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  • The Flight From Reality:A response to Gunnell, Hardin, Shapiro, and Laitin
  • Ian Shapiro (bio)

I will not comment at any length on the thoughtful and erudite essays by John Gunnell and Michael J. Shapiro, though I should correct two misconceptions in what Gunnell has written. I am content to be characterized by him as belonging to a loyal opposition within political science, but I fail to see why this makes me a member of "the very orthodoxy" I criticize. Both Gunnell and Russell Hardin write as though the object of my criticism in Flight is a discipline or several disciplines. What I criticize is the method-driven research practices that have been influential in many of the human sciences over the past several decades, not the disciplines themselves. It would not be a plausible criticism to claim that my own research is method-driven, which Gunnell's hoist-on-his-own-petard line of argument would seem to imply. My substantive work on the dynamics of transition negotiations in South Africa, the Middle East, and Northern Ireland, on justice in civil institutions, on the repeal of the estate tax, and on U.S. national security policy no doubt has its flaws, but no one would plausibly call it method-driven. To my knowledge no one has.1

Second, Gunnell makes heavy weather of the fact that in these essays I argue from the basis of the philosophical realist position that I and others have defended from the ground up elsewhere rather than in these pages.2 No one can do everything in one place; nor should they try. In Flight my principal agenda was to expose various forms of method-drivenness, spelling out their deleterious consequences for the study of politics and society. I describe the realist commitments from which I proceed, referring the reader to other writings for a defense of them. Gunnell, it should be noted, proceeds in a like fashion. He asserts that realist philosophical commitments "are highly contentious in themselves as well as with respect to their applicability to social science," yet the only defense of this claim he offers is a reference to one of his books.

I will not say much about Russell Hardin's essay because for the most part we seem to be talking at cross purposes. Either I did not make my arguments on some particulars sufficiently clear, he did not read them sufficiently carefully, or both. The position about certainty he takes me to be defending in chapter 4 is the exact opposite of my argument, to wit, that while many people crave certainty it is the job of the principled social critic to resist and debunk such claims and their implications for political argument. I find it hard to fathom how anyone who read that chapter to the end could come away with a different understanding of my claim. Likewise, Hardin's call for openness to a pluralism of methods reads like a chorus line to my central claims that we should let the nature of the problem determine the appropriate methods of study, not the other way around (chapter 2); that we should be anti-reductionists about explanation which in turn requires openness to multiple methods (chapter 5); and that we should be cognizant that all methods of studying politics come with severe limitations, so that tackling a problem with many complementary methods is often the best way to go (chapters 5 and 6).

I have considerable admiration for David Laitin's empirical work in political science, but his comment on Flight is disappointingly obtuse. A good title for it would be "Shooting the Messenger with Non-Sequiturs," in as much as he tries to direct a series of barbs at me that for the most part fail to engage with the argument of the book. When he does engage, he gets it badly wrong.

The first non-sequitur is Laitin's lament that although I complain of a flight from reality in the human sciences, "the text is virtually empty of any supported claims about that reality." Flight is a collection of methodological essays, not a summary of my substantive work. As he acknowledges in a...


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pp. 31-34
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