we should be debating the big social and political paradigms

[The following post is inspired by Rogers Smith’s recent APSA presidential address, and I believe is consistent with it, but I incorporate some additional elements.]

Consider a sample of articles about politics, or society more generally. One might be an interpretation of some remarks by Thomas Jefferson. Another reports an experiment in which people are more likely to vote when contacted one way rather than another. A third is a critique of a prevalent word (say, “security”) from the perspective of Michel Foucault. A fourth shows that rational agents in a certain situation are better off when rules are externally imposed on them.

Each of these articles presumes, and contributes to, a larger paradigm that combines values, causal theories, and methods. Perhaps the interpreter of Jefferson believes that the United States is still founded on its written Constitution and that the intentions of the founders matter today. The experimentalist presumes that voting in a regime like the modern USA is a consequential act, and it would be good to increase voting by several percentage points if possible. The critic of “security” sees a world of pervasive injustice sustained by ideology, in the sense of distorting views that preserve the status quo. The rational-choice modeler thinks that all (or many) institutions can be analyzed as the interactions of utility-maximizing individuals.

(For the sake of space, I have omitted a classical Marxist, a deep feminist, a post-colonial theorist, a Prospect Theorist, a radical environmentalist, and many others who deserve places on the list.)

In these articles, you will not see much about their larger paradigms, worldviews or schemata. Their paradigms may not even be mentioned. Instead, you will see evidence in support of the specific claims of each article (whether in the form of statistics, quotations, or equations).

Of course, journals offer limited space, and there may not be room to present a whole paradigm. In addition, citing your scheme may only hurt you in the review process. Reviewers who happen to oppose your overall paradigm may be alienated, when they would have been persuaded by your detailed findings if presented alone.

For instance, imagine that you discover that texting people increases their turnout more than emailing them. That is more persuasive as a bare finding than as part of an argument for the significance and value of voting in a mass democracy within a capitalist market economy.

A certain form of positivism (or verificationism, or empiricism) is still widely influential. It holds that facts can be verified directly. Larger mental constructs are fashioned by us and are only valid to the extent that they match all the facts. If big, general ideas influence our beliefs, they are sources of bias. Therefore, we may need to disclose our paradigms as caveats, but we don’t want to focus on them.

Some people would hate to be described as positivists but end up in a similar place for a different reason. They presume that they have a right to their fundamental views as a matter of identity. “As a migrant from the global south, I explore the colonization of indigenous spaces …” This is not a disclosure of bias, nor a defense of a thesis; it is a claim to be recognized as a member of the scholarly community. To disagree is to deny the author’s place in the community.

I believe that the really important task is to select our worldviews, our big normative/conceptual schemes. It matters which of the available choices we adopt, and maybe we can create better ones. Therefore–as I think Rogers Smith argued–it is a real weakness in any intellectual community if the paradigms are implicit or merely stated, rather than explained, justified, and put into competition.

Within political science, many contrasting worldviews are available. You can walk down the hall of the APSA Annual Meeting past rooms in which everyone accepts the basic normative principles of contemporary electoral democracy, and other rooms in which people are quoting Slavoj Žižek about ideology.

It is hard to compare such worldviews or paradigms, because they have different normative, epistemic, and sometimes metaphysical premises. A finding within one paradigm does not disprove a different paradigm. A certain kind of relativism interferes with comparative assessment.

However, we can consider a whole body of specific findings along with their shared overall claims. We can ask whether this whole literature is coherent, whether it generates persuasive specific findings by its own lights, whether it informs practice in any useful way, whether it makes sense of other literatures, how it handles criticisms and rival views, whether it is responsive to new evidence and events, and whether its normative implications are defensible when fully articulated. Each paradigm has points of relative strength and weaknesses.

It would be helpful if people had that discussion in print, instead of always only writing within paradigms (at least for journal articles.)

See also trying to keep myself honest, how philosophy is supposed to work

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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