A good beginning may be to pose the question of who is a political scientist? There are debates on whether someone who has just a Bachelor’s degree in political science or a combined honours degree in which political science (or politics or Government as it is variously called in some countries) is one of the subjects combined, can be called a political scientist. While some scholars have argued that you need a postgraduate degree in the discipline to be called a political scientist, for the purposes of this conversation, I will regard a political scientist as anyone who has completed an academic study of political science and is equipped to use political concepts to analyze how politics influences societal development.
Though political science has its ancestry in the works of the Socratic political philosophers such as Plato (427–347 BC), Xenophon (c. 430–354 BC), and Aristotle (384–322 BC), regarded by some as the ‘Father of Political Science, the first separate school of political science was established in 1872 in France at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques (now the Institut d’Études Politiques). The Italian writer Niccolò Machiavelli is generally regarded as the first modern political scientist.
In the US, the study of political science as an academic discipline started in 1880 when John W. Burgess, after studying at the École Libre in Paris, established a school of political science at Columbia University in New York City. Although political science faculties grew unevenly after 1900, by the 1920s most major Universities in the USA had established new departments, variously named political science, government, or politics.
What do political scientists really do? Beyond what departmental prospectuses tell us
Many admission prospectuses for political science, in both Europe, the USA and Nigeria, (as if to assure students that spending 3-4 years to study the discipline will not be a waste of their precious time), normally mention the possible areas they can find jobs after graduation. Typically, they are promised they will be able to find work as the following:
- Campaign managers or in political campaigns
- Market researchers
- Public relations specialists
- Political analysts
- Political consultants
The problem with the above checklist is not that it is false. It is not. The problem is that in each of the above mentioned areas, political scientists are not exclusively employed there in the same way that lawyers are exclusively employed in legally related professions. In fact, apart from possibly being employed as lecturers in political science (or Government or Politics in American tradition), there is probably no specific field or vocation that can be called the exclusive reserve of political scientists. And that creates some identity challenges for the discipline. They are expected to multitask, which can be both a strength (knowing a bit of everything) and weakness (not being specialized enough).
Political Science’s identity Crisis and the Search for Relevance
It would seem that the behavioural revolution that swept through the field in the 1950s and 1960s was at least in part, an attempt by the discipline to resolve its identity crisis (even inferiority complex), and prove that it could be studied in a ‘scientific’ manner and therefore worthy of respect. In contrast to the institutional approach that defined and dominated the field in the early years of political science (in many European countries like Germany and the Scandinavian countries, the local translation of political science, is ‘study or knowledge of the state’), a behavioural revolution stressing the systematic and rigorous scientific study of individual and group behaviour, swept the discipline. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the discipline had witnessed widespread use of different quantitative and modelling techniques in its methodology and modes of analyses. It was said that it became increasingly difficult for political scientists who were not quantitative enough in their methods of analyses to publish in some of the leading political science journals. In essence, the study of political science became increasingly mathematicised as the discipline fervently borrowed theory and methods from economics to study political phenomena. But some political scientists, uncomfortable at the direction the discipline was moving, felt that the increasing mathemathisation of the discipline was just ‘crude empiricism’, a mere ‘bleaching complex’ if you like. The resistance led to a backlash typified in the Perestroika Movement (also known as the ‘Perestroika Insurgency’ or ‘Perestroika Rebellion’.
The Perestroika Movement in the USA
The Perestroika Movement began in 2000 with an anonymous e-mail message sent by one “Mr. Perestroika” to the editors of the American Political Science Review, a quarterly academic journal owned by the American Political Association. The journal was set up in 1906 and currently has an Impact Factor of more than 3. The e-mail called for “a dismantling of the Orwellian system that we have in APSA.” The message went to seventeen recipients who quickly forwarded it to others, and within weeks, the Perestroika Movement became a force calling for change in the American political science community. What was their grouse? They wanted methodological pluralism because of the hegemony of quantitative and mathematical methodology in political science, especially in the papers accepted for publication by the journal. The movement wanted to make political science research more accessible and relevant to lay people and non-specialist academics rather than, as it were, being driven by crude empiricism.
Senator Tom Coburn’s Challenge
It would seem that the increasing mathematicisation of political science failed to give the discipline the sort of prestige and social relevance the practitioners had hoped for. For instance in October 2009, the late Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, proposed prohibiting the National Science Foundation from “wasting any federal research funding on political science projects.” Senator Coburn argued that commentators on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and other news media outlets “provide a myriad of viewpoints to answer the same questions” political scientists pose as their research questions. One of the projects financed by the National Science Foundation that Senator Coburn attacked was the American National Election Studies. He argued that the $91.3 million that the foundation spent on social science projects over the previous 10 years should have gone to biology, chemistry or pharmaceutical science. Though political scientists understandably rallied in opposition to the Senator’s views, even some of the most vehement critics of the Coburn proposal acknowledged privately the uncertainty in the field’s direction and even in its usefulness. Till date American political science, and political science elsewhere, seems to still grapple with the issue of relevance.
Political Science and the search for identity in Europe
In an important article in the journal, European Political Science, published as Open Access on 10 June 2021, and entitled ‘In search of relevance: European political scientists and the public sphere in critical times’, the authors, José Real-Dato & Luca Verzichelli discuss the array of challenges facing the discipline in Europe as they search for relevance. They noted for instance that social relevance has become a key element to assess the social legitimacy of an academic discipline in the continent and admitted the existence of a ‘relevance gap’ for the discipline. They however noted that “the multiple crises Europe has experienced since the late 2000s has provided political scientists with a multitude of opportunities to demonstrate the social relevance of their work and the usefulness of the discipline.”
The question is: How relevant is political science for the European society today? The importance of such a question derives from the intimate relationship between relevance – defined as the ability of political science to be broadly perceived as a valuable instrument for positive social, political or institutional change and the social legitimacy of the discipline.
Many European political scientists admit that they do not have a strong influence in their own political systems – either in form of relevance or impact especially at a time when relevance seems to have become a key criterion for research funding. In fact, an online survey by the Professionalization and Social Impact of European Political Science (PROSEPS) carried out in 2018 among academic political scientists in 35 European countries (plus Israel and Turkey) showed that 79.8 per cent of respondents felt that they had little or no impact on public opinion compared to other academics and public intellectuals. This means that in the context of increased competition for resources with the more established neighbouring disciplines, the real challenge for political scientists in Europe consists in developing their capability to convince the decision makers and the general public about the social usefulness of the discipline. It means that producing socially relevant political science will not only “help in the institutional consolidation of the discipline in terms of resources but will also be a source of self-esteem for practitioners in the field”.
Remarkably some crises and critical elections (for instance the British elections in 2010 and 2015, the French elections in 2012 and 2017, the Italian elections of 2013 and 2018) seem to have been a major stimulus for political science research during the last decade, particularly in Europe. For instance, several books and journal articles have been published in the last few years on the effects of the economic and migration crises on the many dimensions of EU and national political systems. These have all been opportunities for European political science to prove its relevance.
Political Science Fights Back – a structural approach
My aim here is to look at how political science associations in both the USA and Europe have sought to indirectly fight back the perception in some quarters that the discipline has a relevance gap through its activities. The crucial question here is: how does political science as an organization, not individual political scientists, address the issue of relevance, given the nexus between relevance and funding and between the latter and social legitimacy?
There are several political science associations in the USA. The major ones are:
- American Political Science Association
- Great Plains Political Science Association
- National Capital Area Political Science Association
- National Conference of Black Political Scientists
- New England Political Science Association
- Northeastern Political Science Association
- Pacific Northwest Political Science Association
- Southern Political Science Association
- Southwestern Political Science Association
- Western Political Science Association
American Political Science Association
The American Political Science Association (APSA), the leading professional organization for the study of political science in the USA, was founded in 1903 and serves more than 11,000 members in more than 100 countries. With a range of programmes and services for individuals, departments, and institutions, APSA brings together political scientists from all fields of inquiry, regions, and occupational endeavours within and outside academe to deepen their understanding of politics, democracy, and citizenship throughout the world. Its core objectives include:
- promoting scholarly research and communication, domestically and internationally.
- promoting high quality teaching and education about politics and government.
- diversifying the profession and representing its diversity.
- increasing academic and non-academic opportunities for members.
- strengthening the professional environment for political science.
- representing the professional interests of political scientists.
- defending the legitimacy of scholarly research into politics and government.
- recognizing outstanding work in the discipline.
- encouraging the application of rigorous ethical and intellectual standards in the profession.
- serving the public, including disseminating research and preparing citizens to be effective citizens and political participants.
APSA publishes four highly regarded academic journals:
- American Political Science Review, a quarterly.
- Perspectives on Politics, a quarterly established in 2003 and published by Cambridge University Press
- Journal of Political Science Education
- PS-Political Science and Politics, founded in 1968 and published by Cambridge University Press.
APSA administers the Centennial Centre for Political Science and Public Affairs, which offers fellowships, conference, research space and grants for scholars, and administers Pi Sigma Alpha, the honour society for political science students. It also periodically sponsors seminars and other events for political scientists, policymakers, the media, and the general public.
Through the above activities, most of which have been sustained over decades, the discipline is helping to bridge the perception of the relevance gap among the public by embedding the activities of the association in people’s imagination.
Political Science Associations in Europe
There are four main political science associations in Europe – European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR), the European Political Science Network (EpsNET), the European Conference of Political Science Associations (ECPSA) and the European Political Science Association (EPSA). I will use ECPR as an illustration.
- a) The European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) supports and encourages the training, research and cross-national cooperation of thousands of academics and graduate students specialising in political science and all its sub-disciplines. ECPR membership is institutional rather than individual. At its inception in 1970, it comprised eight members (Bergen, Gothenburg, Essex, Leiden, Mannheim, Nuffield College (Oxford), Strathclyde and Paris (FNSP). Membership has now grown to encompass more than 350 institutions throughout Europe, with associate members spread around the world.ECPR activities include
- Organising workshops, roundtables, conferences and a biannual Methods School.
The ECPR’s first General Conference took place in Canterbury, UK in 2001. Since then, General Conferences have been held every other year in a range of European cities. Due to its success, the General Conference became an annual event in 2014.
- Publishing journals, books, articles and newsletters
- Providing a comprehensive European information source for political scientists through its website, electronic bulletin and online searchable databases
- Promoting teaching and training in the field.
- Publishing and amplifying the works of political scientists in Europe through its high impact journal, European Political Science(EPS). The Impact Factor for the journal for 2022 is 2.0 which is quite high.
- Offering a range of funding schemes to help progress individual careers and to support the wider development of the discipline.
- The ECPR has close links with similar organisations like American Political Science Association and International Political Association for networking purposes.
- The ECPR’s first General Conference took place in Canterbury, UK in 2001. Since then, General Conferences have been held every other year in a range of European cities. Due to its success, the General Conference became an annual event in 2014.
- The ECPR’s flagship event, the annual Joint Sessions of Workshops, was launched in 1973 and held every spring. The Joint Sessions bring together groups of researchers working on key areas of political science through the unique workshop format
- The ECPR’s Research Sessions, which ran each year from 1978 to 2000, and then from 2011 to 2016, enabled small, pre-established groups to meet in a fully supported environment during the quieter summer months.
ECPR Methods School
- a) The Methods School offers up-to-date methods training across the whole range of methodologies (and across different paradigms and approaches), which are particularly salient for research questions in political science and neighbouring disciplines. Courses deal with all stages of a project and cater to the needs of research at macro and micro levels. They cover quantitative and qualitative designs as well as positivist and interpretative perspectives.
b) Course offerings: it offers a wide range of courses, from introductions to tools that will be useful for research methods, through to advanced courses bringing participants to an expert level. They offer the following courses – Research design/fundamentals, Data collection/generation, Data analysis (foundation), Data analysis (introductory), Data analysis (intermediate) and (advanced), Participants can earn up to 4 ECTS credits and a certificate of attendance for each course taken.
Prizes and awards
The prizes offered by the association include:
i) Cora Maas Award: The Cora Maas Award is presented for the best course at the ECPR Winter School or Summer School in Methods and Techniques and is endowed with €500. The awarded is presented annually.
ii) Dirk Berg-Schlosser Award: The Dirk Berg-Schlosser Award is given for outstanding pedagogy as a Teaching Assistant at the ECPR Methods School.
iii) This prize is named in recognition of Hans Daalder, one of ECPR’s founding fathers. The prize carries a €1,000 fund, and is awarded for an outstanding paper presented at the biennial ECPR Graduate Student Conference.
- iv) Since October 2003, the ECPR has awarded an annual PhD prize for the best thesis in politics (broadly conceived to include International Relations, Political Theory and Public Administration) nominated by a member institution that, with revision, could be published as a monograph. The prize carries a €1,000 award.
- v) The Mattei Dogan Foundation Prize in European Political Sociology is awarded for a major contribution to the advancement of political sociology by a jury composed of five members, three of whom will be selected by the Political Sociology Standing Group. The $3,000 prize is presented to either a scholar with an ensemble of outstanding scientific publications and constructive professional achievements, or a coherent team of several researchers enjoying a high reputation in the international community of political sociologists. The prize was first bestowed in 2007 and is presented every other year.
- vi) The ECPR Political Theory Prize was introduced in 2020 to highlight the critical role of political theory in political science by celebrating outstanding contributions in the field.
Lessons for Political Science in Nigeria
What can we learn from the way political science associations try to establish the relevance of the discipline in society’s imagination in both Europe and the USA? The main political science associations in the USA and Europe seem to deliberately have in place sustained activities that will help embed the associations and the work of political scientists in the consciousness of the society. It can be argued that the activities of these associations, sustained over the years, have helped to reduce (not entirely close) the relevance gap in the public perception of political science. The key activities of these associations that have helped them to achieve this include:
- They have functional secretariats with permanent staff. This institutionalization helps to increase visibility and also ensures that their voices are constantly heard on key issues.
- They build relationships with other political science associations both within and outside their continents.
- They offer institutionalised (emphasis, mine) trainings on methodology and even courses, not just to political scientists but to organisations including the media.
- They have memberships that go beyond their national borders.
- They saw some crises in Europe as opportunities to prove their relevance.
- They have a range of awards and annual events that are sustained.
- They publish and have sustained the publication of journals with high impact value, which in turn have helped to amplify the voices of their scholars. In contrast, in Nigeria, it is difficult to find a political science journal that has been published consistently and in a timely manner, for five-years. This serious challenge, added to what David Mills variously called ‘bibliometric coloniality’ and ‘bibliometric economy’ in global scientific knowledge production and dissemination via indexed academic journals, make it difficult for the Nigerian Political Science Association to raise its own global champions in the mould of Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington and others because the local, unindexed journals where most publish are incapable of amplifying their voices beyond a certain radius. For those able to publish in many of the indexed high impact international journals, some first engage in self-censorship, knowing that to partake in the ‘bibliometric economy’, they first need to escape from ‘bibliometric coloniality’. To do this, many Nigerian political scientists, in the absence of any internationally respected locally published political science journals in the country, have to adopt the ‘acceptable’ narratives of the bibliometric economy, even when their own research leads them to different conclusions. One of the consequences is the relative dearth of Nigerian political scientists with global stature whose names alone would confer social legitimacy on the discipline in the country.
Though the Nigerian Political Science Association in recent years seems to be waking up to its responsibilities, a lot still needs to be done. In particular, it needs to be able to sustain its current activities and make itself more visible in the public space for at least ten years for it to be properly embedded in the consciousness of Nigerians. It is only then that the social relevance gap in the public perception of political science will begin to close.
The Future of political science
The key challenge facing political science globally and in Nigeria in particular, is establishing its relevance and social legitimacy. This is very much tied to the challenge of resolving its identity crisis, especially when many neighbouring disciplines are distancing themselves from the discipline. For instance, in many Universities, Economics, long regarded as part of the social sciences with political science and other disciplines, wants to be treated as part of the Management Sciences. Geography, which again has long been part of the social sciences with political science, seems to have done better in establishing its relevance especially in the light of conversations about climate change and concerns over the environment. In many Universities, it now wants to be in Environmental Sciences rather than the Social Sciences. Psychology, which again has long shared the same faculty with political science, is also making a case in some Universities on why it should be in the Department of Public Health. Amid this sense of abandonment by sister disciplines, political science is further being denuded of its essence as many of its sub disciplines and even courses are being carved out as independent disciplines– International Relations and Diplomacy, Terrorism Studies, Peace and Conflict studies, Public Administration etc. The further atomisation of the discipline only heightens its identity crisis and doubts about its social relevance.
Political science needs to further encourage its members to participate in public debates. It needs to do more in the production of visible public intellectuals who unwittingly advertise the discipline each time they appear in public spaces and are introduced as political scientists. In Nigeria, quite often, the people that have promoted the discipline most are not necessarily our best researchers and theorists but public intellectuals with political science background who are able to capture the public imagination with their analyses of issues.
Despite the backlash from the Perestroika Movement over the excessive mathematicisation of political science, the discipline still needs to figure out how, where and when to incorporate not just relevant quantitative methods but also emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence as both a methodology and tools of analysis.
The Nigerian Political Science Association as an organisation and practising political scientists in general should collectively struggle to raise awareness about the relevance of the discipline before a sceptical public and potential users of their research such as governments, public administrations, international organizations, political parties, think tanks, interest groups and the media. Quite often, a very effective instrument for materializing such internal and external efforts are our professional associations, either at the national or international level. Above all, professional associations are fora, where members of the political science community can deliberate and exchange ideas about how the profession should evolve.
It must be admitted that a somewhat ‘political science’ voice, have been heard in moments of crisis such as what happened at the end of the Cold War and dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 when there was a somewhat apprehension in the world on what would be next. The works of two political scientists helped to set the tone for the conversations. These works are Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man (1992) which argued that the universalisation of Western liberal democracy would be the final form of government for all nations. In 1993, another eminent political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote an essay, ‘The Clash of Civilization’ in direct response to Fukuyama’s End of History, which he later expanded into a 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.
Samuel P. Huntington wrote a 1993 essay, The Clash of Civilizations, in direct response to The End of History; he then expanded the essay into a 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. In both the essay and the book Huntington argued that that the temporary conflict between ideologies would be by the ancient conflict between civilizations.
With the numerous political and economic crises facing Nigeria – numerous groups delinking from the Nigerian state, separatist agitations, terrorism and banditry, weaponization of ethnicity etc, Nigerian political scientists should see these crises as remarkable opportunities to prove their relevance by coming up with quality research that the government and the general public cannot afford to ignore.
This paper was originally presented to the Nigerian Political Science Association via Zoom on January 24 2024 under the title: ‘Role of Political Science in a Democracy: Lessons from Europe and the USA for Nigeria’.
Jideofor Adibe is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Nasarawa State University, Keffi and founder of Adonis & Abbey Publishers (www.adonis-abbey.com). He can be reached on: email@example.com