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Theodore M. Porter Speaking Precision to Power: The Modern Political Role of Social Science THE MODERN COMPACT BETW EEN SCIENCE AND THE STATE ALLOWS FOR the flow of public money to research and an expectation that politicians will generally not meddle w ith the scientific work—on condition that the science, reciprocally, should stay clear of politics. That seems at first a harmless constraint, for w hat could be political about the formation and breakdown of atm ospheric ozone, the dynamics of ocean currents, or the neurological development of a fetus? Yet in none of these areas can scientific research now stand apart from charged public issues. Indeed, while political pressures on science have grown in contemporary America, and especially in the current m illennium, states and churches have never been indifferent to conceptions of nature. Still less can social knowledge pretend to be free of implications for policy and politics. The claim for its ideological neutrality depends on consigning social science to the realm of facts rather than values, while conceding the legitimacy of political judgm ent in deciding how to use this inform ation as a basis for action. Not its objects—which, being social, political, economic, and historical, are very hum an—but its methods, rigorous and impersonal, are taken as the ground for social science objectivity. Methodological rigor, often with an emphasis on quantification, has been part ofthe drive to m ake a science of society that can hold its head social research Vol 73 : No 4 : W inter 2006 1273 up in the company of physics, chemistry, and engineering. It is also part of the distancing from politics, which, ironically, underlies the accepted policy role for social science—not as the science of the legislator, but as a resource, untainted by ideology, to which legislators can look for infor­ m ation and analysis. This ideal is threatened by the current flourishing of partisan think tanks. Yet their prevalence, ironically, makes a repu­ tation for objectivity all the m ore precious. I am concerned here less with the explicit politicization of social science than with the sacrifices required to shore up a reputation for rigor and freedom from ideology. Typically, this has required focusing on objects and problems that can be examined impersonally and trying to m inimize the explicit invoca­ tion of judgm ent or insight. In the idiom of quantification—a pervasive idiom in this context—social science has been preoccupied w ith preci­ sion, with neutral information, even w hen the thing measured or char­ acterized is not exactly w hat we are trying to comprehend. QUANTIFYING SOCIETY A wish to claim (or achieve) the status of science is not the only reason to m easure and calculate in the hum an domain, and indeed the impulse to social quantification was not at first a scientific one. Numbers occur spontaneously and copiously in m odern processes of economic exchange, and the rise of social statistics was driven by administrative ambitions as m uch as by scientific or m athem atical ones (Desrosieres, 1998). The bureaucratic and the scientific, each w ith a claim to author­ ity based on w hat Max W eber called objectivity, seem som etimes to m eld together. An alliance of adm inistration and science was part of the project of Enlightenm ent under eighteenth-century absolutism, and was especially fundam ental to Condorcet’s m athem atical vision of w hat could be achieved by the French Revolution. Condorcet, signifi­ cantly, had little place in his theories for politics as a contest am ong self-interested actors, preferring to see it as a collective endeavor to identity the true or correct course of action (Baker, 1975; Brian, 1994). His conception of social science, though m athem atical, was not based on specialized experts conducting research in towers of ivory, 1274 social research but of engaged, enlightened citizens w ho were ideally fitted to hold high offices. It was not wholly distinct from the ideal of an enlight­ ened m onarch who would take counsel from the m ost knowledgeable of his subjects. And while functionaries before and during the revolu­ tion were never too interested in the m...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1273-1294
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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