The mainstream media trope about the social sciences that I would like to kill with fire

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

Then-U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul leaving the Russian Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow in May 2013.  No stark modelings or ziggy graphs were harmed in the taking of this photograph. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

David Remnick has a long-long, must-must read in the New Yorker on the arc of post-Cold War Russia, as told through the experiences of Stanford professor-turned-National Security Council director-turned-U.S. Ambassador to Russia-turned-Stanford professor Michael McFaul. [Full disclosure:  I know McFaul, as his first year as a Stanford professor was my last year as a Stanford graduate student. I consider him a friend.]

The essay is well worth reading to gain some understanding on the evolution of Vladimir Putin’s approach to the United States and the West more generally. It certainly makes me worry even more about Putin’s strategic genius. The Ukrainian military keeps encroaching on Donetsk suburbsthe Ukrainian state keeps bolstering its capabilities, and the separatists keep calling for Russia to explicitly intervene. I’m genuinely worried how Putin will react.

That said, Remnick displays a journalistic tic in his characterization of McFaul that frequently appears in profiles of academics-turned-policymakers, and it’s really annoying.  It’s in this throwaway paragraph:

McFaul was ostensibly in Moscow [in the early 1990s] to write a doctoral dissertation on Soviet-African relations. He was, in truth, bored with the quantitative trends in his field of political science — the stark modelings, ziggy graphs, and game theory that seemed so abstract when all around him was the nerve-racked excitement of revolt, the intrigue of political debate and awakening in meeting halls that stank of cheap cigarettes and wet wool. Moscow at that time was a pageant, irresistible to anyone with even a trace of democratic idealism and fellow feeling for the Russians. The sense of historical drama was unmistakable. “Like being in a movie,” McFaul recalled.

Now, the part of this that drives me batty is the contrast made between the “quantitative trends” in political science and the lived experience (also called verstehen) that one gains from being in the field and observing first-hand the place under study. This is a common trope, and it’s a romantic one — the belief that things like game theory or statistics or other sophisticated methodologies and theoretical constructs are just so useless in the field. There, experience and gut instincts win out. It suggests a classic divide between verstehen and more dispassionate analysis — hell, it’s even permeated the Bond films.

And it’s just so much hogwash.

It’s not that field experience doesn’t generate useful insights. And it’s not that every piece of social science theory and/or methodology is always useful. But the notion that theory, methods and fieldwork are substitutes for each other is pretty absurd. The best work in social science emanates from a triangulation of all of these sources of insight.

I should know. My own dissertation/first book on economic sanctions was inspired by my own year living in Donetsk — specifically, the difficulties involved in washing one’s self in cold water when Russia would periodically cut off the energy tap. In that case, my field experience pointed me to both a research question and the fact that a lot of sanctions cases that occurred might not show up in the standard literature on the topic. At which point I started employing the game theory and the ziggy graphs that Remnick casually dismisses in that paragraph. For me, the fieldwork acted as inspiration, and as a beacon to find useful data. For others, it might inspire a new theoretical argument, or a way to tweak an existing one. After developing the theory, more visits to the field often are required to gather data. It’s an iterative process.

The point is, on-the-ground-experience is valuable, but so is all that social science-y stuff that gets dismissed in Remnick’s paragraph. Pure area studies can sometimes provide useful information that a more theoretical or statistical approach might miss. That said, there are problems with becoming too immersed in a region. Later on in the story, Remnick notes McFaul’s role in Russia’s 1996 election, and the book it produced:

McFaul’s book on the subject, “Russia’s 1996 Presidential Election: The End of Polarized Politics,” is not only dull; it is a whitewash, far too cursory about the shabby nature of the election. When I conveyed that to McFaul, he did not dispute the point, instead saying that the book was “an illustration of the tension between being an advocate and an analyst at the same time.” McFaul said that his academic friends thought the best outcome would have been a fair election; his friends in Russian political circles thought a Zyuganov victory would be a catastrophe, morally worse than a rigged ballot. “I was tormented about that,” he said.

By all means, read the whole thing and learn about the evolution of McFaul’s attitudes toward Russia, and vice versa.  Just don’t leave the article thinking that the only way to understand a country is to reject social scientific methods. That’s not how life works, no matter how often this trope appears.

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Emily Kaye Lazzaro · August 4, 2014

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