Positivism Research Paper

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I. Introduction

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II. Positivism and the Aspiration for Scientific Legitimacy

III. Positivism, Behavioralism, and the Struggle for Theory

IV. After Behavioralism

V. Conclusion

I. Introduction

At the beginning of her 2003 presidential address to the American Political Science Association (APSA), Theda Skocpol (2004) looked back over the previous century to the New Orleans meeting in late 1903 when the association was founded. Skocpol reminded her audience that APSA was born from a conscious decision by “scholars and men of affairs” to develop an association, separate from the already-existing American Economics Association and the American Historical Association, to foster the following:

the establishment of some representative body that can take the scientific lead in all matters of political interest, encouraging research, aiding if possible in the collection and publication of valuable material and . . . in general advancing the scientific study of politics in the United States. (p. 1)

The aim of those present at that 1903 meeting in New Orleans was to disentangle the study of politics from history and moral philosophy and thereby to be able to demonstrate the importance of a properly scientific study of political phenomena. The political world was deemed every bit as suitable for scientific study as those realms of the natural world laid claim to by physicists and biologists. Indeed, although seemingly obvious, it is no less important to observe that of all the social sciences, it was only the discipline of political science that would choose to include the word science in its name. To paraphrase Stanley Fish (1993), the discipline of political science has long wished to have a scientific existence.

The impulse for the scientific study of politics was not new of course; one might recall, for example, that “the idea that politics is, or can be, the subject of science is an ancient one that reaches back to Aristotle” (Farr, 2003b, p. 307). And the call for a new political science possessed of the capacity to meet the challenges of understanding a new world can be found in The Federalist as well as in Tocqueville’s study of Democracy in America. What was new was the effort to professionalize the study of politics— an effort greatly aided by the growth of the American university in the early part of the 20th century.

Frank J. Goodnow (1905) delivered the first presidential address to that New Orleans audience in 1903. The text of that address offers evidence of Goodnow’s resistance to the felt temptation to provide a definition of the term political science; rather, he was interested only to identify the proper object of its study—the state. According to Goodnow,

It may perhaps be safely said that there was not, until the formation of the American Political Science Association, any association in this country which endeavored to assemble on a common ground those persons whose main interests were connected with the scientific study of the organization and functions of the state. (p. 36)

With the scope of inquiry narrowly identified, the proper conception of science was pulled into view as well; such a conception had, for Goodnow,

to do with the State at rest and with the State in action. . . . The State, as an object of scientific study, will be considered from the point of view of the various operations necessary to the realization of the State will. (p. 37)

By contemporary standards, Goodnow’s characterization seems excessively cramped, attuned primarily to legalistic and historical questions. Yet the simultaneous concern with both the scientific legitimacy of knowledge claims (here, about the state) and the desire to produce knowledge relevant to political actors still has strong resonance today.

However, not too long after Goodnow’s address, some in the association would seek to reorient its focus away from a narrow emphasis on the state and concomitant questions of sovereignty, turning instead to the study of actual political processes and, more important, to the analysis of the political behavior of individual actors. Such a shift was apparent already by the sixth annual meeting of the association. In his presidential address to this gathering, A. Lawrence Lowell (1910)—recently appointed as president of Harvard University as well—suggested a new approach to the study and teaching of political science. In his address, titled “The Physiology of Politics,” Lowell displayed somewhat less of the disciplinary confidence present in Goodnow’s 1903 address. Rather, Lowell’s presentation seemed to operate on two separate, yet related, levels: (1) an expression of disciplinary envy for advances made in the natural sciences and (2) something of a call to arms for political science to bring itself alongside the natural sciences and the more advanced social sciences (such as economics), so that political science might join in the scientific progress being made in those other disciplines. According to Lowell, too many of his professional colleagues had their gazes fixed on the clouds when, instead, they needed to anchor themselves firmly to the hard ground of fact. Their discussions were, in Lowell’s estimation, too “theoretical, treating mainly of what ought to happen, rather than what actually occurs” (p. 3). Most important, for Lowell, the emphasis on abstract normative questions, at the expense of an empirically grounded understanding of actually existing political processes, rendered the discipline’s knowledge claims vulnerable to the charge of irrelevance. Striving for disciplinary relevance in that area seemingly most in need of the sort of knowledge political science could promise—political reform efforts— Lowell observed,

All reform movements need for criticism a devil’s advocate, who is not, however, believed to be in league with the devil; or rather they need advice from people who are really familiar with the actual working of many political institutions. In short, they need men with a scientific knowledge of the physiology of politics. (p. 3)

For Lowell, the substance of such a physiology was not to be found in books and institutions alone; rather, the realities of political life largely were to be found in the political behavior of ordinary people—behavior that could be observed scientifically with all the attendant gestures to objectivity and neutrality that a truly scientific inquiry required. Political science for Lowell was, then, the study of political behavior in all its many forms and locations.

Problems of understanding and explaining social and political phenomena certainly have manifested themselves in different forms over the years, but there are important continuities as well. Thus, a century after Goodnow’s speech at Tulane University, Theda Skocpol (2004) would observe,

Despite the many changes over the decades, there have been important continuities so many that Goodnow and his colleagues would surely recognize us today as inheritors of the association and disciplinary vision they launched. Now, as then, organized political science encompasses normative theory as well as empirical research. . . . Now, as then, we aim to link responsible citizenship in the larger society to scholarly studies of government and politics. (p. 1)

Skocpol concluded her point by quoting approvingly from yet another APSA presidential address, delivered at midcentury: “As we . . . develop political science as a discipline we both serve our professional needs and perform the vital function of helping our democracy to know itself better” (Herring, 1953, as cited in Skocpol, 2004, p. 1). The Goodnow and Skocpol presidential addresses serve as bookends to a century of APSA activity that subsumed a range of scholarly production, much of it informed (explicitly or implicitly) by the tension brought about from the desire for the enhanced legitimacy of knowledge claims made about political phenomena, and a corresponding concern that such knowledge be relevant to the real world of politics and its actors. The aspiration then, as now, was for a scientific source of knowledge about the nature, functions, and effects of political phenomena, as well the aspiration that such knowledge would have purchase in the world, that it be relevant. At times, the relationship between scientific legitimacy and relevance has manifested itself as more than a productive tension, erupting into deeply contested engagements over the very meaning of political science itself. Throughout, however, these engagements have been informed by, or played out against a backdrop provided by, positivism and the critical responses to it.

II. Positivism and the Aspiration for Scientific Legitimacy

What is positivism and why has it mattered to political science? How has it informed the dynamic between the legitimacy of knowledge claims about political phenomena and the relevance of those knowledge claims to politics? As one student of the discipline has recently observed,

American political science has long aspired to emulate both the objective research methods of the natural sciences and their practical successes in controlling their objects of study. The profession’s mainstream aspires to establish a cumulative, stable body of objective knowledge about politics at the same time that many political scientists wish to use such scientific knowledge to shape politics, for example by advising policy makers or contributing to public debates. (Oren, 2006, p. 73)

The effort to model social and political inquiry on the natural sciences is at the heart of the positivist impulse.

Pinning down just what one is talking about when discussing positivism—generally, or in the context of the discipline of political science—is, however, a much more complicated task then at first it might seem. Beyond the fact that there are several different traditions and streams of positivist thought, it is also unclear whether (or in what form) positivism continues to exist. For some, it is still the case that the appellation of the term positivist is, as James Johnson (2006) said, a “badge of honor, worn . . . to identify those whose research is seen—if not actually, then at least potentially—as embodying the virtues of rigor, clarity, and solidity” (p. 225). For others, the label is one to be avoided. For example, according to Anthony Giddens (1977), positivism “has today become more a term of abuse than a technical term of philosophy” (p. 29). Undoubtedly, at least in recent years, the term has been deployed as “a sufficient reason to dismiss entire brands of research and those who conduct them as abstract, sterile, and politically dogmatic in disciplinary and extradisciplinary terms” (Johnson, 2006, p. 225). Nonetheless, the concept seems to retain a central, if somewhat ambiguous, role within the social sciences generally and political science more particularly. It is perpetually disavowed yet often unconsciously embraced as a default orientation to ground scientific research in the social sciences. Positivism has been declared an anachronism at various points throughout the 20th century, only to reemerge with an uncanny persistence (see, e.g., Steinmetz, 2005a). From the perspective of the philosophy of social science, Richard Miller (1987) observed that “few people, these days, call themselves ‘positivists.’ In fact [according to Miller], I have never met a self-proclaimed positivist. Yet in a broad sense of the term, positivism remains the dominant philosophy of science” (p. 3). A somewhat more troubled image has been offered by George Steinmetz (2005a), who characterizes positivism as a “specter” that continues to haunt the social sciences—a spectral presence that endures “despite repeated attempts by social theorists and researchers to drive a stake through the heart of the vampire” (p. 3).

Further complications emerge when one confronts the fact that there are multiple positivisms. That is, it is fair to say that positivism has at least four meanings. First, one can associate the term with Auguste Comte’s theory of social evolution, an approach to the comprehensive understanding of the social world, an understanding greatly expanded and conceptually developed in the social theory of Émile Durkheim. Or the term can be associated with the philosophical tradition of thought from the early part of the 20th century known as logical positivism. Further still, the term is identified with a tradition in Anglo-American jurisprudential thought known as legal positivism, a philosophy of law that finds its most sophisticated expression in the work of the late H. L. A. Hart (see, e.g., Hart, 1997). Finally, the term might be taken to refer to a set of research practices associated with (social) scientific inquiry—what has been characterized elsewhere as methodological positivism (see, generally, Steinmetz, 2005b). Although there are conceptual linkages and historical relationships that can be drawn among these four iterations of positivism, this research paper’s principal concern is with this last meaning of the term: an understanding of positivismthat “refers to a concept of knowledge, a concept of social reality, and a concept of science” (Riley, 2007, p. 115).

Such complicating factors aside, it is still possible to bring into focus some central features of the continuing positivist orientation in American political science. The positivist temper still dominant among many political scientists may be characterized as one that conceives of political inquiry as a form of scientific inquiry “that differs in degree and not in kind from the well-established natural sciences,” and these same political scientists are “convinced that the greatest success is to be found in emulating, modifying, and adapting techniques that have proven successful in our scientific understanding of nature” (Bernstein, 1976, p. xv). Certainly, there are differences within the discipline as to the “essential features” of a positivist political science (Meilleur, 2005), but Timothy Kaufman-Osborn (1991) has nonetheless provided a helpful definition that subsumes a range of approaches under the larger banner of positivism: Positivism is a theory of science that does the three following things:

(1) advances a nomological conception of knowledge, one that identifies the end of inquiry with the construction of causal explanations relating the occurrence of specific events through reference to universal laws that predict an invariant relationship between antecedent conditions and their necessary consequences; (2) claims that a presupposition of such knowledge is the generation of a neutral language whose con tent stands in some isomorphic relationship to the antecedently existent objects it describes; and (3) affirms the ideal of value free knowledge. (p. 229)

Beyond definitions, positivism has a history that is important to note. The intellectual origins of positivism traditionally are traced to the work of Auguste Comte (1798–1857). According to Raymond Williams (1985), Comte’s positivism “was not only a theory of knowledge; it was also a scheme of history and a programme of social reform” (p. 239). Throughout the 19th century, positivism thus connoted “a free-thinking and radical as well as a scientific movement” (p. 239). Comte’s efforts at social reform were born of a desire for a more equitable society, and for Comte, a more comprehensive science of society was seen as the path to that desired end. Comte’s conception of a positive science was born, in other words, from normative or ethical concerns. That is, Comte sought to import and apply the approach and methods of the natural sciences to the study of society with the aim of improving the human condition. In this, Comte continued down a path first gestured toward by his mentor Henri Saint-Simon (1760–1825). Expressing his dissatisfaction with the highly subjective nature of political inquiry and the aspiration that it be made over in the image of the natural sciences, Saint-Simon (anticipating the scientific aspirations of A. Lawrence Lowell) observed,

Hitherto, the method of the sciences of observation has not been introduced into political questions; every man has imported his point of view, method of reasoning and judging, and hence there is not yet any precision in the answers, or universality in the results. The time has come when this infancy of the sciences should cease. (Thiele, 1997, p. 9)

Thus, what would come to be called positivism emerged from Saint-Simon and Comte’s desire to purge scientific inquiry of the excess baggage of metaphysics. For Comte especially, positivism “came to signify the nineteenth-century desire to make natural science the sole model of knowledge, even for inquiries into human history and culture” (Lane, 2003, p. 321).

Comte’s (1988) positivism was grounded in an all encompassing view of the nature of human and social evolution. According to Comte, historical observation revealed that human society had evolved through three principal stages of history. As put forward in his Introduction to Positive Philosophy, Comte explains that both the human mind and society have exhibited a progressive growth. As such, said Comte,

In thus studying the total development of human intelligence in its different spheres of activity, from its first and simplest beginning up to our own time, I believe that I have discovered a great fundamental law, to which the mind is subjected by an invariable necessity. . . . This law consists in the fact that each of our principal conceptions, each branch of our knowledge, passes in succession through three different theoretical states: the theological or fictitious state, the metaphysical or abstract, and the scientific or positive state. . . . In the theological state, the human mind directs its researches mainly toward the inner nature of beings . . . in a word, toward absolute knowledge. . . . In the metaphysical state . . . the supernatural agents are replaced by abstract forces, real entities or personified abstractions, inherent in the different beings of the world. . . . Finally, in the positive state, the human mind, recognizing the impossibility of obtaining absolute truth, gives up the search after the origin and hidden causes of the universe and a knowledge of the final causes of phenomena. It endeavours now only to discover, by a well combined use of reasoning and observation, the actual laws of phenomena. (pp. 1-2)

Although highly influential in mid-19th-century European thought, Comte’s specific influence would be on the wane already by the end of the century. Yet his desire for a scientific understanding of society, shorn of the distorting influence of metaphysical abstraction, would remain. And indeed, the scientific aspiration for the study of political life expressed by Goodnow and Lowell suggests a general family resemblance with Comte. For Goodnow and Lowell, however, the orientation could be characterized more generally as a sort of methodological positivism. Envious of the growing success—and influence— of the natural sciences, their efforts might be articulated in terms of a desire to understand and explain social and political phenomena from a position informed by and compatible with the natural sciences—objective, reliant on reason, grounded in empirical observation, and value neutral. In the broadest sense, this positivism was grounded, Miller (1987) wrote,

in the assumption that the most important methodological notions for example, explanation, confirmation and the identification of one kind of entity with another can each be applied according to rules that are the same for all sciences and historical periods, that are valid a priori, and that only require knowledge of the internal content of the propositions involved for their effective application. (p. 3)

What, then, defines the positivist position that this research paper is concerned with, what has been identified as methodological positivism? First, since its emergence with Comte, most of those who have been committed to a positivist orientation also have been largely committed to the notion of the unity of scientific inquiry. Such a position is grounded in a series of related assumptions, principally “that the universe is a causally ordered, homogenous, one-layer world, that there is a basic unity to human experience and that we are therefore able to gain knowledge of reality and indeed construct a knowledge system about it” (Delanty & Strydom, 2003, pp. 13–14). Entailed by this is the further claim that it is therefore possible—indeed desirable—to produce a scientific discourse subsuming all areas of scientific inquiry, both natural and social. Distinctions between the natural and social sciences would dissolve, and a unified scientific methodology and language would emerge.

Further, positivism has often been articulated in a form that links a discernible concept of social reality (an ontology) with a corollary self-understanding of scientific inquiry. Specifically, positivism is informed by an ontology “that equates existence with objects that are observable,” and it is associated with an approach to social science wherein scientific inquiry is understood to be “independent of the reality it describes” (Riley, 2007, p, 115, italics added). This antimetaphysical orientation thus cautions against mistaking the abstract categories of thought for the concrete real. Instead, positivists stress that the basis of all knowledge claims must be grounded in the positive data of experience. Abstract speculation about the nature of the world or normative assertions as to how the world should be, divorced from concrete evidence supplied by observations of the world as experienced, could not be the basis of valid knowledge claims about the world. This emphasis on the experiential basis of all valid knowledge claims has manifested itself in two related ways:

either phenomenalism, in which case the emphasis is on the immediate experience of phenomenal or mental entities in the form of observables or sense data; or physicalism (or natural ism), in which case the emphasis in on perceptual or physical entities or common sense things and events that can be inter subjectively verified by recourse to empirical evidence. (Delanty & Strydom, 2003, p. 15)

Accordingly, the empirical realm—composed of the data that can be observed and confirmed by the senses (e.g., observation)—exhausts the field of legitimate scientific investigation, the field about which legitimate knowledge claims can be made. Therefore, “only those knowledge claims founded directly upon observable experience can be genuine” (Hawkesworth, 2003, p. 8).

Two related claims historically have been intertwined within positivism. First, traditionally, it has rested on an assumed separation between the knower and the known, a distinction drawn between the subject and object of scientific knowledge. That is, in its various iterations, positivism presumes that scientific inquiry begins with neutral observation. Moreover, the validity of truth claims about the observed world is bound up in this putative separation between the observer and the observed. The facts are said to speak for themselves, and as such, knowledge claims about the facts as observed are not contingent on the idiosyncrasies of the observer but linked instead to the methods used to ascertain and explain those facts. To put this another way, positivism assumes that facts are given and that observation of the raw data of the world is unmediated. Any scientific explanation, therefore, may unhesitatingly focus on the object of inquiry alone. This entails a second, yet related, separation—that between fact and value. That is, not only is an unmediated apprehension of the facts that form the object of social scientific inquiry possible, but it also is the case that the normative valuations of the observer must not intrude on the process of inquiry:

Based on the assumption of the necessity of upholding a logical separation of facts and values or descriptive and normative statements, the demand is made that [social] science should proceed in a neutral manner, free from all infection by personal, ethical, moral, social or cultural values, with the scientist actively desisting from deriving “ought from is” or “values from facts.” (Delanty & Strydom, 2003, p. 14)

As others have observed, positivism “is above all a position within epistemology,” in that it insists that “scientific explanations take the general form of ‘if A then B’” (Steinmetz, 2005a, p. 32). In other words, positivism identifies valid scientific knowledge with certain covering laws. One can distinguish valid knowledge claims from a simple assertion of opinion if there exists some means by which to confirm the truth of the claim. Casting the knowledge claim in an if–then form provides the means by which the validity of the claim can be tested. Descriptions of observed facts, as those facts are subsumed within the if– then causal relationship, yield theories about these relationships, from which hypotheses may be deduced. Importantly, for positivism, valid scientific theory is the result of the observation and is not formed prior to the observation. From the standard positivist perspective, then, theory may be understood as composed of interrelated concepts and propositions joined in order to provide systematic claims about social phenomena, with the aim of understanding, explaining, and predicting the phenomena. The emphasis on the capacity of positivist social science to make predictions about the world leads to the final attribute of positivism that should be taken into account. Specifically, positivist social science often seeks not just to comprehend the social and political world but to control or manipulate its objects of study as well (see, e.g., Oren, 2006), thus combining the concern to produce legitimate knowledge claims about politics with the concern that such knowledge claims be relevant to politics.

It is fair to say that political scientists have differed over the central elements of what might constitute a positivist approach to social and political inquiry. Common themes are nonetheless discernible: The goal of political inquiry is the construction of causal explanations “relating the occurrence of specific events through reference to universal laws that predict an invariant relationship between certain antecedent conditions and their necessary consequences” (Kaufman-Osborn, 1991, p. 229); the presumption of neutrality in observation and description of those events; and the affirmation of the scientific ideal of value-free inquiry.

III. Positivism, Behavioralism, and the Struggle for Theory

The high tide of positivist aspirations in American political science came after World War II with the emergence of behavioralism. Not so much a school of thought, behavioralism was more an orientation toward the relationship between knowledge and politics. There are nonetheless specific individuals and institutions that feature prominently in the history of behavioralism; for present purposes, the University of Chicago and David Easton may be considered to stand in for larger developments within the field.

As early as the 1920s, something more than the mere desire that the study of politics become scientific had been articulated by members of the discipline. A central figure in these discussions was Charles Merriam, who was located in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago. Impatient with the perceived inability of the discipline to speak meaningfully to contemporary political matters and to lend relevant expertise to political reform efforts, Merriam (who was instrumental in founding the Social Science Research Council in 1923) called for a political science that was to be explicitly modeled on the natural sciences. Most important, Merriam contended that this new science of politics takes political behavior as its principal object of study. In his seminal article “The Present State of the Study of Politics,” Merriam (1921) made the case for moving the study of political behavior to the center stage of scientific political inquiry. He argued that from that point on, political scientists should devote their energies to the observation, measurement, quantification, theorization, and prediction of political behavior. What would come to be called the Chicago School of Political Science, under Merriam’s leadership, pressed for a natural science model for the study of politics. Merriam’s concern, however, was not only with the scientific legitimacy of the knowledge produced by the discipline, but also with the relevance of scientific political analysis for practical politics.

Although Merriam’s work developing a science of political behavior was central to the development of a positivist political science, it was not until after World War II that positivism, as encapsulated in a behavioralist political science, would rise to prominence. And here, it was Merriam’s former student, David Easton, who assumed a central role in the development of positivism within political science. Easton (1953) published The Political System: An Inquiry Into the State of Political Science, a text that has been dubbed “behavioralism’s manifesto” (Farr, 2003a, p. 443). Easton (1953) introduced his study by making clear the stakes:

This study deals with the condition of the science of politics as it is known in the United States today and with the relation to it of general political theory. . . . In earlier centuries a student of political systems would have been hard put to distinguish his theoretical inquiries from his general political research. Today, in the United States, however, it has become increasingly difficult to appreciate why political theory should continue to be included as a central part of political science. Theory has become increasingly remote from the mainstream of political research. This study will have served a useful purpose if it helps in some small way to win back for theory its proper and necessary place. (p. ix)

Easton’s self-defined task, in other words, was to save political theory from itself and restore it to a central place within the discipline. But Easton’s theory would be emptied of its historicist fascination with the canon of so-called great thinkers. He would seek instead to develop a properly positive political theory, and once “rejuvenated”—that is, empirically oriented—political theory would be centrally placed to further the development of “reliable political knowledge” (p. 309). Like earlier aspirants to the scientific study of politics, Easton too sought to enhance the legitimacy of the discipline’s knowledge claims. More than ever, the appeal to scientific method seemed to hold the promise of successfully trading on the cultural authority of the natural sciences. Less concerned was Easton, however, with making claims for the direct relevance of such knowledge for political reform efforts. Initially, at least, this was social scientific inquiry for the sake of knowledge itself.

For the next decade and a half, the positivist orientation of behavioralist work in political science could be viewed as dominant within the discipline. Although the behavioralist approach itself never could be understood to describe the bulk of research in the discipline, a positivist undercurrent largely informed the dominant aspirations of the profession. And as such, positivism’s prominence ultimately invited a harsh reaction. Moreover, the real world of politics intruded in ways that called for a reassessment of the nature and ends of political inquiry. What did political scientists know about politics and why did any of the knowledge about politics produced within the discipline matter to those outside the discipline?

Easton (1965) published a second key text in the development and articulation of behavioralism, A Framework for Political Analysis. There, he identified a “revolution in political theory” that was then under way: the emergence of an empirically oriented political theory “often referred to as behavioral theory” (p. 3). Recognizing the many versions that passed under the banner of behavioralism, he nonetheless found common ground. According to Easton, “Closer inspection does reveal that they are all looking ahead toward the same region in space—a science of politics modeled after the methodological assumptions of the natural sciences” (p. 8). For Easton, the behavioral approach was evidence of the discipline’s advancement toward a new stage of scientific maturity.

What was the credo of this revolutionary movement? Famously, Easton (1965) identified eight major tenets of behavioralism: (1) existence of discoverable regularities in political behavior that can be “expressed in generalizations or theories with explanatory and predictive value”; (2) insistence on the need for verification; that is, “the validity of such generalizations must be testable”; (3) identification of the importance of developing appropriate techniques to acquire and interpret data; (4) enhancement of the place of quantification in political inquiry and developing appropriate quantitative methods; (5) recognition of the importance of maintaining the distinction between fact and value; (6) an increase in efforts to systematize political research; (7) affirmation of the logical priority of acquiring knowledge about political behavior over any attempt to apply such knowledge to the problems of society; and (8) recognition of the importance of the integration of the social sciences (p. 7).

Yet before the decade was out, Easton’s credo would be effectively abandoned (at least by him), and this first revolution was declared to be at an end. Did this mean that behavioralist approaches to political studies were to be jettisoned or that the positivist orientation in political inquiry was rejected? No. However, strong criticism from within the discipline, combined with the pressure of external political events, brought smoldering tensions to light and forced a very public reckoning of the nature of political inquiry and the meaning and relevance of the knowledge it produced. Easton (1969) began his 1968 presidential address to APSA by observing,

A new revolution is under way in American political science. The last revolution behavioralism has scarcely been completed before it has been overtaken by the increasing social and political crises of our time. The weight of these crises is being felt within our discipline in the form of a new conflict in the throes of which we now find ourselves. This new and latest challenge is directed against a developing behavioral orthodoxy. This challenge I shall call the post behavioral revolution. (p. 1051)

In his presidential address, Easton (1969) acknowledged the “deep dissatisfaction with political research and teaching” (p. 1051) that was being voiced from various corners of the discipline. Most important, the discipline’s aspirations to scientific legitimacy and political relevancy were under direct assault. In the wake of the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s, the riots in several of America’s major cities in the mid- to late 1960s, and the escalation of the Vietnam War with its attendant social unrest back home, those most closely associated with a positivist orientation were forced to reconsider “the very possibility of a science of politics” (p. 1051). For many, behavioralism seemed particularly ill equipped to understand, let alone predict, the many social and political crises afflicting the country and the world. The political knowledge produced from behavioralist research programs seemed out of touch, irrelevant to actual politics and social problems. Easton himself was concerned that the discipline risked appearing “more as apologists” than as “objective analysts” of current U.S. government policy. For Easton, then, a new revolution was needed, one whose “battle cries are relevance and action” (p. 1051). He was quick to claim, however, that the current critical response to behavioralism was different in important ways from earlier reactions to efforts at incorporating scientific methods into the study of politics. According to Easton,

Hitherto resistance to the incorporation of scientific method has come in the form of an appeal to the past to classical political science, such as natural law, or to the more loosely conceived non methodology of traditional research. Behavioralism was viewed as a threat to the status quo; classicism and traditionalism were responses calculated to pre serve some part of what had been, by denying the very possibility of a science of politics. (p. 1051)

As Easton (1969) represented matters, a defining characteristic of the post-behavioral revolution was that it resisted looking back to some golden age of political inquiry; instead, this new revolution was informed by work that was relentlessly future oriented: “a genuine revolution, not a reaction, a becoming, not a preservation” (p. 1051). The essential nature of this work was captured in what he called its “credo of relevance,” harkening back to the “credo of behavioralism” Easton had articulated just a few years before. Acknowledging the importance of the discipline’s ability to collectively rise up to meet the press of contemporary political events, Easton nonetheless insisted that political science must not abandon its positivist orientation. “We do not need to abandon the historical objectives of basic science. There is a strategy that will enable us to respond to the abnormal urgency of the present crises and yet still preserve these traditions” (p. 1055). In the end, however, Easton’s identification of a post-behavioral revolution might be understood as an attempt to acknowledge shortcomings of behavioralism—principally, its turning away from the real world of politics—while striving to reinvigorate behavioralism itself, to make the scientific study of politics relevant and responsive to the politics and policies of themoment. As Easton put it, “By adopting this course, post-behavioralism need not be considered a threat to behavioral research but only an extension of it necessary for coping with the unusual problems of the present epoch” (p. 1055).

There were, of course, those within the discipline who were deeply critical of behavioralism and who found support for this critique in the past that Easton wanted to leave behind, in the tradition of political thought. This was not merely nostalgia for the wisdom of the ancients, however, nor valorization of the past for its own sake. Rather, the effort was one of retrieval—seeking to meet the demands of the present political moment with the resources of the past of political philosophy. Easton strove to develop a positivist political theory informed by a properly scientific sensibility. Contemporaries such as Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss (the latter located, like Easton, at the University of Chicago), on the other hand, sought to restore morality to political inquiry, to merge fact and value, and to eschew efforts aimed at aligning political inquiry with the scientific study of the natural world. In essence, this was a struggle over the very nature of political theory. But this struggle for theory concerned something even more central: It concerned how one sees the political world and what one can legitimately claim to know about that world. And it concerned the relevance of such knowledge claims to politics itself. Rather than engage with positivist arguments, however, Strauss (1962) adopted a dismissive stance. In his “Epilogue” to a critical study of positivist political science, authored by several of his former students at the University of Chicago, Strauss wrote,

Only a great fool would call the new political science (i.e., behavioralism and its fellow travelers) diabolic: it has no attributes peculiar to fallen angels. It is not even Machiavellian, for Machiavelli’s teaching was graceful, subtle, and colorful. Nor is it Neronian. Nevertheless one may say of it that it fiddles while Rome burns. It is excused by two facts: it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns. (p. 327)

For Voegelin (1987), positivism—and its scientistic aspirations—stood as a major obstacle to the further development of Western civilization. In The New Science of Politics, he situated the political science of Aristotle in critical juxtaposition to the misleading claims of positivism. What was needed, he claimed, was a restoration of political science to its true principles. Such restoration was needed because of the destructive effects of positivism itself. Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, according to Voegelin, positivism increasingly threatened to destroy true scientific knowledge. From Voegelin’s perspective, the destructive work of positivism was the result of the operation of two related assumptions:

In the first place, the splendid unfolding of the natural sciences was co responsible with other factors for the assumption that the methods used in the mathematizing sciences of the external world were possessed of some inherent virtue and that all other sciences would achieve comparable success if they followed the example and accepted these methods as their model. (p. 4)

Voegelin understood this argument for the unity of science, on its own, as relatively harmless. However, “It became dangerous because it combined with the second assumption that the methods of the natural sciences were a criterion for theoretical relevance in general” (p. 4). It was this second assumption that was the real source of danger, according to Voegelin:

From the combination of the two assumptions followed the well known series of assertions that a study of reality could qualify as scientific only if it used the methods of the natural sciences, that problems couched in other terms were illusory problems, that in particular metaphysical questions which do not admit of answers by the methods of the sciences of phenomena should not be asked, that realms of being which are not accessible to exploration by the model methods were irrelevant. (p. 4)

Perhaps the most influential critique of positivism to emerge during this period would appear the same year as Easton’s presidential address. Writing from a rather different political orientation than Voegelin, the influential political theorist Sheldon Wolin (1969) also focused (like Voegelin) on the problem of method (the emphasis in positivism on the importance of scientific method to the production of valid knowledge claims about the world) in his critique of positivist political science. But in his seminal essay, “Political Theory as a Vocation,” Wolin would focus on the constitutive effects of what he characterized as methodism. According to Wolin, the positivist emphasis on method or technique limited the kinds of questions deemed important or relevant for investigation. Wolin wanted to preserve some critical vantage point from which to engage with the urgent problems of the day; this was not a vantage point located at some Archimedean position above politics but one that was fully informed by normative considerations. For Wolin, the positivist emphasis on method unwittingly invited a form of political quiescence—or worse, complicity. What were the guiding assumptions or framework that the methodist followed?

The answer . . . is that there is such a framework of assumptions. It is the ideological paradigm reflective of the same political community which the normal scientists are investigating. Thus when a researcher takes “the normal flow of events in American politics” as his starting point, it is not surprising to find him concluding that “the long run stability of the system depends on the underlying division of party loyalties.” (p. 1064)

In Wolin’s (1969) view, methods are not merely neutral tools, to be picked up and used when and where appropriate. Rather, “methodism is ultimately a proposal for shaping the mind. Social scientists have sensed this when they have noted that research methods are ‘tools’ which can become a way of looking at the world, of judging everyday experience” (p. 1064). For Wolin, then, it was important to understand how political science sees the world; his concern, in other words, was with understanding the importance of the politics of knowledge. There is no neutral vantage point of investigation, no purely objective vision of the object of investigation. Rather than simply observing facts in the world, method participates in the production of those facts, which it then names as true. The legitimacy of knowledge claims about politics and the relevance of those knowledge claims to politics were to be understood accordingly. In Wolin’s estimation, the primacy of method to the positivist orientation promoted an inherently uncritical view of the world:

The alleged neutrality of a methodist’s training overlooks significant philosophical assumptions admittedly incorporated into the outlook of those who advocate scientific inquiry into politics. These assumptions are such as to reenforce an uncritical view of existing political structures and all that they imply. For the employment of method assumes, even requires, that the world be of one kind rather than another if techniques are to be effective. (Wolin 1969, p. 1064)

For Wolin, then, such an approach invites not merely political quiescence but something more: “Method is not a thing for all worlds. It presupposes a certain answer to a Kantian type of question, What must the world be like for the methodist’s knowledge to be possible? (p. 1064).

For Wolin, the task of political inquiry—of political theory—was an inherently critical one, aimed at providing individuals with the knowledge necessary to be able to interpret their experience of the world. Wolin’s principal concern, then, was with the relevance of political theory and what should be the relationship between theoretical inquiry and the so-called real world. Theory, for Wolin, provided a site from which the theorist could critically engage with the contemporary political world and imagine how things might be otherwise. The issue was, according to Wolin (1969),

not between theories which are normative and those which are not: nor is it between those political scientists who are theoretical and those who are not. Rather, it is between those who would restrict the “reach” of theory by dwelling on facts which are selected by what are assumed to be the functional requisites of the existing paradigm, and those who believe that because facts are richer than theories, it is the task of the theoretical imagination to restate new possibilities. (p. 1082)

Wolin viewed the work of positivists such as Easton as “deflationary” of this very possibility.

IV. After Behavioralism

Behavioralism, as a self-identified program of political inquiry, tended to fade into the background of the discipline by the end of the 1970s. Yet the positivist impulse would remain, reemerging with approaches such as rational choice theory and in efforts to reconcile qualitative with quantitative approaches to political research (see, e.g., King, Keohane, & Verba, 1994). And what would count as systematic or scientific political inquiry would become more deeply contested and unsettled. Political science, as science, would be forced to contend with alternative viable claims to social and political description and analysis. Intepretivist approaches to understanding political phenomena, though present as early as the founding of APSA (see, e.g., Weber as quoted in Gunnell, 2006), would emerge with greater definition and influence in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, one might say that contemporary debates over the meaning and relevance of different approaches to political inquiry are now framed by the terms that positivism and interpretivism provide.

Foreshadowed by earlier critiques of positivism ( e.g., Storing, 1962; Wolin, 1969), interpretivism challenges many of the fundamental assumptions of the positivist approach (see, e.g., Rabinow & Sullivan, 1987a). Specifically, interpretivism, in its most basic iterations, holds that observation is always culturally mediated in the form of the language drawn on to describe the world; in other words, language is an artifact of time and place. In addition, many interpretivists contend that theory overdetermines and structures our observation of the world—that is, that scientific observation is always already theory laden, as opposed to theory following from scientific observation as positivism would have it. The interpretive approach seeks instead to focus attention on the “concrete varieties of cultural meaning, in their particularity and complex nature” (Rabinow & Sullivan, 1987b, pp. 5–6). Accordingly, an interpretive approach begins from the assumption that the web of cultural meaning is itself constitutive of human experience, and this shared world of meaning forms the basis through which “the subjects of human discourse constitute themselves” (p. 6). The interplay of these shared meanings and their constitutive effects cannot be merely observed and described but must be interpreted.

Further, interpretivists question how positivists might categorize the objects to be studied in such a way as to ensure that the same discrete social and political phenomena are being observed by other researchers, as a positivist approach would require. Squeezing the complex phenomena of the political world into abstract categories for the purpose of description and explanation seems to risk missing much of what might be important to understanding the nature and meaning of the phenomena in question. Moreover, a scientific approach to the study of politics relies on quantification: to describe, to discriminate observed facts, and to generate empirical data amenable to statistical analysis in order to describe the phenomena, posit causal relationships, and generate theories to explain the phenomena. But interpretivists question the very idea of quantifying actions and behaviors that may be laden with a complex array of subjective meanings—meanings that are centrally important to understanding the phenomena in question but otherwise inscrutable to the quantitative measures of positivist political analysis.

Interpretivism, then, is a catchall term that subsumes a range of sometimes loosely connected approaches to social and political inquiry—their shared characteristics brought into sharper relief by identifying their mutual opposition to positivism. As such, the interpretivist approach generally signals a commitment to closing the positivist divide between normative claims and descriptions of fact, an approach born from the belief that evaluative claims and statements of fact are, in practice, virtually impossible to disentangle from one another. For interpretivists, there is no Archimedean point, outside language and outside history, from which to make such statements of fact. Rather, all knowledge claims are historically and culturally contingent, situated in time and place and, as such, artifacts of relations of power.

V. Conclusion

The contemporary presence and importance of positivism can be seen clearly, if somewhat more indirectly, through the emergence of a protest movement within American political science, Perestroika (see, generally, Monroe, 2005). The Perestroika movement arose in 2000, initially formed as a small group of academic political scientists and graduate students that expressed their profound impatience with “what they saw as the narrow parochialism and methodological bias toward the quantitative, behavioral, rational choice, statistical, and formal modeling approaches” (Monroe, 2005, p. 1) that continue to dominate the scholarly output of much of American political science. On one level, the demand of the Perestroikans can be understood as a call for greater methodological pluralism within political science— creating greater space within the discipline for qualitative and interpretive approaches. On another, deeper level, however, the Perestroika movement reanimates many of the important tensions that have occupied the discipline since its inception in 1903. What can political scientists claim to know about the world, and what is the relevance of the knowledge they produce about politics to political actors and institutions? For example, the Perestroika movement resembles in many important ways the Caucus for a New Political Science that emerged in the late 1960s in response to the felt sense among those in the Caucus that the discipline’s increasing infatuation with scientific method inhibited its ability to say anything meaningful about politics itself (see, e.g., McCoy & Playford, 1967). The positivist preoccupation that political science become more like the natural sciences and thereby bolster the legitimacy of its claims to knowledge was viewed by those in the Caucus as leading the discipline away from its more central role of improving the practice of politics.

This tension between the legitimacy of knowledge claims about politics and the relevance of those claims to politics is an enduring one; the specific topography of the debate has changed over the years, but the basic contours of the engagement have remained remarkably consistent— and the terms of that engagement have largely been defined by reference to positivism and its critics. In his discussion of the founding of APSA in 1903, John Gunnell (2006) quotes from an essay published the following year by the German social theorist Max Weber titled “The ‘Objectivity’ of Knowledge in Social Science and Social Policy.” Gunnell observed,

Although he [Weber] presented his essay as an intervention in controversies about the nature of social scientific explanation, he also explicitly addressed it to a wider public audience with the aim of vouchsafing the cognitive authority of academic social science. . . . Weber . . . emphasized various ways in which social scientific knowledge could, in principle, con strain and direct policy decisions as well as the extent to which scientific investigation necessarily proceeded from the perspective of value laden premises. The authority of social science nevertheless depended . . . on acceptance of the autonomy of empirical claims and on the professional . . . independence of those who made such claims. The dilemma and solution Weber articulated bore remarkable similarities to the situation attending the founding of the [APSA]. (pp. 480-481)


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