Political Scientists: We are not driven by the mighty dollar
by Alicia Medica
Being a Political Science Major, I am often prompted to defend the efficacy of my chosen field of study. I am asked (way too often) why I didn’t pursue studies in medicine or business or whether or not I intend to be a politician. What I find most interesting though are the looks of confusion and worry on the faces of individuals if I say I have no intention of being a politician. So, naturally, they ask why “study politics then?”
Even though these questions are beyond tedious to answer at times, and somewhat offensive, I understand the concern and confusion. Even in academia, I have always noticed a certain muted disregard for the social sciences in relation to disciplines such as the pure and applied sciences. In the pure and applied sciences, truth is so named because of the rigorous process; the scientific method.
On the other there is little “truth” in social science because it’s too much a product of its architect or so they say.
The contention seems to be that value laden interpretive framework connects the social scientist to his subject of study as opposed to being removed and objective. I am however of the opinion that the true utility of the social sciences is in the prescriptive and normative capacities. That ability to marry processes and institutions with morality. Pardon the slight digression, another topic for another article!
Outside of academia it would seem that our tendency to equate utility to obvious practicality has led to a devaluing of disciplines like Political Science. Consequently, we have created academic and professional hierarchies based on epistemological status and assumed utility respectively. This much was confirmed by a very honest (and smug) friend of mine; who said, “I know what someone with an Accounting or Law degree can do, I am not so sure with you guys”.
A very simple definition of politics is who gets what, when, and how. As a Caribbean person, that definition alone should provide some clue as to the utility of political science. Consider our national and regional political projects in relation to a global system. When trying to pursue our interest in ways that best suit us, we are actually confronting very powerful forces.
Internationally and even locally, we are operating within frameworks that are not of our design. That has been our reality; we seldom decide what we get, when, and how.
The same can be said of local systems of government and institutions. In a perfect world, merit, qualification and ability would determine who gets what. However institutional decay has created a situation where such decisions are made according to kinship and other relationships. This then breeds rampant corruption, abuses of power and eventually artificially and acutely asymmetrical societies.
So, of course, the utility of the discipline is obvious to the student of politics; we understand and appreciate its practicality. It appears, however, that it’s not as obvious to everyone and maybe, to some extent, some of that is our fault. We have been so conditioned to speak to our academic counterparts that we forget we have a duty to create dialogue across our various disciplines.
Nonetheless, we know that we are first and foremost students of history, master researchers and advisors to all kinds of agencies and institutions, and of course communication experts. The former skill is an especially important to students of Caribbean politics. We understand that the contemporary Caribbean condition is very much a result of its unique history. This is not to say that we are always looking backwards.
To the contrary, an appreciation of history allows for a more comprehensive understanding of current events; we don’t only see what is, we also see what was and what might be. We are therefore less likely to try and treat the symptoms without first addressing the root causes. For instance I find normative assumptions about democracy to be troubling. It’s hard to say what democracy should be especially when it’s impossible to point to any one example and say it is “pure” democracy. Our history is a major deciding factor of how we eventually conceptualize democracy.
So, what we really understand better than most are ideas and their ability to drive change. Before anything manifests itself and becomes part of the social, economic or political landscape, it is first an idea. The most charismatic political leader is still held in check by the most dominant in a given society. How you/we behave is dictated by ideas about morality for instance.
Beyond this, consider the challenges of the 21st century; climate change in particular has placed very distinct ecological limits on development. Governments of the Caribbean have to find ways to mitigate and prepare for the imminent effects of climate change. Some have to also find ways to pursue developmental goals in the absence of a major agricultural commodity on increasingly fragile ecological bases. Likewise, the changing nature of the average Caribbean citizen will demand a critical re-examination of a lot of previously held notions.
Considering the nature of Caribbean societies however, ideas tend to become wedded to culture and tradition. This makes them incredibly difficult to update. As such we are somewhat willfully blind as it relates to a number of pertinent issues. Outdated ideas about sexuality and gender roles, for instance, have prevented us from creating truly inclusive and equitable societies.
Ultimately, the decision the political scientist, economist or sociologist has to eventually make is whether or not they are going to reflect archaic and contradictory ideas or make a commitment to finding new solutions to both new and recurring issues.
(Alicia Medica is a political Science graduate of the Cave Hill Campus, having received a first class honours degree, firstname.lastname@example.org)
This article was first published in Millennial Voices, a platform for young people (current and past students of the Cave Hill Campus) to express their views on issues related to national, as well as regional developments.