its very existence and persistence. “It was an achievement in itself to start the conversation,” says Rudolph. “Perestroika is an extremely active body of people who before had no platform for epistemological discussions. Even if the conversations taking place in perestroika don’t go anywhere, things get aired. Conflict and agreement both make community.” Notes a Chicago assistant professor, “Everyone claims to support the idea of intellectual pluralism. Perestroika is an attempt to have people make good on that commitment.”

The movement’s greatest enemy, most agree, is its amorphousness. At the 2001 APSA meeting Mearsheimer donned his strategy-expert hat and offered a five-point plan for moving forward. He called first and foremost on his colleagues to focus “directly and exclusively” on methodology and promote the common belief “that first-rate scholarship in the social sciences does not require mathematics.” A second priority was to seek to influence faculty hiring at Ph.D.-producing universities: “The future of the discipline will largely be determined by who is hired and promoted in the major social-science departments.” Third was to fight for more funding from government entities like the National Science Foundation. Fourth, he admonished perestroikans to “have a sound understanding of formal modeling and statistical reasoning,” both to impart methodological sophistication to students and to counter the “hexing power of mathematics” with knowledge of its limitations. Last, he reminded his colleagues to celebrate difference. The goal, he said, is not to replace one brand of parochialism with another; it is to embrace diversity and oppose hegemony.

Ask Mearsheimer today about perestroika’s progress, and he’s not even cautiously optimistic. “The only real measure of how successful perestroika has been is, Are the elite departments willing to hire qualitative people? Has pressure from perestroika made elite departments more likely to hire people who don’t use math? My sense is that it’s had little effect. But,” he backtracks, “it’s early.” Probably the movement’s greatest fault, he says, is its tendency to focus too much energy on APSA and not enough on departments. “Success in the association and its journal is of limited importance. There’s no question that APSA matters to the future of political science, and what APSR publishes has an indirect way of affecting what happens inside departments. But if members of a department believe a qualitative article—even if it’s published in APSR—doesn’t count, then it doesn’t count. One shouldn’t,” he warns, “underestimate the narrowness of many political scientists in terms of their intellectual tastes and tolerance for different approaches.”

Whether or not qualitative researchers can get jobs is a theme that Mearsheimer sounds repeatedly, and it’s one that surfaces often on perestroika_glasnost_warmhome, where graduate students tell of reluctantly incorporating statistical methodologies into their work in hopes of bettering their odds on the job market. That wasn’t something Sujatha Fernandes, AM’00, PhD’03, who in April defended an interpretive dissertation on the interaction between art and politics in contemporary Cuba, was willing to do. But that’s also why, although she applied to major political-science departments, she didn’t expect or get a call-back. “I never expected to—regardless of the quality of my work—have a chance against rational-choice candidates,” says Fernandes, who this fall begins a three-year Cotsen-Wilson fellowship at Princeton as part of the interdisciplinary Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts. Because she and her partner were job hunting at the same time, she also restricted her search to major cities, leaving out small liberal-arts colleges, where she figures an interpretivist is most likely to find a home.

Therein lies the problem, says Mearsheimer. That qualitative political scientists increasingly take refuge in small colleges is proof of the discipline’s “economics envy,” he says. “The major university departments are important because that’s where the Ph.D.s are produced who will populate the field over time. If 20 years from now those departments are filled only with statisticians and mathematicians, the war is lost.” Perestroikans should pay close attention to the path that economics, now the most scientific of the social sciences, has taken. “Economics was once a discipline that promised a home for qualitative research,” he says. “Now it’s been driven out.” (Members of the decade-old International Confederation of Associations for Pluralism in Economics concur. That group counts among its members “institutionalists, evolutionary economists, post-Keynesians, economic rhetoricians, systems theorists, feminists, economic historians, ecological economists, historians of thought, and political economists”—all united by their concern that the monolithic dominance of the neoclassical approach to economics is strangling their discipline.)

The worst thing that could happen, agrees Chicago political-science professor and department chair John Brehm, is that departments fracture into “purely quantitative, philosophical, or qualitative” enclaves. Both Brehm, who does large-N studies in political psychology and American politics and is not a perestroikan but believes the movement is good for the discipline, and Mearsheimer cite the University of Notre Dame’s economics department, which will split into two departments this fall, one orthodox (quantitative) graduate program and one, with no graduate program, for those who focus on economic thought, social justice, and public policy (heterodox, qualitative stuff). “We steal from every discipline on the planet—economics, history, sociology, math, philosophy,” Brehm says, “and it’s fortunate for the discipline that all these coexist and that the work is all valued on the same criterion: what it tells us about politics.” If the two sides of perestroika can’t see eye-to-eye, says Brehm, it’s not inconceivable that political-science departments could follow the lead of Notre Dame economics, with two different sets of standards for tenure review and merit pay raises.

From outside political science it’s difficult to conceive any solid arguments against cultivating the existence of multiple methodologies. Yet Stanford’s David Laitin, who spent 11 years on Chicago’s political-science faculty, has come out explicitly against perestroika and the “hundred flowers blooming” view. In a March 2003 Politics & Society essay, Laitin (whose most recent work on a theory of political identities uses a rational choice “tipping model” and large-N statistical analysis to determine whether Russian-speaking persons in former Soviet states will learn their nations’ dominant languages) rebukes perestroikans for having “abandoned the project of a scientific discipline.” He writes, “It would be convenient to write off this quasi-coordinated attack on the scientific turn in the study of society, calling its proponents Luddites. Indeed, their abhorrence of all things mathematical—and their typical but useless conflation of statistical and formal reasoning—reveals a fear of the modern.” But even though the movement lacks “any manifesto offering an alternative view of the discipline,” he believes it “would be prudent to respond, to defend what may well be a Sisyphean project in seeking a science of social life.” (This defense answers perestroikans’ charge that mathematical political-science research lends itself only to trivial findings.)

Laitin chooses as his “intellectual target” Making Social Science Matter (Cambridge), a 2001 book by Danish social scientist Bent Flyvbjerg—not a perestroikan, but who, Laitin says, captures many of perestroika’s core themes. Flyvbjerg, for example, argues that social sciences’ strength lies not in scientific sophistication but in its rich, reflexive analysis of values and power, which he sees as essential to a society’s social and economic development. He calls this reflexive approach “phronesis,” which Laitin equates with the narrative social scientists discover through fieldwork. Yet narrative, Laitin argues, cannot stand alone—it relies too heavily on one person’s interpretation and tends to disregard otherwise counterintuitive facts that can be found only by systematically studying a large number of cases on similar variables. In place of a hundred flowers, Laitin believes political science should cultivate a single hybrid methodology, a three-part approach that begins with fieldwork and narrative, then tests with statistics and formal reasoning.

Laitin also calls for aggressively weeding the garden of research that lacks scientific validity. “[I]f theoretical logic or scientific evidence finds a theory or procedure to be fallacious,” he writes, “that procedure’s flower bed should no longer be cultivated within the discipline in which it was originally seeded.” In particular Laitin attacks qualitative case studies. Because they select “on the dependent variable,” he says, they “will ultimately lead to faulty inferences about causation.” And he refutes Mearsheimer’s call for diverse departments: “It would be a warping of the scientific frame if we built into the charter of any department of political science that there had to be an expert in ‘realism,’ or in ‘South Asia,’ or in ‘democracy,’ or in ‘qualitative methods.’” In an e-mail conversation Laitin says the bottom line is that he believes in scientific progress. “I’ve worked assiduously at learning new methods when they better help political scientists answer important questions.”

Laitin’s belief that not all methodologies are created equal certainly seems reasonable. Within perestroika a similar red flag has been raised by UC–Irvine’s Kristen Renwick Monroe, a political theorist who once crunched numbers with the best of them, studying econometrics under Nobelists George Stigler and Robert Fogel. Her current work focuses on altruism: why, for example, some people risked rescuing Jews during the Holocaust, a project for which she ditched formal survey methodology for copious informal interviews. “One thing perestroika hasn’t fully addressed is that some techniques are better than others,” she says. “Simply advocating for methodological pluralism is not enough. We need some agreed-upon standards.” Monroe offers a medical metaphor: “We would expect a cancer specialist to tell us which of our treatment options are more likely to lead to recovery. Going down to Mexico and eating lots of apricots is probably not as valid an option as drug therapy.” There’s no reason, she says, that political scientists can’t expect the same rigorous evaluation of methods.

The dilemma, of course, is that political scientists who don’t use hard science may find their work dismissed by rational-choice scholars and statistical modelers before it even reaches the standards test. That’s why Monroe and other perestroikans would like to redraw the lines of debate. “This whole dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative work is misleading,” she says. Susanne Rudolph calls for a discipline that’s problem- rather than method-driven. “I try to imagine a science and an association that is safe for intellectual border crossers,” she said at the 2001 APSA meeting. “People who work on the border are apt to acquire a conceptual creole.” Border-crossers are also open to discovering which method best fits the problem at hand, adds Monroe, rather than deeming at the outset certain methodologies to be superior for their scientific validity.

A problem-driven approach requires not merely open-mindedness, Monroe emphasizes, but also humility. “If our best ideas of yesterday can be shown to be wrong, given better data or improved techniques of analysis,” she says, “then so can our ideas of today. Modesty and science make good bedfellows.” The problem with Laitin’s single, hybrid methodology, she continues, is that it’s “still too imperialistic. It presumes that it will answer all questions raised by a problem and that other methods won’t, when that’s something we can’t really know.” At work on editing Perestroika, Methodological Pluralism, Governance, and Diversity in Contemporary Political Science, due from Yale in 2005, she remains optimistic about what perestroika will bring for the discipline. “The issue of science and what we mean by science is on the table in a way that it wasn’t five years ago,” Monroe says. “There are more conversations in departments. Certainly there’s more entrenchment, but there’s also heightened awareness.”

And heightened awareness, the hope goes, will translate into better scholarship over the long run—which, says Mearsheimer, has implications far beyond cluttered professorial offices and cliquish journal review boards. “The work that political scientists do should have an impact on how people outside the discipline think about the world,” he says. “We study important political problems. It’s hard to predict who or which approach will give the best understanding of a problem—important political insights come from all kinds of people and all kinds of approaches. The best thing to do is to create is an environment where scholars can use all kinds of approaches, even conflicting ones, and let them go at it.”

Ever the realist, he’s quick to add that whether that will happen remains to be seen.

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