- Not Shaken, Not Even Stirred
A movie critic tells us about the movie, including enough to let us make a reasonable guess as to whether we'd want to see it. Book reviewers have some of this role even in academic life. But there is a large body of professional critics in the social sciences whose role is extraordinarily different. They criticize entire schools of thought or explanation and they commonly conclude that the schools are a wrong turn and should be abandoned. One does not read them in order to judge what work to read or what kind of work to do, although one gets the sense that the critics want to influence what is done. Who reads these critics? Quite possibly they read each other while those whom they criticize typically suppose that the best way to weigh what is done according to one method or another is to do some of it, indeed, to do it as creatively as possible.
To be very clear, I should note that we all do criticism as part of our professional activities. We do it, for example, when we give a new account of some phenomenon by explaining it in some way different from how others before us have explained it. Or by using our favorite methodology to explain things in ways others have not already done. That is the daily life of the social scientist. The body of professional critics of interest here are different; they are often not engaged in social science per se when they do their criticism, which is relatively wholesale and dismissive rather than specific and corrective of the work or methods being criticized. Most of the work of ordinarily critical social scientists is very likely intended at least in part to improve on others' methods rather than to dismiss them.
Here I wish to focus on wholesale criticism of the social sciences, and especially of political science. There are two books before us, Anne Norton's (2004) 95 Theses and Ian Shapiro's (2005) The Flight from Reality. They both engage in fairly wholesale dismissal of much of the social science they see around them. One could note that they are fortunate to be in the departments they are in; they might run screaming from certain other departments.
A very large part of general criticism in these two engaging books is about definitions, as though to say that some scholars get their definitions wrong. That is a little bit odd. For example, Norton dismisses an account of culture by Matthew Miller (2001, 44) as "nonsense" because, as he uses the term, culture does not include some things Norton supposes should be included. Note, perversely, that this is the remark of someone [End Page 1] [Begin Page 4] who includes in her list of 95 theses the following two: "Facts are made" (no. 52) and "Facts are artifacts of the methods that produce them" (no. 53). Do these theses not apply to culture?
It is difficult to discover just what Ian Shapiro (2005) wishes to criticize other than perhaps almost everything his colleagues in the discipline do. In any significant field of social inquiry, there are bound to be a large number of forms of explanation at work, and they will use large numbers of theories or quasi theories. Indeed, a single social scientist working alone might use several theories and various methods. In his criticisms of many areas of research, Shapiro sometimes betrays a weak grasp of the variety and creativity of approaches even within any major school of explanation. Norton speaks of identity as though she has a grasp of the correct sense of the term, although there are many competing accounts. Some of these do not even overlap each other, and hers is very thin and not yet ready for application in any serious social analysis.
Shapiro (2005, 175) says that we have a need for certainty that "emanates from our terror at the transience of all things, including ourselves. We can no more abandon it than can we cease to be intelligent creatures." Really? Who is "we" here? John Dewey ( 1960) could abandon the quest for certainty, could...