Political Theory vs. Political Science?

For my doctoral dissertation, I am attempting to mix political theory with empirical hypothesis testing.  I do this by first outlining 3 different theories, or 3 different accounts of how the desire for immortality is related to healthy political attitudes.  Of course, I have to explain in my project what exactly I mean by “the desire for immortality,” and what I mean by “healthy political attitudes.”  More on these concepts another time.

The 3 theories I look at are all very interesting, but I also wanted to empirically test them side-by-side.  I decided to set up a survey experiment.  Setting this project up was not an easy thing to do, and I have had to carefully defend the validity of my research design each step of the way.  The successes and set-backs have been thrilling throughout.

This approach to political research questions — going from a fairly in-depth textual analysis of political philosophy to the generation and testing of empirical hypotheses — is not common.  Yet it really seems to be the future of political science, and I predict that research approaches like my own should only be increasingly common as time goes on.

The inherent institutional drags on this progress are familiar.  On one side, empiricists will sometimes agree that hypothesis testing should be “theory-driven,” but then they don’t want to hand the keys over to the theorists — at least not to that kind of theorist, not to an abstract philosopher.  On the other side, theorists will sometimes agree that empirical truth matters — that incorrect or incomplete assumptions of human nature (for instance) threaten to undercut what might otherwise be truly profound political theorizing.  But then they will mistakenly assume that the current state of quantitative methods is, unfortunately, inadequate.

Fortunately, there is much more middle ground than many suspect.  Theorists (and philosophers!) are invaluable as hypothesis generators, and empiricists are both inventing and developing more dynamic types of research methods every day.  This is being recognized more and more, and promises to ultimately transform the entire discipline.

Why not get in early?

One thought on “Political Theory vs. Political Science?

  1. I agree with you. I considered myself a quantitative student, and most of the times I rather put too much attention in how to test the hypotheses, leaving aside the study and the development of the hypotheses. Every time that I let myself go and “hand the keys”, I find myself with a stronger claim and a better work.

    Liked by 1 person

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