Thursday, February 24, 2011

If not now, when?

These are exciting times, with popular revolts not only toppling brutal dictatorships in North Africa, but also mobilizing people in established democracies who are fed up with being pushed around by arrogant elites. Obviously Berlusconi in Italy and Walker in Wisconsin are not exactly up there with Gheddafi and Mubarak, but there seems to be a feeling in many places that people are not being listening to and their interests are not being looked after by political leaders. Could this be the beginning of a wave of mobilizations similar to what we saw between the mid-1960s and the late 1970s?

One thing that is becoming fairly clear here is that political science has been caught on the hop in pretty much the same way economics was humbled by the 2008- crisis. Nobody I'm aware of was predicting popular revolts in the Arab world, and my guess is that our discipline was just as surprised by all this as Ben Ali, Gheddafi and Mubarak evidently were.

Why are we so useless? Well, in part because social science is aspiring to achieve the impossible - predicting the behaviour of human beings who have free will and whose ideas about the world change as a result of experience and new knowledge. Physics doesn't have to cope with reflexive stars.

But in part it's also because of the way our disciplines have developed. Despite the institutionalist turn in political science, and more restrictively in economics, we still don't really understand collective behaviour very well. Political science has turned its back on the empirical problem of how interests are articulated, instead dedicating itself more and more to developing models based on absurdly crude assumptions about social structures (see for example Acemoglu and Robinson or Boix's work on democratization, which entirely ignores the problem of group formation). So we have nice theories about what happens if we have a society divided into three discrete class groups, distinguishable only by their material well-being, but we don't know why societies divide up in this or other ways, or indeed how the interests of these class groups are interpreted by their leaders, or how they get mobilized.

So, the cutting edge is missing the point. What should we do instead? Go back to Schattschneider, Dahl, Lipset and Rokkan and develop new theories and empirical accounts of how people identify with each other, mobilize, and organize. There is plenty of work in this tradition out there, but it's about time it got the status the 'politics in a social vacuum' guys get.

Just a thought.