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  • Political Science:Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy
  • John G. Gunnell (bio)

In the third edition of Political Science: State of the Discipline, the editors noted that although the title implied that there was in fact a discipline, "even this much about political science cannot be taken for granted" and that readers of the volume should "not miss the remarkable heterogeneity and contested qualities of political science." In the end, the most the editors could in summary fashion meaningfully say about the past and present of the field was that it focused on "how to study the modern state and liberal democracy."1 Since the early 1970s, political science has in many respects relinquished any attempt to conceive of itself as a unified discipline and profession. Despite hopes and fears regarding the emergence of a theoretical hegemony, precipitated in part by the aggressiveness of rational choice analysis, methodological pluralism has been the predominant value. One might even suggest that the rehabilitation of pluralism as a normative theory among political theorists during the last two decades reflects as much the character of the field as it does the world of politics.2

Nietzsche may have been correct in suggesting that only those things that lack a history can be easily defined, and the difficulty in isolating some attribute that would support more than an arbitrary definition of political science may explain in part the distinctly increased attention in recent years to the serious study of the history of political science.3 Although the plural character of political science is in part a function of professional specialization and differentiation, it is also deeply rooted in the history of the field. As a profession, political science began largely as a "holding company" for some diverse intellectual endeavors associated with the study of the state, and there is a sense in which much of its history, especially during the first half of the twentieth century, can be viewed as a search for a disciplinary center of gravity that would unify those endeavors. This was a search, however, that was largely terminated by the end of what is commonly referred to as the behavioral era. From the point of David Easton's Presidential address on the "New Revolution in Political Science" (1969),4 ecumenism, for both social and intellectual reasons, became the Grundnorm of political science.

Plurality, however, almost by definition, is a difficult target to locate, and to seek a disciplinary identity by valorizing pluralism is a somewhat paradoxical strategy. One might reasonably cite Robert Dahl's conclusion that polyarchy implies a situation in which either no one rules or minorities rule5 — or, as many critics suggested, someone rules by default. For Dahl, as, later, for John Rawls6 what gave identity to a pluralistic political universe was an underlying or overlapping consensus, but the consensus was really more about the value of pluralism itself than some particular set of substantive norms. What, after the 1960s, brought an end to the controversy about behavioralism, and the attending conflict between mainstream political science and the subfield of political theory, was largely the acceptance, and embrace, of disciplinary diversity. This was also in large measure the story of the recent rise and demise of Perestroika. The consequence of this brief twenty-first century uprising of professional and political dissatisfaction was that mainstream political science, whatever direction one might think that the "stream" flowed, began to welcome such things as qualitative methods, and in the end, all factions seemed to be once again happy with the idea of identity in difference.

If it has been difficult for those, such as the editors of A New Handbook of Political Science,7 who in some measure wished to celebrate the state of the discipline, to specify its character, it is even more frustrating for those who seek to criticize that condition. This is one of the problems confronting the books by Anne Norton and Ian Shapiro.8 One difficulty attaching to their self-ascription as disciplinary critics is that, at least from the perspective of Google Earth, they belong to the very orthodoxy they are criticizing, or at least they represent a loyal opposition. But more importantly, it is difficult...


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