April 18, 2012

Matt on (Methodologcal) Masturbation

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Matt on (Methodological) Masturbation

Matthew Flinders of Sheffield University made an interesting speech at the PSA in Belfast, accusing political scientists of ‘methodological masturbation’ and failing to communicate with politicians and the wider politically-engaged public. I think he’s largely right, but not entirely. He’s right that many political scientists have been taught that a $1000 word makes you sound more clever than a $1 word. If you’re qualitative in methodology, you tart up your language with ‘critical’ buzzwords and if quantitative, you compete to outdo others on summation signs, formal theory and Bayesian/monte carlo fancy methods that offer very marginal improvements over basic regressions. The structures of our discipline (top journals, grants, associations – especially APSA) force us to play it safe: ploughing a narrow furrow for your entire career is a safer way to notch up publications than taking risks by crossing disciplinary boundaries. Meanwhile, reducing one’s weighty theoretical lingo to the intelligible currency of the masses is in some way ‘selling out’. Where Flinders is wrong, however, is when he assumes that it is easy to get things published in broadsheets or to have programmes commissioned on radio/tv. It is easy if you are a known quantity or have connections. From my own experience, I know that when I lose a contact at one outlet, this closes the door to submitting , and when I establish one, this opens a door. Many journalists I know have confided that their publication is a relatively closed shop – people who attend the same round of social events and ‘know’ each other. Same is true in broadcast media, where my experience with film production companies trying to get a documentary sold is that it is damn near impossible without a strong ‘tabloid’ angle or connection. This does not mean that publishing is impossible – only that one may have to settle for a regional rag rather than the FT. And, as one who has also published in the Australian, I cannot agree that they are simply waiting on scraps of publishable material from British academics…the timing has to be right.

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