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The science behind political science

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The science behind political science

As a major, political science is a staple at any university. Introductory classes teach you about political institutions and international relations. 

But where does the science come in?

“If you have to put ‘science’ in the name of your discipline, that probably tells you something about its possible status as a science,” Mark Alan Smith, professor of political science, said. “Maybe there’s a little bit of a discomfort or a protective device kicking in there.”

Nevertheless, political scientists, along with researchers of other social science disciplines, do take methods of the “hard sciences” and apply them to humans as best as they can in order to learn things about the ways in which people and groups behave and form institutions. But it’s not easy.

“Human beings are really complicated,” Smith said. “They’re hard to study scientifically.”

Many issues of interest in political science cannot be studied in controlled experimental environments, both because it is impractical and unethical to do so.

By contrast, in the natural sciences, controlled experiments are often performed in a lab setting where researchers are able to control most variables affecting the outcome. Researchers can assign different conditions to different groups and observe whether or not the outcome is affected by changes in the conditions they have applied.

But the categories of analysis that political scientists often use, such as socioeconomic status, race, gender, education level, political orientation, and geographic location, cannot be assigned or controlled for in an experimental setting.

“You can’t randomly assign somebody gender the way you can give them a placebo pill or a real medicine,” Jake Grumbach, assistant professor of political science, said.

As a result, political science research tends to study events as they occur in the real world, collecting data and analyzing it to understand which conditions might predict certain institutional outcomes in political systems and patterns in human political behavior.

Among political scientists, there are quantitative scholars who use measurements and numerical data to come to conclusions, and qualitative scholars who learn primarily from history, interviews, and observation. 

“Now the mainstream is very quantitative, whereas a generation ago it was very qualitative,” Grumbach said.

The increase in quantitative research (probably fueled by more sophisticated computers which can perform more complicated statistical analyses) has arguably given more legitimacy to political science as a science. However, there is some concern that a solely quantitative analysis of human behavior reduces the complexity to simple numbers, so it’s important that quantitative and qualitative scholars work together and across disciplines to gather the full picture.

Studying people and politics usually starts the same way as studying any other subject: with a question. Like any other scientists, political science researchers ask questions, form hypotheses, come up with tests for their hypotheses, determine what evidence would support or refute them, and collect data and measurements to perform analyses.

“Political science can be scientific in that respect,” Smith said. “It cannot be scientific if … you mean complete predictive power or [coming up with] ‘laws’ of politics that explain everything and … always hold.”

Humans are complex, diverse, and always changing based on their surroundings. This makes it almost impossible to reach widely accepted scientific conclusions about people and politics in the same way that natural sciences may generate widely-accepted theories such as those of gravity or climate change.

“We can be pretty confident about our answers, but there are so many moving parts there,” Grumbach said. “Some questions will probably get closer to the truth, but then something in society will happen [to disprove them].”

Grumbach gave the example of how until very recently, it was widely held in political science that the United States was a stable democracy which would not lean toward an authoritarian system. Then Trump was elected and some fundamental theories of American politics were challenged.

But just because it is not viable to create “laws of politics” that apply to people in any place at any point in history doesn’t mean there is nothing to be learned from individual cases or specific contexts. Many studies in political science strive to understand under what conditions a given pattern may arise.

In fact, when studying specific areas at specific points in time, Smith pointed out, researchers often do find patterns and commonalities with other time periods or locations. This may lead to a greater understanding of the conditions under which people behave in certain ways politically across time and space.

Smith gave the example of right-wing populism gaining popularity in many different countries around the world including Brazil, India, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, and the United States. Political scientists can analyze the growth of right wing populism in these countries individually and look for similarities, possibly leading to a better understanding of the phenomenon as a whole.

Another layer which makes political science more difficult for people to understand as a science is the fact that political questions are often value-laden. Unlike natural sciences, in which a researcher’s personal values most likely aren’t attached to a certain result, political science researchers’ values may be. But this doesn’t mean that all political science research cannot be objective.

“A lot of things we study, they are value-laden, for sure,” Smith said. “And to me, that doesn’t mean you throw up your hands and say, ‘well it’s all just opinion.’ That’s why you have research methods where you try to discipline your thinking and ground your claims in evidence that can be subject to public scrutiny.”

It is important for scientists of all disciplines to be open about their methods and data so that any experiment or analysis could be replicated by another scientist and yield the same result. 

Many of the complexities of political science arise from the complexity of human beings. By embracing this complexity, political scientists are able to come up with possible answers for some of the world’s most perplexing questions.

Political scientists’ theories often aren’t precise or all-encompassing — that’s not possible when studying human behavior — but they can still teach us a lot about how societies and governments work.

Reach reporter Emily Young at science@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @emilymyoung7

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