Against the Quantitative Turn in Political Science

In doing readings and conducting literature reviews for both the SNaPP Lab and other government courses, one dominant trend in contemporary political science emerges: Theory is out, quantitative research is in.

At first glance, this quantitative turn in political science would seem to be a positive development. Theory guided works often appear impenetrable, given to subjective interpretation, and unable to provide practical policy solutions. The rise of quantitative research in political science offers the emancipatory hope that the pernicious subjectivity so endemic to the social sciences can be partially overcome. Speculative theory can be replaced by an objective and systematic method of inquiry that allows the discipline to better address the practical, everyday needs of people.

It sounds nice, but an actual look through contemporary political science research leaves one a little less optimistic about the discipline’s new passion for empiricism. Studies replete with advanced statistical techniques and computational models have produced, as Ziliak and McCloskey call it, a “cult of statistical significance” that has allowed the profession to skirt the fundamental questions in favor of limited debates over measurement or method that fail to tell us much at all.

This isn’t to bash all empirical research in the social sciences. Quantitative research can be endlessly illuminating and the advent of computers has given academics the ability to quantify and interpret a greater breadth of information than at any time in human history. But without any underlying theory or principle to guide the questions being asked, researchers will continue to find themselves awash with data but powerless to make it mean anything.

Political scientists would do well to pay attention to the warning Hannah Arendt put forth some forty years ago: “The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning. And truth and meaning are not the same.” As humans, we find value and meaning in the political. The power of political science is that it allows us to better understand the human condition by examining the ways in which we forge self-knowledge and purpose through our engagement in public discourse and the political process. A political science discipline which ignores this fact does so at its own peril.