in Oxford, Politics, Rants

Compass rose in Scotland

In the spirit of short entries, I have a confession to make: I am not a social scientist. Even worse, I don’t believe in social ‘science.’ Science is about things where you can access physical reality closely enough that you can be decisively proved wrong. Science is about improving our ability to act usefully in the world. Adding a bunch of regressions to your study on civil wars does not accomplish that.

PS. Political theory is about a million times more interesting than international relations theory.

[Update: 2 August] This entry doesn’t quite say what I mean, especially as regards the definition of science. It will need to be revisited when the ideas are clearer in my mind.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Kushnir August 2, 2006 at 3:47 am


i think that really needed to be said.


R.K. August 1, 2006 at 11:53 pm

This has been obvious for about 1000 entries, but I suppose it can feel good to properly come out about it.

Rob August 2, 2006 at 1:54 pm

Come over to the Dark Side, Luke…

Milan August 2, 2006 at 2:00 pm

What is the dark side? History? Politics?

Anonymous August 2, 2006 at 4:20 pm

“Science is about things where you can access physical reality closely enough that you can be decisively proved wrong. Science is about improving our ability to act usefully in the world.”

The first criticism is far more biting than the second. If all we are aiming for is to do better, numerical analysis of international relations might be valuable. It is the idea that such methods can be a path towards truth of a scientific variety that is dubious.

Rob August 2, 2006 at 5:37 pm

The dark side of treason against social science as science, clearly…

Tristan Laing August 2, 2006 at 7:27 pm

I’d say “access to physical reality closely enough that you can be decisivly proven wrong” is a pretty good meaning of science. However, things that are not science certainly can improve our ability to act usefully in the world.I certainly hope that your thesis does this, even though it will not be “scientific”.

In general, this is an entry I am very glad to read. For more on “Science”, check out Kuhn’s SSR

Alex August 2, 2006 at 7:43 pm


As much as I share your concerns about the possibility of “social sciences” you are mistaken is assuming that IR theory is a social science.

In fact, most leading IR theorists would see themselves primarily as political philosopers: Andrew Linklater, Chris Brown, David Held, Rob Walker, Steve Smith, Nicholas Rengger, Terry Nardin. Also do not forget that the first people who were engaged in the exercise of IR were classical realists such as E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau or Reinhold Niebuhr who were much more rooted in history, political theory and theology. Most good IR, I contend, is political theory with an implicit or explicit international focus.

The notion that IR is a social science only seems to be promoted by orthodox circles within the US academia and may also held by some people here in Oxford. However, it a position that does neither reflect the work done by the wider British IR community nor the work undertaken by many other IR communities in Europe and beyond.

– Alex

Milan August 2, 2006 at 8:34 pm


“However, things that are not science certainly can improve our ability to act usefully in the world.”

Very true and important. Indeed, the thing that may be most unappealing about portraying international relations as comprehensible in scientific terms is the misplaced idea that it can be understood in a purely technical way, devoid of normative assumptions or agendas.

Milan August 2, 2006 at 8:36 pm


“[P]olitical theory with an implicit or explicit international focus” sounds like a pretty good description of what I would like to do. The interesting bits involve things like legitimacy and law.

Ben August 2, 2006 at 9:12 pm

Political theory is definitely the place to be.

I was never sure about IR myself. I always assumed it wasn’t really politics (hence why the dept’s politics AND IR). Perhaps I should’ve embraced that and taken the IR paper as an undergrad, I think it would’ve helped if I wanted to get into global governance and justice etc… I was vaguely toying with attending some IR lectures if I get time this year though.

Milan August 2, 2006 at 9:24 pm


The major reasons IR appeals to me are:

1) An interdisciplinary approach – borrowing from history, economics, and other disciplines
2) A very close connection to policy development. I have very little interest in academic work that does not have policy ramifications.

B August 2, 2006 at 9:57 pm

“As soon as questions of will or decision or reason or choice of action arise, human science is at a loss.”

– Noam Chomsky

Milan February 19, 2007 at 3:51 pm

The photo attached to this post is certainly not of a compass rose in Scotland.

Also, it seems to be a duplicate of one in another post.

. March 6, 2009 at 5:00 pm

all of sociology in four e-z steps

The rap against sociology is that it’s an incoherent discipline. There’s definitely an element of truth in that view, but the case is overstated. I think the right way to say it is that sociology has a handful of major traditions and none of them has stamped out the others. What are they? I count four major traditions in soc world

. August 7, 2013 at 12:19 pm

“I also had a certain sympathy for the idea that national styles had evolved in the study of political life that should not be lightly disregarded. In addition, possibly due to my interdisciplinary research for my Oxford DPhil degree, which concentrated on history, anthropology, and the emerging subject of race relations, I was skeptical that a science of politics was possible. Finally, graduate studies were poorly developed at Oxford in the 1950s. There were no comprehensives. The DPhil was a thesis degree, and in general the social sciences were weak on the ground. The idea of mastering a social science discipline as a necessary preliminary to making an intellectual contribution was foreign to my Oxford experience. In sum, I was socialized into an un-American, old-fashioned view of academic life, one in which the permeability of academic disciplines was more important than their boundaries. My academic socialization was not an invitation to believe that political science had or could have hard scientific credentials. My argument consistently was that political science in Canada, especially the study of Canadian politics, should not be a miniature replica of American practice, that national disciplinary differences were appropriate, and more generally that our intellectual value to each other was nourished rather than hindered by the variations in how we study our domestic political systems.”

Cairns, Alan C. “Conclusion: Are We on the Right Track?” (p. 241 paperback) in White, Linda, Richard Simeon, Robert Vipond, and Jennifer Wallner eds. The Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science. 2008.

. August 5, 2014 at 1:51 pm
. September 3, 2015 at 2:42 pm

Why political science can’t — and shouldn’t — be too much like economics

The second is sheer arrogance by economists. Having been in doctoral programs in both economics and political science, I can confirm that the former are far more arrogant than latter. Economists have treated other branches of the social sciences with condescension bordering on contempt. In a world in which economic literacy is low and innumeracy is high, this kind of confidence is in and of itself a form of intellectual power. The self-confidence of economists becomes self-reinforcing; since they are earning the most and given the most respect, it stands to reason that it is earned.

The final reason is that when economists try to engage the public, they often act like evangelists — and the message they preach has a very receptive audience among the affluent and the authorities. Economists share a strong consensus about the virtues of free markets, free trade, capital mobility and entrepreneurialism. They are therefore able to preach a set of economic ideas that are music to the ears of those plumping for the modern Ideas Industry. Conservatives suspicious of state intervention into the economy embrace this laissez-faire message. Even liberals more suspicious of free markets will be wary of crossing the general consensus of economists on myriad issues. Plutocrats who believe in the power of economic dynamism and technological innovation will embrace the ideas put forth by neoclassical economics.

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