With my aspirations for world domination now crushed, it appears that I have no choice but to return, hat in hand, to the world of political science. For professional political scientists, it is through quality research that one can make a difference in the marketplace of ideas.
Unfortunately, the latest issue of Perspectives on Politics tells me otherwise (full disclosure: I’m on the editorial board). There is article upon article about the relevance of current political science to the wider world of policymaking and the public sphere.
The one that will inevitably encourage the greatest debate is Michael Desch’s essay “Technique Trumps Relevance: The Professionalization of Political Science and the Marginalization of Security Studies.” Here’s the abstract:
I explain here the disconnect between our discipline’s self-image as balancing rigor with relevance with the reality of how we actually conduct our scholarship most of the time. To do so, I account for variation in social scientists’ willingness to engage in policy-relevant scholarship over time. My theory is that social science, at least as it has been practiced in the United States since the early twentieth century, has tried to balance two impulses: To be a rigorous science and a relevant social enterprise. The problem is that there are sometimes tensions between these two objectives. First, historically the most useful policy-relevant social science work in the area of national security affairs has been interdisciplinary in nature, and this cuts against the increasingly rigid disciplinary siloes in the modern academy. Second, as sociologist Thomas Gieryn puts it, there is “in science, an unyielding tension between basic and applied research, and between the empirical and theoretical aspects of inquiry.” During wartime, the tensions between these two impulses have been generally muted, especially among those disciplines of direct relevance to the war effort; in peacetime, they reemerge and there are a variety of powerful institutional incentives within academe to resolve them in favor of a narrow definition of rigor that excludes relevance. My objective is to document how these trends in political science are marginalizing the sub-field of security studies, which has historically sought both scholarly rigor and real-world relevance.
You should read the whole thing if you’re a political scientist or someone who wants to see more political science used in policy discussions. I’m not entirely persuaded by Desch’s claim that political science’s emphasis on method has led to marginalization, for reasons I’ve outlined before. Still, it’s a debate worth having.
That said, there’s another argument in there that made me do a double-take. Desch basically argues that the rise of peer-reviewed journals has meant the decline of policy relevance:
One mechanism for the privileging of technique over relevance is the process of academic peer review, which fosters “homogenization of opinion.” Through that process, moreover, even a small group of scholars committed to a narrow definition of rigor can have a disproportionate influence on the development of the discipline. The initiation of peer review in the [American Political Science Review] in the early 1960s had this result. Sigelman confirms that this process “makes it more likely that a given paper will be selected for publication because it passes muster among a narrow range of specialists rather than because it is considered to be of potentially great interest and importance to a broad range of readers. The end product may be a wide array of narrower articles—greater diversity at the price of even greater fragmentation.”
While the professionalization of a discipline and its increasing irrelevance to concrete policy issues is neither historically nor logically inevitable, there nonetheless seems to be an elective affinity between these two trends…. In other words, there are good reasons for believing that the effort to make political science more “scientific” would tend to make it less policy relevant.
This is the latest in an incipient trend of realist scholars bemoaning the peer review process as blackballing their Really Big Arguments about the way the world works. And every time I see it, I find it more and more baffling. In essence, Desch appears to be arguing that if an article is tackling a Really Big Question, the criteria for it being, you know, factually valid should be lower.
Which is a lousy way to run an academic discipline. I’ve already said my piece about the merits of peer review and the pressures for social science “impact,” so rather than belabor those points, let’s propose a counterfactual. Let’s say that political science decided to create a Journal of Super-Important Security Debates in which relevance held a greater priority over technique and papers that were of “great interest and importance to a broad range of readers” were prioritized for publication.
What would such a journal look like? I’d wager that it would look an awful lot like International Security (IS), the leading subfield journal for security studies that Desch says is so marginalized. IS is peer-reviewed, but a glance at its table of contents suggests that it prioritizes big, provocative, question-raising articles, like this one or this one.
So here’s my question: If security studies already has a journal that meets Desch’s preferences, but Desch also claims that security studies is marginalized from policy debates, then maybe this isn’t the problem that Desch thinks it is.
Because it’s not merely International Security. There are a welter of other peer-reviewed journals (Security Studies), non-peer reviewed journals (Foreign Affairs), online journals (DefenseOne) and blogs (The Monkey Cage). We now live in a Golden Age of outlets where security scholars can write about Big Questions and get them out there in the public sphere. So I’m not sure that altering, the American Political Science Review into the American Big Questions About Security Review would really be a game-changer.