• Open Access

Making Political Science Matter: Debating Knowledge, Research, and Method

Edited By Sanford F.Schram and BrianCaterino . Published by New York University Press , New York , 2006 . Paperback, 204 pages . ISBN 13: 978 0 8147 4033 0 .

Reviewed by Vivian LinSchool of Public Health, La Trobe University, Victoria

This is a book about a book –Making Social Science Matter: Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again, by Bent Flyvbjerg. As such, it must have created a stir in the political science field. That book was favourably reviewed by Alex Broom in 2001 for this journal (Aust N Z J Public Health 25(6):577-8). It seemed like a good idea to see 1) what the stir was about, and 2) whether political science can matter for public health – especially as health politics has yet to be incorporated as a core component of public health study in Australia, unlike other health social sciences.

This book comes in three parts. The first part reviews the ‘Flyvbjerg Debate’. Three of the five chapters are reprinted articles from Politics & Society and Political Theory and serve as a useful backdrop to introduce readers to what the excitement has been about. The second part, titled ‘Phronesis Reconsidered’, is a set of five chapters that discusses the theoretical questions posed by Flyvbjerg's work – theories about science, knowledge, uses of research. It is only in the final four chapters of part three that political science as a discipline is addressed.

Broom's review in 2001, when the initial book was released, called the book “remarkable”, “inspirational” and “engaging”. For political scientists, at least in the United States (where most of the authors of this volume are based), it touched a raw nerve – as retold in the first chapter by Sanford Schram. At the time, there was a “renegade movement to promote methodological pluralism in political science called Perestroika” (p. 17), which was attempting to challenge the dominance of positive research. In particular, the concern of this group of researchers was the underlying assumption that political behaviour can be predicted according to theories of rationality, and such cumulative predications are the basis of political knowledge. This group of concerned political scientists was interested in historical and field research, qualitative case studies, interpretive and critical analysis, and other context-sensitive approaches to the study of politics.

As in public health, such methodological challenges can often degenerate into simplistic debates about quantitative versus qualitative methods. Indeed, the debate within political science, as illustrated in part one of the book, shows how such a debate has occurred and is difficult to overcome. Yet, as Schram outlines in part two, ‘phronetic social science’ is not just a methodological problem, but is fundamentally concerned with such issues as: what problems should the research address (or how should the researcher choose the problem), what ends and values bear on these problems, what particular realities are pertinent and how do they inform the general human condition, what courses of action should be taken to deal with the problem elucidated by research, and how researchers should engage with the concerned public (p. 127). These questions are also at the heart of public health research.

Luke, in the final chapter, suggests that the Flyvbjerg question of ‘where are we going?’ is the most important question if political science is going to matter. Kasza outlines in part three that the key questions for the science of politics are: what is the character of political life, how can we know about politics, and what purpose should political knowledge serve. He suggests that postgraduate students need to reflect on their own personal experiences, read history, and read political philosophy. Clegg's argument that institutions matter points to the importance of organisational analyses, while Thiele suggests that intuition matters and good judgements cannot be taught. So he argues that learning should be based on experiences plus application of explicit knowledge and rationality.

The commentaries contained in this book are at a rather high level of abstraction and speak to insiders’ debates. As such, it might not convince public health researchers and practitioners that political science does matter. On the other hand, there are a series of general points that are probably just as relevant for public health, at least in Australia, as for political science. For one, the exposure that public health students have to history is generally limited. For another, how to work effectively in organisational contexts is usually not a central aspect of public health courses, despite the fact that most public health practitioners will be working in public sector organisations. Additionally, there are few experientially based training schemes to help support the development of good judgement. Perhaps public health courses could also ensure there is a reflective orientation on the questions of: what is the character of public health practice, how can we understand public health knowledge and its relationship to practice, and what purpose should public health knowledge serve.