Revolt of the political scientists

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Nov 4 07:30:41 MST 2000

NY Times, November 4, 2000


Political Scientists Are in a Revolution Instead of Watching


The protester used the code name Mr. Perestroika. His e-mail messages
preached popular revolt. "Head for the Parliament folks! (just as they did
in Belgrade)," one read in part. "When people are pushed to the brink, the
leaders go, the regime goes, the country changes!" read another.

The 17 sympathizers who received Mr. Perestroika's original message
forwarded it to others, and within 10 days the movement had grown to more
than 100 people. By the middle of this week, drafts of several letters
calling for change were circulating on the Web.

So who are these Internet guerrillas who have been fomenting revolt over
the last two weeks? They are American political scientists, more accustomed
to studying revolutions than to waging them. And their target? The leaders
of their professional organization, the American Political Science
Association, and its journal, the American Political Science Review.

At the heart of this latest uprising is a decades-old split in the field
over the best way to study politics. On one side are quantitative
researchers who favor rigorous mathematical techniques and on the other are
more traditional qualitative researchers who look at history and culture,
using case studies, written documents and firsthand observations. For
shorthand, you can think of the feud as the pronumber versus the nonnumber
folks (terminology that could no doubt spur a protest of its own). And
what's at stake are jobs, power and prestige.

Indeed, after receiving Mr. Perestroika's original e-mail message, dozens
of scholars wrote back saying they had seen colleagues denied jobs and
tenure and have trouble publishing their work because their research
methods did not conform with the quantitative approach championed by the
powerful minority that controls the association and the journal.

"Why does a coterie of faculty dominate and control A.P.S.A. and the
editorial board of A.P.S.R.?" Mr. Perestroika asked. "I hope this anonymous
letter leads to a dismantling of the Orwellian system that we have in
A.P.S.A. and that we will see a true Perestroika in the discipline."

Mr. Perestroika, who receives messages at an anonymous e- mail account at and is rumored to be not one but several junior professors (or
possibly graduate students), is orchestrating the protest under the cloak
of anonymity, presumably out of fear of reprisals.

Yet the anonymous protest created one on the record. Yesterday 125
scholars, including prominent people like Theda Skocpol, James C. Scott and
Adolph Reed Jr., submitted a letter summarizing their grievances and
suggesting changes in the association's leadership and the editor of the
review. The letter, drafted by Rogers Smith, a professor of government at
Yale University, argued that in its current state, the discipline was "in
danger of alienating a larger and larger number of those who should be its
active members, and contributing less and less to the kinds of
understanding of politics that it is our responsibility to advance."

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Louis Proyect
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