Stephen M. Walt

Are scholars becoming too scholastic?

Are scholars becoming too scholastic?

I’m back from my mini-break and digging out emails and correspondence, so I don’t have an extended commentary today.

One piece in my mailbox did catch my eye, however, from the June 2010 issue of Perspectives on Politics. For those of you who aren’t political scientists, PoP is a relatively new journal, founded eight years ago by the American Political Science Association. It was created in part in response to a bottom-up protest movement within the discipline known as the "Perestroika" movement ("Perestroika" was the pseudonym of the anonymous list-server who got it started).  Although primarily motivated by a desire to defend methodological pluralism, one of the movement’s related concerns was the "cult of irrelevance" within academic political science. In my judgment PoP has, been a partial corrective to that tendency, and it often features articles that engage big political issues from an academic perspective.

In any case, the current issue has a provocative article by Lawrence Mead on "Scholasticism in Political Science." Mead argues that academic writings about politics are increasingly "scholastic," which he defines as being increasingly specialized, preoccupied with methods, non-empirical, and primarily oriented to other academic literature instead of engaging real-world issues. In his words:

Today’s political scientists often address very narrow questions and they are often preoccupied with method and past literature … Scholars are focusing more on themselves, less on the real world. … Research questions are getting smaller and data-gathering is contracting.  Inquiry is becoming obscurantist and ingrown."

This sort of complaint is hardly new, of course. Hans Morgenthau offered a similar critique way back in the 1950s, when he warned of a political science "that is neither hated nor respected, but treated with indifference as an innocuous pastime, is likely to have retreated into a sphere that lies beyond the positive or negative interests of society. The retreat into the trivial, the formal, the methodological, the purely theoretical, the remotely historical — in short, the politically irrelevant — is the unmistakable sign of a ‘non-controversial’ political science which has neither friends nor enemies because it has no relevance for the great political issues in which society has a stake. History and methodology, in particular, become the protective armor which shields political science from contact with the political reality of the contemporary world. Political science, then, resembles what Tolsoi said modern history has become: ‘a deaf many answering questions which no one has asked him.’" (Dilemmas of Politics, 1958, p. 31).

Morgenthau’s Olympian denunciation was offered without a lot of supporting evidence, but Mead’s warning is accompanied by an analysis of every article published in 1968, 1978, 1988, 1998 and 2007 in the American Political Science Review.  You might get different results if you looked at different journals (i.e., the "scholasticism" of the APSR was one of the complaints of the original "Perestroikans"), but Mead’s complaints are consistent with a lot of my own impressions of how the field is evolving. As Mead shows, the issue isn’t method per se; it’s the tendency of many scholars to ask smaller, less significant, and less controversial questions and to produce what he describes as "analyses of jewel-like precision that … generate only minor findings and arouse little interest beyond specialists." This is accompanied by an aversion to topics that might make a scholar visible outside the academy — or god forbid, controversial — because that might screw up your shot at tenure or get your criticized in print.

This tendency is not universally true, of course, and I’d argue that the willingness of younger scholars to take up blogging as a form of public engagement is a prominent counter-tendency. Could it be that younger scholars are just as bored producing "scholasticist" works as many of us are reading them, and that they find blogging far more fulfilling than adding another (largely) unread article to the catalog of academic journals. And if that’s the case, what does it tell us about the priorities and values of contemporary academe?