Friday, October 9, 2009

Ending Political Science?

A missive has gone out across the land and globe from the Director of the American Political Science Association urgently alerting members of the Association that Senator Coburn (R-OK) has proposed an amendment that would eliminate National Science Foundation funding of political science research projects. The letter reads:

Dear Colleague,

APSA has just learned that Sen. Coburn (R-OK) has proposed an amendment to eliminate
NSF's political science program. It is an amendment to the Senate Commerce, Justice,
Science appropriations bill, which is currently on the Senate floor today.

Calls today to your Senator's office are important. The message should be:
vote against Coburn's amendment to eliminate the political science program at
the National Science Foundation (NSF). It is amendment No. 2631 to the Senate's
consideration of HR 2847.

There is more information on Senator Coburn's position here,
that may help you craft a response.

The letter tells its membership what our position on this amendment should be, urging us to call for its rejection. As an Association, we are supposed to have a unified position on the issue of government funding of social science research. But why should this be the case? Why is the default position to be that we, as an association and profession, require funds from the Federal government in the "production of knowledge"? This form of governmental support contains a political philosophy, one based upon Progressive era assumptions (and before that, Baconian philosophy) about the need for a social science to do for human institutions and arrangements what the natural sciences have done in the natural world - one that I've sought in various places to elucidate - that would itself be worthy of investigation, reflection, and thereby, conscious evaluation. In the same manner that the natural sciences were to extend human mastery over the natural world, the social sciences were to extend our capacity to more perfectly order and control the human and political realms. Yet, at the very time when increasing numbers of people are realizing that the fruits of this effort toward mastery in the natural world are eliciting in tremendous damage to the planet, there has been no corresponding reflection upon the question of whether social science might not have analogically destructive effects upon the human world, undermining its social and political "habitat."

The "science of politics" as originally conceived by the ancients was originally devoted to the examination of regimes - the range of possible alternatives by which human beings can and perhaps should organize themselves. It was originally the probing exploration of human possibility and the honest and often unsettling examination of the relative virtues and vices of all regimes (so potentially offensive that Socrates was put to death for his discomfiting questions by the "open" regime of Athens). What becomes of this prospect when the official position of a "discipline" is to seek out, and be extensively reliant upon, government funding? Do we, as a result, become implicitly subject to the deepest presuppositions of liberal democracy as a result, increasingly incapable of an honest examination of its virtues and vices? Do we become, in effect, its agents, employees, even wards? One does not see these sorts of questions in any sustained way a subject of disciplinary examination. Is it any coincidence that much, if not nearly all, of the profession now regards with near unanimity that the sole legitimate form of government to be liberal democracy? Are we involved in the creation of a political monoculture as damaging as the agricultural and economic monocultures of other modern sciences? Can we be so certain that our increasing reliance upon government funding (particularly in these straitened economic times) is not an avenue to purchasing a legitimizing function of the academy, largely unperceived?

This little action by Senator Coburn nearly succeeds in removing the scientist mask from our profession, revealing the deepest philosophical presuppositions of political, and further, social sciences, and shows that the one thing it is incapable of examining - and for which we can expect no NSF funding - are its own deepest presuppositions.

In the meantime, I will indeed be contacting my Senators. But I will think for myself, thank you very much A.P.S.A.


Jonathan said...

Does the enterprise of political science (however modernist such a phrase sounds as it trips off my keyboard) necessarily depend on Progressive or Baconian assumptions?

Why is the study of statesmanship (and the generation of hypotheses helpful to that art) not a proper subject for federal funding?

Juan said...

I don't think it is a question of federal funding being explicitly unmerited. The point is that this funding is at least debatable. Given that, among the concerns of political science, is the legitimate role of government in society, the presumption of unanimity on this issue is at least ironic and what is being questioned. Of what worth is a "knowledge enterprise" that does not have the capacity for self-criticism? ...for criticism of its basic presuppositions?

Anonymous said...

Coburn wishes to shoot the messenger:

"And the politics of Coburn’s amendment are not precisely difficult to discern (among his stated objections are that this money has gone to fund research concluding that the US is increasingly willing to torture suspected terrorists, and carefully unspecified work – doubtless some form of shameless subsidized leftwing punditry – by Paul Krugman)..."

While various media organizations can give opinions, proper research can lead to knowledge.