Friday, February 07, 2014

"Why Political Theory Matters"

. . . is now available on SSRN here. The abstract:

"Political theory matters. But why? Unfortunately, this simple claim about the importance of political theory may be controversial. This is because it runs contrary to what we might call a common misconception dominant in many informal circles that real world impact is the stuff of other sub-disciplines in political science and not made to order for political theorists. If we search for examples of politics as practiced, then too often an orthodox perspective for many political scientists is that theorists are expected to always come up short. One implication is that this orthodox view favours those sub-disciplines believed to offer some contribution to politics as practiced above the perceived importance of political theorists to politics as understood.

This contributes to a significant challenge for political theory. The perceived inability to contribute substantially to politics as practiced is not only a belief about political theory’s failure to engage with politics on the ground, but can undermine the one domain theorists are thought to have relevance, namely, to our understanding of politics if only abstractly. Some might argue: if political theorists cannot engage with the world and change it, then does political theory even matter?

This exceptionalism about political theory has additional negative effects. The launch of the so-called ‘impact agenda’ in British higher education is a recent example. The concern is that political theory is by its nature abstract and often thought to be substantially impractical. Political theorists more readily apply themselves to the consideration of ideas, but not always their relation to practices. The problem is that it has become more common to require evidence of research impact in funding applications and research assessments of departments. Political theorists are disadvantaged by this development and the impact agenda may threaten its future. In fact, this orthodox view is not only shared widely by most non-political theorists, but even by many political theorists, too.  

The orthodox view rests on a deep misunderstanding about the relation between ideas and practices. Political theorists can – and often do – affect practice. I offer a defence of political theory and its impact in this contribution. I will argue that the primary obstacle for political theorists is overcoming scepticism about the kind of impact theorists may offer. The issue is not about whether political theorists create impact, but rather the kinds of impact we should expect from political theorists.

This chapter present the impact that political theory has made and the opportunities for future work. It will consider the contributions made by leading political theorists to policy debates, the lessons learned from their successes, and how political theorists might further pursue existing and new opportunities to develop impact. The discussion will close with consideration of several potential threats that theorists should become more aware of in order to best avoid them. Political theorists should welcome – and not oppose – recent trends towards demonstrating impact because theorists (and perhaps the wider discipline of political science) can benefit."

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