A new collection engages directly with how political science can achieve wider relevance as a discipline. Matt Wood finds The Relevance of Political Science a must read for any scholar interested in the impact debate and he welcomes a return to the more social constructivist ideas of impact through teaching and learning. But there is a risk this relevance debate descends into a Buzzfeed world of hints and tips. More attention could be spent justifying to society why the theoretical and conceptual work political scientists already do is intimately valuable in any democratic society.
What more is there to be said in the debate on ‘relevance’? To the extent that there ever could be a ‘debate’, it now surely remains settled, with the breathtakingly swift institutionalisation of impact case studies into the REF agenda, the plethora of blogs and buzzfeed style hints and tips for the impact savvy social scientist, and the growth of completely un-self-consciously parodying terms like ‘deep impact’. What more then, is there to say?
According to Stoker, Peters and Pierre in their new edited collection The Relevance of Political Science, quite a lot, actually. For them, “the key agenda is how best to understand the obstacles that need to be resolved in achieving relevance and the potential for relevance that could thereby be realised”. So the ‘how’ question is now central: we all want to be relevant, and indeed to accuse political scientists of ‘irrelevance’ might be viewed either as an eyebrow-raising political move, or a deeply patronising misunderstanding. But the key is how to make that relevance less a rhetorical trope and more of an empirical reality. The Relevance of Political Science helps to highlight the range of answers to the ‘how?’ question, particularly the relevance of teaching, but could go further in stressing the importance of conceptual and theoretical reflection about politics.
Answering the “How?” question
Importantly, The Relevance of Political Science starts not from the argument (often pushed rather too frequently) that political scientists are intellectual hermits who need to be cajoled into believing in an abstract relevance ‘crusade’. Colin Hay in his contribution wittily terms this the ‘Glasnost’ movement, echoing the American Perestroikans of the early 2000s. Instead, the book begins with the meat of the problem: How can political scientists, in all their theoretical, conceptual and empirical diversity, achieve the perception that they are ‘relevant’? The answer is a strongly pluralistic discipline, with a diversity of approaches to relevance, and in particular how ‘post-positivist’ political science finds relevance within the classroom.
Here, John Gerring offers the clearest explication of how post-structuralists view the relevance agenda:
“Although arguments for relevance are rarely stated explicitly, it seems clear that writers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Slavoj Zizek view the scientific pretensions of social science as not merely wrong but also damaging to society. Their war against social science is correctly viewed as an attempt to liberate society from a false idol. It is not – at least not usually – waged with a Dionysian intent simply to amuse and distract.”