Doing Fieldwork

Last weekend I was at the APSA (American Political Science Association) in Washington D.C. I am currently working on philosophy of science issues in political science and so I was doing “fieldwork”. Actually, the quotes probably don’t belong there as it really was fieldwork including interviews and participant observation! My primary goal was to talk to political scientists about methodology, particularly about varieties of qualitative methodology and the use of case studies. The trip was very worthwhile on that front. Those working on such issues were very open to talking about philosophical aspects of the questions and I made some great contacts.

But there was a very interesting and unexpected aspect to my experience. I attended four sessions, two of which were Theme Panels on Qualitative and Multi-method research. What was interesting about these theme panels is that political scientist who work in the qualitative tradition clearly feel marginalized. They have concerns about getting their work published, getting tenure, being looked down upon, and so on. In other words, they have many of the same concerns that feminist philosophers have. On one panel, statistics on publication in journals were discussed and it was noted how few publications in the top journals were qualitative. The editor of APSR reported that they had only received 8 submissions that were qualitative and so it was not so much a problem of the reviewers screening out qualitative work as it was submitters self-screening. Three years ago, I sat on a panel at the APA where a nearly identical discussion took place about publications by women – with a very similar conclusion – that there were very few submissions by women to the top journals in philosophy. Another startling similarity was the advice given to graduate students who wanted to incorporate more qualitative methodologies into their work: wait until you have tenure. Again, I have heard senior women given this similar advice to junior feminist philosophers – wait until you have tenure before you reveal that you are a feminist.

So what does this interesting similarity reveal? I suppose the obvious – that the experiences of marginalized academic researchers are quite similar. But it also reveals the way in which the dominate views in each generation slow progress and discourage alternate views. I suppose that there is something inherently conservation about academic research in that we make demands on ourselves to meet certain standards and while some of the restriction that the standards impose may be necessary for the integrity of the discipline, they also will inevitably exclude alternative approaches, some of which may be quite valuable. In witnessing these sorts of discussions in both professions, I also see a strong belief that over time the good ideas will manage to survive in spite of these constraints and ultimately the standards will shift as well. But I think that observing this dynamic should remind us that our own standards will indeed limit the alternative hypotheses that are available (in the sense of being considered legitimate sorts of hypotheses) at any moment in time. Another reason to be cautious and perhaps, humble, about our knowledge claims.
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