Back in the Sixties, I studied political science at Columbia University. It was a time of considerable turmoil, especially on university campuses. As students coming into maturity in the late fifties and early sixties, we had been imbued with the idea that, by participating, we could make a difference.
I was encouraged in this regard by my efforts in Berlin, New Hampshire,
we had been imbued with the idea that, by participating, we could make a difference.
campaigning with some of my fellow students on behalf of Senator Eugene McCarthy for president. Devoted to the cause, we went Clean for Gene. We slept on church floors, attended local hockey games, trudged from house to house through the snow, shaved our beards, and even put on brassieres. On returning home, we discovered that President Johnson had decided not to run for another term, based on the election returns in Berlin. Never before had we felt so empowered!
Our confidence in participation became somewhat tenuous, however. In the months that followed, we witnessed the shooting of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; the continuing descent of the US into the Vietnam morass; as well as what we perceived as the great betrayal of the 1968 Democratic Convention. Meanwhile, at Columbia, student participation was intensifying, culminating in Mark Rudd and his followers’ siege of the administration and math buildings. In the chaos of the moment, it was hard to know where to take a stand. So, many of us positioned ourselves in the middle ground, that is to say, in a line encircling the math building, between the police and the protesters, opposing the siege but supporting amnesty. To our dismay, the line broke, as the policemen–some on horseback–charged through the crowd and entered the building. Most disturbing to me was the vision of one of our professors–who taught international social forces–being tossed over a hedge; apprehended by the police; and taken to jail.
Most disturbing to me was the vision of one of our professors–who taught international social forces–being tossed over a hedge; apprehended by the police; and taken to jail.
On campus, the response to this eruption was very mixed. According to rumors circulating around campus, a number of our professors stopped speaking to one another, and–as I came to understand it–they did not do so for several years. These tensions were mirrored in heated disputes among students walking on the quad, engaging in the classroom, and debating over lunch. At issue, first and foremost, was what, in a democracy, should be the limitations on participation. And, as a corollary, what role should academics–in particular–play in political affairs? For those of us who aspired to become future scholars within the academy, the burning question was whether or not it was appropriate, or even possible, to be value free in times such as these.
The answer, according to a majority of social science faculty, was to rise above the fray by turning to positive, quantitative analysis. And so it happened. The Department of Public Law and Government, which had a long tradition of performing institutional analysis, changed its name to the Department of Political Science. Mirroring this change at a more global level was the shift in the American Journal of Political Science from qualitative articles to those based on quantitative analysis. Disgruntled rumblings were stirring in another camp, however, where a revolt against scientism and the rise of post-modernism was beginning to take form.
Of course, debates about the proper role of social science have had a long and continuous history, dating back to the origins of sociology, and August Comte, who vigorously called for a new, positive and empirically based science of human behavior. As Bruce Mazlish points out in his contemplative history, The Uncertain Sciences — Comte raised the flag for positivism in reaction to the horror and chaos of the French Revolution. As Comte argued, to search for the real truth, the social sciences had to rise above ideology by mimicking the physical sciences. The complexities of the Industrial Revolution led to a similar effort to simplify the world, in this case by drawing on the lessons of the machine age to develop a science-base management program. Focused on specialization, standardization, and rationalization, the efforts of these social scientists culminated in the automated work place, Taylorism and–as Max Weber called it–the iron cage of bureaucracy. As might be expected, critics redounded ranging from Marx and Nietsche to Rathenau, Mumford and Ellul.
Once again we are, today, confronted with problems of great uncertainty, brought about by increased interconnectedness and speed of interaction on a global scale. Robert Axelrod calls it a complexity revolution. Much as in the past, the scholarly community–when fraught with uncertainty–has tended to remain aloof by simplifying–dividing itself between those who seek to contain the situation through the use of rhetorical and ideological categories and those who seek to distance themselves through abstraction in numbers. However, as Mazlish reminds us, neither perspective can–on it own–address the complexities of an environment in which human beings and natural phenomenon are continually co-evolving. To encompass these interactions, both approaches–the positive and the interpretive–are essential to understanding. Hence, academics, if they are to be relevant, cannot–as in the past–employ reductionism in whatever form to circumvent difficult situations. Rather, they must work together, looking both from within and from without, to gain a more coherent and decisive perspective.