Monday, February 26, 2007

A History of Political Science: How? What? Why?

(Princeton Univ. Press 2007)
Chapter I: A History of Political Science: How? What? Why?
BRITISH AND AMERICAN political scientists recently have shown an unusual degree of interest in the history of their discipline. The dawn of a new millennium prompted leading figures in the British study of politics to reflect on their past and to situate themselves in relation to it.1 In America, work on the history of political science has appeared off and on for some time, but the last decade has witnessed a positive flourishing of such studies. These studies include some in which luminaries in the discipline look back on their teachers and predecessors.2 They also include a distinct subgenre of historical studies written from within the discipline, but by scholars outside its limelight.3 The past of political science has attracted further attention recently from intellectual historians outside of the discipline in both Britain and America.4 Modern Political Science brings together political scientists and intellectual historians from both sides of the Atlantic to pursue a comparative and transnational account of the development of political inquiry in Britain and America since the late-nineteenth century. In doing so, it not only explores “what” happened in the history of political science, it also embodies a distinctive analysis of “how” and “why” we might study this history.

The recent attention given to the history of political science is both the temporal companion to and in some tension with the avowedly historical approaches that are increasingly popular within political science itself. For several decades now, as we discuss more fully in chapter 12, various neostatists and institutionalists have presented themselves as offering a historically sensitive alternative to the formalist excesses of certain variants of behavioralism or, more recently, of rational choice theory. While Modern Political Science shares these scholars’ concern to understand the present in light of the past that produced it, beyond this rather generic overlap parallels give way to significant differences of approach. Indeed, this volume is, in part, motivated by a worry that avowedly historical approaches in contemporary political science run the risk of naturalizing one particular conception of historical inquiry by proceeding as if their own way of distinguishing “historical” from “ahistorical” studies was obvious and uncontested. Even worse, these approaches can appear to be adopting this conception simply for their own polemical purposes, without the aid of extended reflection upon the practice and purpose of historical inquiry and its relation to social science. Modern Political Science attempts, then, to locate the self-described “historical institutionalism” as a contingent, recently emergent approach that is but one of multiple ways of bringing the past to bear on the study of politics. More generally, it attempts to recall the plurality and range of approaches to the past that have, at one time or another, claimed the loyalty of political scientists in Britain and America.

How to Study the History of Political Science

Modern Political Science draws on developments within the history of ideas that have transformed the ways in which we might think about disciplinary history.5 It is indebted to a radical historicism that stands in contrast to the naturalizing perspective from which political scientists commonly view their discipline and its past. The naturalizing perspective understands political science as constituted by a pregiven empirical domain—politics—and a shared intellectual agenda, to make this domain the object of a cumulative and instrumentally useful science. It thus encourages a retrospective vision that focuses, first, on the establishment of an autonomous discipline, free from the clutches of history, law, and philosophy, and, second, on charting progress made in the subsequent development of that discipline.6
Full-text of the first chapter available:

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