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Theory and Political Science
by Lena Schipper
Wednesday Oct 23rd, 2013 6:49 AM
Theory hardly plays any role in political science. Mathematics has a firm hold on the discipline. You can only publish if you mathematicize. However mathematics doesn't have any answers to questions about justice. Quantitative approaches are only one part of political science. Central questions (which political system is just? In what society do we want to live?) cannot be explored well under time and result pressure.

Theory hardly plays any role in political science. Mathematics has a firm hold on the discipline. However mathematics doesn’t have any answers to questions about justice.

By Lena Schipper

[This article published on 10/8/2013 is translated from the German (“Politikwissenschaft Marx im Regen”) on the Internet,]

A lecturer in international politics at a British university had an annoying day. “Do you want to work normatively? Academic careers can forget about that!” he laments. The doctoral candidate murmurs something about important social-political questions that must be answered on the global plane. The lecturer smiles sympathetically: “Oh yes, everything is fine and good. But seek a quantitative project if you want to have a future in this discipline. Don’t say afterwards I did not warn you.”

After sociologists in Europe and America recovered from the shockwaves of the financial crisis, a wave appeared that seemed to open up a gap in academic discourse. Students and professors left libraries and lecture halls and camped out at Wall Street, in London City and in the Frankfurt bank district. They protested against an “overly simple economic logic” that plunged parts of society to the brink of ruin. The highest command of the economy, the idea that free markets bring about efficient results and the political consequence from this idea – that more areas of society should be left to the powers of the market – seem thrown into doubt. Economists must be criticized for not predicting the crisis and not offering any solutions. The debate about alternative models of society and the economy experienced a little Renaissance.


Nevertheless economics expands its influence in the social sciences. In political science, economic methods and arguments are so widespread that this development can hardly be rescinded. Many political scientists are critical of this development. “We must given an account when we do not corroborate our political science theses with economic arguments,” says Ulrich Brand, professor of international politics at Vienna University. Brand sees other forms of analysis devalued.

In the past, this influence was most visible in questions of methodology. As the British doctoral candidate experienced, those who urge quantitative methods increasingly prevail in discussions about correct research approaches. Researchers who want international success must adjust to this. “You can only publish if you mathematize,” Brand said in “International Organization,” the global flagship among political science journals. More is involved than statistical data that was important since time immemorial for the work of comparative political science or political sociology. Instead political scientists increasingly build mathematical models to explain the behavior of voters, politicians and states. In many cases, the underlying assumption is that the calculability bound with mathematization makes research free of any value judgments and thus more “scientific.”

“It is hard to accept when a lecturer says only what is expressed in numbers is science,” a doctoral candidate says. The models of political scientists are less “neutral” that those of economists. A multitude of assumptions is needed to make mathematical calculations about political processes. The most important assumption is that a central actor can be identified who acts rationally corresponding to his preferences – the classical figure of economics, the “homo oeconomicus.”


The use of mathematical models is not problematic in itself. The economic approaches have enriched political science. For example, the play theory analysis of international relations can illuminate processes that have long been enigmas in classical theories of international politics. Although mathematization has increased in Germany, political scientists at universities still study qualitative and normative methods. Where one studies is important. While the University of Mannheim is known for its empirical focus, Frankfurt researchers still cherish the approach of critical theory.

The question of the right method is only one critical point. Ulrich Brand finds the demand that socio-economic research should be directly economically useful much more problematic. The idea that only what comes out of this is important is very widespread, he says. “Raising critical questions takes second place and isn’t desired. Basic research falls to the background. We feel this in the daily academic routine.” Social science was not traditionally an instrument for solving problems. “Problems can be found that have no solution,” the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck wrote in the introduction to his book “Purchased Time” (Gekaufte Zeit) in which he analyzes the relation between democracy and capitalism. He regards devaluing diagnoses only because they are accompanied by suggested therapies as wrong.

The idea that knowledge should be immediately useful influences the work of professors and doctoral candidates. Political science curriculums were increasingly focused on that since the Bologna reform. The modules are structured according to the amount of work involved and acquired skills while the contents often only appear as a vehicle. At the University of Frankfurt, bachelor students in political science can gain more so-called “credit points” for a two-month traineeship than for a two-semester seminar in political theory.


The University of Mannheim whose programs regularly land at the top of ranking lists does not offer political theory any more. “Study here is strongly empirically oriented,” says Lukas Bohm, a third semester student in political science in Mannheim. “We learn a little about other approaches but they are hardly applied.” If one wants to work differently, one has to find little gaps.

Many students oppose this development. “Application-orientation is important,” says the 24-year old Jakob Blume who also studied political science in Mannheim and is now working on a Masters in international economics in Frankfurt. “Knowing quantitative methods improves vocational chances. Many of my fellow students are now working at polling institutes or in bureaucracies. “I gained a Masters in economics because I tried econometric approaches.”

Perhaps the graduates of these courses of study are actually less endangered to have to later pursue careers as taxi-drivers. Ultimately the goal is to objectively adjust academic training more closely to praxis. However the problems that can be solved with quantitative approaches are only one part of political science. Other central questions of the discipline (e.g. which political system is just? In what society do we want to live?) cannot be explored well under time- and result-pressure or helped with mathematical models. These questions are losing significance in an environment that increasingly only accepts this model as “scientific.”


Ulrich Brand, “Socio-ecological transformation: dominant developments, resistances and alternatives – energy as a crucial terrain,” 8pp, June 26, 2013

Rosa Luxemburg foundation, “The ABCs of Alternatives,” May 2013, 19pp