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Ian Shapiro, Department of Political Science, Yale University,
Rogers M. Smith, Department of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania,
Tarek E. Masoud, Department of Political Science, Yale University
Political science, particularly in the United States, is often said to be a fractured discipline – perpetually split among warring camps (or “separate tables” to use the late Gabriel Almond's evocative phrase (1988)). Partisans articulate their positions with passion and intensity, yet the nature of what divides them is hard to pin down. At times we hear of a stand-off between “qualitative” scholars, who make use of archival research, ethnography, textual criticism, and discourse analysis; and “quantitative” scholars, who deploy mathematics, game theory, and statistics. Scholars in the former tradition supposedly disdain the new, hyper-numerate, approaches to political science as opaque and overly abstract, while scholars of the latter stripe deride the “old” ways of studying politics as impressionistic and lacking in rigor. At other times the schism is portrayed as being about the proper aspirations of the discipline – between those who believe that a scientific explanation of political life is possible, that we can derive something akin to physical laws of human behavior, and those who believe that it is not. For partisans of the latter view, the stochastic nature of politics and the unpredictability of human action mean that the best we can do is explain specific events – with as much humility and attention to context as possible. At still other times the rivals are portrayed as “rational choice theorists,” whose work is animated by the assumption that individuals are rational maximizers of self-interest (often economic, sometimes not), and those who allow for a richer range of human motivations.
The study of politics seems endlessly beset by debates about method. At the core of these debates is a single unifying concern: should political scientists view themselves primarily as scientists, developing ever more sophisticated tools and studying only those phenomena to which such tools may fruitfully be applied? Or should they instead try to illuminate the large, complicated, untidy problems thrown up in the world, even if the chance to offer definitive explanations is low? Is there necessarily a tension between these two endeavours? Are some domains of political inquiry more amenable to the building up of reliable, scientific knowledge than others, and if so, how should we deploy our efforts? In this book, some of the world's most prominent students of politics offer original discussions of these pressing questions, eschewing narrow methodological diatribes to explore what political science is and how political scientists should aspire to do their work.