MICHAEL McKINLEY. Whither Political Science?: Not dead but on life support – a response to Roger Scott.

In a recent post Roger Scott asks an appropriate question but it’s anachronistic – like asking why doesn’t Elvis do live concert anymore? Political Science was always a bastard, left-handed, red-haired child of the turn to scientism by the social sciences in the late 19th Century and it never recovered, thanks to the domination of successive generations of third-rate positivists deriving chimerical insights from mathematics ill-suited to a decent understanding of their subject matter.  

Roger Scott begins his inquiry following the recent 25th World Congress of Political Science organised by the International Political Studies Association (IPSA) and the Australian Political Studies Association and attracting 1200+ papers.  It’s a reasonable sample, and IPSA certainly provides an extraordinary range of themes –  but nothing like, for example, the International Studies Association annual convention which now draws some 5,500 papers presented over four days. I mention this because, as a contributor to them for over thirty years, and freely acknowledging that there are close relationships between International Relations and Political Science, it informs as well as complements the following response

Scott, rightly in my view, is concerned that Political Science is disconnected from the wider community (both in Australia and elsewhere), that the public (taxpayers, students and employers) may not be getting value for the money they have invested in Political Science, and that Political Scientists are “becoming too self-centred for their own good, chasing their preferred research and teaching interests without seeking to shape these interests to have an impact on the wider society.” 

He is also sensitive to the deleterious consequences of the “measurement regime” of academic performance, the emergence of the “entrepreneurial academic,” positivist methodology and increasing use of quantitative methods as criteria for knowledge-validation and a mark of scientificity,” and corporatisation.

On reading his post I had two immediate reactions; the first was a question: “Roger, where have you been all these years?” The second, and related to this question, was that  the post itself is just a collection of notes to a long-overdue Coroner’s Report, and even then an incomplete account, an avoidance of a death already evident.  It avoids asking and then defining the deeper, pathological conditions which contributed to the death, and specifically, their political character.

To address what is avoided I believe it is incumbent on me to disclose my own view of that the University should be, and what it has become.  The general state of Political Science is a microcosm of this transformation.

II begin with a popular belief in modern democratic societies – namely. that modern, Western universities are unique as sites of teaching, inquiry, research, and writing which, above all, are marked by their independence from the various forces which influence so much of the life outside of the academy.  The academy, in these terms, approximates to an ideal which, though it never existed, continues to be honoured.

Never the less, to the extent that the University-as-Institution approached it, universities in general “reduced the entropy of time and fought against it;” fought against it, furthermore, as a stable institution, able, because of its historical consciousness, “to preserve at least a pocket of memory, “ and maintain, as Regis Debray recalls it, “a tribal reservation for the ethics of truth.”  Relatedly, the University, was a dominant site of secular critique practised by people “capable of living what [they] taught until it killed [them].

Over the period marked by World War II and the Cold War, however, “research universities” emerged which came to not only derive their status from the extent to which they were consultants to government or industry, but also radically undermined the residual commitments to, and practices of the traditional / idealised academy.

In plain terms, the result was that independent inquiry in the “relevant” areas of such universities, became almost hopelessly compromised.  The University was, it seems, oblivious to the need for of an ethical code modelled upon, the principle misleadingly attributed to the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath, primum non nocere (first, do no harm) – in other words to develop a way of thinking and acting which placed the welfare of students and society above other concerns.

In this abandonment, Political Science ever more enthusiastically embraced a scientism seemingly akin to alchemy: abusive simplifications and an synoptic abstractions lit the way to status and promotion in the eyes of those who were only too willing to be gulled by formula and statistical manipulation.

What was lost was any understanding that politics, as well as being an attempt to rationally organise life, is also replete with crude or elemental emotions but most reduce to three: Love, God, and Death. In other words, it is a visceral practice and any study and understanding of it needs always and particularly to recall the words of Henry Brooks Adams, who wrote in The Education of Henry Adams: “Politics, as a practise, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.” 

And in these times especially, we also need to recover the wisdom found in Marx’s insight: “The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

The absence of such sensitivities in Political Science as a whole explains the absence of parrhēsia – radical truth-telling of the type Diogenes the Cynic reportedly directed at Alexander the Great, in which truth-tellers open themselves to extreme risk.  Indeed, well over 90 per cent of political scientists today would be hard put to know the meaning of the term, let alone how to practise it.

What is missing from Roger Scott’s inquiry is any awareness that too much is missing.  Seemingly, there is no awareness that power within the University aligns with power outside it.  If political scientists are becoming “too self-centred” it is because they have dutifully internalised the neoliberal ethic which the University has so enthusiastically embraced and for which they have been rewarded (or intimidated).

Contemporary Political Science, then, is maintained on life support because it is an ideal charade. It sleepwalks through history, focusing on appearances and foreclosing possibilities as though its dominant categories have the same status as phenomena in the natural sciences – such as gravity – and devoid of deep reflection which might yield new possibilities and intentionally concealed power.

It’s a domesticated discourse, not only unthreatening to the undemocratic vectors of the liberal and neoliberal state, but legitimating them.  The “examined life” practised by Socrates and Giordano Bruno is alien to it.

From 1982 to 1988, Michael McKinley taught diplomacy international relations and strategy in the department of Politics, at UWA. From 1988 to 2014 he taught diplomacy, international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the ANU.

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5 Responses to MICHAEL McKINLEY. Whither Political Science?: Not dead but on life support – a response to Roger Scott.

  1. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    Pol Sci seems to have served MMcK well-enough, nevertheless. A lifetime in comfortable academia and raspberries at the emeritus end. We should all be so lucky.
    I was lucky, in the 1970s, to be taught a course – in “Politics” – (at Sydney it would have been “Government” – in which some excellent academic minds were also very good teachers. I single-out one only because I have kept-in-touch with him who, in his 80s, lives in the UK undergoing that democratic triumph of policy and practice: Brexit.
    Graeme Duncan (Melbourne High & – University) taught one course among others, called: Contemporary Social Theory: in which students were invited to learn about those Victorian ideas which had got us to where we were/are: Marx – Cobden-Ruskin-Tonnies-Mill-reading amongst others: Tawney, Hammond, the mid-century historians of all ‘colour’ (i.e. not Colour) Gramsci, Ted Wheelright, Old Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and All…At the same time we were encouraged to stand as representatives for any office in the university open to us and be elected by anyone who’d vote for us in sufficient numbers; that way we learnt practical ‘governance’. What ‘political science’ should do, and I felt very lucky to have had a scintilla of it , is what a university itself should do: show us how to learn TO Think – not What to think. Today we are told ad nauseam What to Think. There is a Place for PolSci – if we can find anyone capable of understanding it, absent an assurance of a material and substantial emolument for doing so. The satisfaction of love of learning and getting of knowledge needs promotion – not discouragement. I believe in fewer MBAs and more BAs. That way we might regain some trust in capacity to face a difficult future with the competent face of persons who have learnt To Think.

  2. Rubbish to the extent that there are valid branches of pol sci growing in relevance – Matthew A Crenson and the late Arthur Lee Burns.

    I’m a practitioner of realpolitik and Turnbull is enriching my life with his unholy alliance with the Baird and Berejiklian axis of crypto-privatisation – subsidising the Chinese Government’s Metro is an inspiring twist.

    No mention in these pages

    • Michael McKinley says:

      “Valid branches of pol sci growing in relevance” – which?
      I know some of Matthew Crenson’s work – his co-authored work with Benjamin Ginsburg for example – but, as that work defines itself, it’s outside what mainstream political science obsesses with; it’s a history of certain political developments.
      Now . . . on Arthur Lee Burns: you are surely not suggesting he was a political scientist. I came to know, like and highly respect Arthur after reading much of his work in the early 1970s and first meeting him in 1977 and through to his passing – thus through times that were both good and bad. It was an honour and a privilege. His best work demonstrated that he was an extraordinary scholar – but I would venture this: he would never, ever claim to be a political scientist.

  3. Jocelyn Pixley says:

    This article is very good. Furthermore, the universities I know in Sydney have the typical top-heavy, head-hunted managers who, furthermore, claim they are The University. This is itself a false claim: none go back to the teaching/research pool; so they don’t care what they inflict on academics; or on students who they court as “customers”. The RC into financial services has done such a good job requiring the truth from top bank managers that we should apply this to dissembling senior managers self-styled now as V-Cs AND CEOs: the “university” comprises academics, students, librarians. A RC would drag out something from those V-Cs who send out “explode” emails such as “In the interests of teaching and learning, we are reducing the weeks of teaching sessions”; or we are “increasing the casual staff” etc, as the managers’ pay explodes.

    • Michael McKinley says:

      Synchronicity Jocelyn! And thank you.
      For many years I have claimed that the Australian university system would not survive a Royal Commission with a wide-ranging plenipotentiary warrant which would include the power to recommend prosecution of the managers along the lines that Socrates was tried for: corrupting the minds of the young (although on this occasion, it would be deserved).

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