Friday, 17 February 2017

Essay Notes: "Clouds, Clocks, and the Study of Politics" by Gabriel Almond and Stephen Genco

Summer Tablelands Storm by Margarita Georgiadis
Almond, G. A. & Genco, S. J. (1977). Clouds, Clocks, and the Study of Politics. World Politics, 29(4), 489–522.


Written in 1977, this article considers the scientific turn in political science. Traditionally, political science focused on descriptions of political systems, laws, and history. I have discussed Charles Merriam, founder of the "Chicago School" of political science, in an earlier "journal note". Along with Harold Lasswell, Merriam encouraged greater scientific rigour in political science research. Almond was notably a product of the "Chicago School" of political science, earning his PhD in 1938, the year Harold Lasswell left and two years before Merriam retired. The adoption of the scientific method of the hard (or natural) sciences, which had influenced psychology and economics, and, by this time, was influencing political science, is the subject of this article. Almond and Genco bring to the attention of political scientists the issue of "philosophers of science and some psychologists and economists [having] second thoughts about the applicability to human subject matters of strategy used in hard science" (p. 489).

The metaphors of "clouds" and "clocks" are from Karl Popper's idea of a continuum of "determinacy and indeterminacy in physical systems", from "the most irregular, disorderly, and unpredictable 'clouds' on the left to the most regular, orderly, and predictable 'clocks' on the right"  (p. 489). This reminds me of Rene Descartes and the beginnings of systems thinking, with mechanical objects functioning as closed systems, whereas living organisms function as open or "living" systems.

I have as yet been unable to connect systems thinking with my research. Almond and Genco connect to this stream of thinking via Newton. But in "systems thinking", the terms tend to come across as buzzwords or jargon and overcoming the limitations cross-disciplinary translation seem like too much effort at this stage.  

I recall from my strategic management studies that the characteristics of living systems tend to follow the laws of thermodynamics, and living systems can be disturbed, but not directed. Here, Almond and Genco refer to Popper, who suggested that understanding "rational" human behaviour required:
...something intermediate in character, between perfect chance and perfect determinism - something intermediate between perfect clouds and perfect clocks... For obviously what we want is to understand how such non-physical things as purposes, deliberations, plans, decisions, theories, intentions, and  values, can play a part in bringing about physical changes in the physical world (p. 491).
I use the concepts of "living" systems in my teaching of leadership. If a living system does not interact with its environment, it dies. So, too, do organisations. For example, if your company is the manufacturer of the highest quality typewriters in the world, nobody cares: you have not kept pace with your environment. Think Kodak. Organisations tend to resist change, and, in my view, leadership can overcome this resistance. To me, leadership is a political process, and, like organisations, policy stasis may also benefit from leadership. My diagram below explains the concept:
Model of Strategic Leadership: Michael de Percy

But I digress. Popper seeks a form of plastic control, that allows for the free-thinking individual, who cannot be forced to submit to the control of our theories: "Not only do our theories control us, but we can control our theories" (p. 491). This relates to the idea of technological momentum, based on the work of Thomas Hughes, which provides a middle position along the continuum between social constructivism and technological determinism, thus:

Intermediate approaches that allow for freedom and constraint.

Popper states that we cannot look at the world as a "closed physical system", but an "open system". The author's cite Popper's approach as accepting "there is a kind of feedback here": terms that clearly relate to systems thinking (and systems theory). If the task of political science is to explain political reality, then plastic control, or the third conceptualisation between chance and determinism, can cope with ideas and:
...human decisions, goals, purposes - in constant and intense interaction with other ideas, human behaviour, and the physical world. At the centre of this complex system are choices and decisions - decisions to command, obey, vote, make demands. The political universe has organization; elites make decisions to command or not to command, what to command, how to implement commands. Citizens and subjects make decisions to comply, how to comply or not to comply; to make demands, or not to make demands. That is the heart of politics, the subject matter our discipline is committed to exploring and understanding.
In such a system, "Political decisions are not made and implemented in a vacuum; they are subject to a complex array of constraints and opportunities". But what of cause and effect in providing explanations for political phenomena? In earlier work I attempted to use Mill's method of difference to provide plausible (as opposed to Popper's falsifiable) causal explanations, but often this was regarded as unsophisticated or insufficiently mathematical. Yet this is precisely the issue taken up by Almond and Genco, albeit back in 1977:
What we seem to observe in this particular area of political research, then, is a rhetorical or metaphorical - rather than explanatory - usage of causal language in formalizations and definitions. This accounts for a lack of a subsequent commitment to actual causal analysis in substantive research. The somewhat incongruous gap can perhaps best be explained as an attempt on the part of political scientists to create a "halo effect" around their theoretical formulations. Our longing for full scientific status has led us to create a kind of "cargo cult," fashioning cardboard imitations of the tools and products of the hard sciences in the hope that our incantations would make them real (p. 504).
The pressure to conform to other disciplines seems to have reached its peak around this time:
Psychology and economics had been the first disciplines in the social sciences to move in this direction, demonstrating the possibilities of experimental methods, sophisticated quantitative methods, computer simulation, and mathematical modelling. The combination of philosophical legitimation and the demonstrated progress of psychology and economics was impossible to resist (p. 505).
Further, Holt and Richardson (1970) argued for more mathematics. Not just statistical, but mathematical, rigour:
[S]tatistics provides a science with a basis for rigorous induction. Our critique suggests that the crying need in comparative politics is for more rigorous deduction and this is where mathematics, not statistics, is relevant (p. 507).
Almond and Genco raise an important issue at this point. Rather than focusing on problem solving, which is a key purpose of political science, commitment to mathematics and the rigour of hard science tended to move political science away from its very purpose. This creates a conundrum where to be more scientific becomes more important than the purpose of political science, where it seems that:
For political science to advance, it must shed this professional commitment to solving social and moral problems (p. 508)... [leading to] priority of method over substance in political science (p. 509).
This "narrowing and technicization" means that the "older intellectual traditions" of political science, including "descriptive institutional analysis have all become defensive, peripheral, and secondary subject matters". The trouble with this approach is the type of science it evokes. Political science is "ultimately a commitment to explore and attempt to understand a given segment of empirical reality". To do so, "Social scientists need to construct their own notions of 'good science', [and] their own methodological approach to their particular subject matter". I have tried to point out "how extensively political decisions now override the mechanisms of the market" in my work, and despite feedback to the contrary, I agree with Almond and Genco that as the "subject matter is becoming more political, it is becoming less susceptible to scientific and formalistic methodologies" (p. 516).

There are some implications for my research philosophy here. First, political science plays "a central role in the study and evaluation of public policy" (p. 520). Regardless of method, work that "contributes to the aims of understanding, interpreting, and exploring political reality and policy alternatives... is crucial to policy analysis (see McRae 1976 The Social Function of Social Science). Lasswell, in developing the behavioural approach to political science, adopted the "scientific hardening of method... set in a context of problem solving, value clarification, and the enhancement of the human condition" (p. 520). Lasswell sought greater rigour to achieve the purpose of political science, not to create a science through processes that happened to involve politics.

The problem now is not that the hard science approach, in particular the quantitative drive, is bad, but that it has not been legitimated "by  successes in the explanation of political reality, but by example and the demonstration effect of the hard sciences (p. 520). Such "clock" approaches try to reduce everything to mechanical laws which deny "the special characteristic of social reality... [especially] man's adaptive behaviour" (p. 520).

In summary, Almond and Genco provide an appropriate guiding principle for my research philosophy:
To progress scientifically, the social disciplines require their own philosophy of science based on explanatory strategies, possibilities, and obligations appropriate to human and social reality (p, 522).
Next week I will be investigating some quantitative methods I plan to use in a new study. In establishing my research philosophy, I must address the issues of methods and scientific rigour. But it would certainly be useful to start with my own view of the purpose of political science.

Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Le Flâneur Politique by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at politicalscience.com.au. Background image ©Depositphotos.com/ @redshinestudio