engaged political science

Today we begin the American Political Science Association’s Institute of Civically Engaged Research (ICER) at Tisch College. The participants are about 20 political scientists–PhD candidates and current professors–who are interested in engaged scholarship. I am leading the ICER along with Amy Cabrera Rasmussen (Cal State-Long Beach) and Valeria Sinclair-Chapman (Purdue) and a roster of visitors.

In one of our sessions today, we will discuss four readings that offer varied perspectives on what engagement might mean for political scientists:

  •  Flyvbjerg, Bent. “Social science that matters.” Foresight Europe 2 (2005): 38-42.

Flyvbjerg, a Danish planning professor, stimulated considerable debate in American political science with pronouncements like this: “No predictive theories have been arrived at in social science, despite centuries of trying. This is a wasteful dead end.” Flyvbjerg advocates “phronetic” social science, in which the scholar prompts and joins public discussion of four questions: “(1) Where are we going? (2) Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power? (3) Is this development desirable? (4) What, if anything, should we do about it?” The words “desirable” and “should” indicate a concern with normative questions; Flyvbjerg calls his questions “value-rational.” But the key issue is “praxis”: what should “we” (a group to which the social scientists belongs) do?

Hacker is a distinguished Yale professor and policy entrepreneur. He developed and advocated the “public option” as a complement to the Affordable Care Act. In that case, he engaged the national public in a discussion of what to do and formed a kind of partnership with laypeople who included the President of the United States. Hacker stands at one end of a power/status continuum, the other end of which might be a Youth Participatory Action (YPAR) project in which a social scientist and a few adolescents study their own neighborhood. Hacker concludes that by “speaking the truth to the power [that he] studied,” he learned about the political process (e.g., the nuances of interest groups’ agendas) and so became a “better political scientist.”

Marta Struminska-Kutra describes her struggles to conduct an ethical research project in an unnamed but specific city, with its own power dynamics and hierarchies. In this theoretically demanding paper, she explores the compensating advantages and limits of three approaches. A “critical perspective” uncovers and challenges power but can be paternalistic and impotent if the community doesn’t share the “liberal, egalitarian, environmental, and collective” values of the researcher. The “constructivist perspective” fully honors local values and goals but risks paralysis and satisfaction with the status quo. And the “pragmatist perspective”–aimed at addressing concrete problems–risks benefitting only the people who have defined the problems in the first place. She suggests a practice of deliberately shifting among the three.

  • Tickner, J. Ann. “On the Frontlines or Sidelines of Knowledge and Power? Feminist Practices of Responsible Scholarship.” International Studies Review, vol. 8, no. 3, 2006, pp. 383–395. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3880253.

This is a presidential address for the International Studies Association in which Tickner questions the role of IR scholars–men like Henry Kissinger–who stand beside policymakers (also usually men) in the capitals of empires. She juxtaposes an ideal of the “intellectual as an exile in his or her own society, … who raises embarrassing questions, is unsettled, unsettles others, and stands on the side of the weak and unrepresented.” She finds support for that stance in feminism. But she concludes with a call for pluralism, wanting to make space for scholars who stand on the frontlines (even “implementing legislation”) as well as those who stand on the sidelines, closer to “those who have not been the subject of history.”

See also Bent Flyvbjerg and social science as phronesis; what gives some research methods legitimacy?; principles for researcher-practitioner collaboration; and Participatory Action Research as Civic Studies.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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