Questions and methods

The elephant in the room

Andrew Breland

As a political science and English major, there are rarely opportunities to showcase research in my disciplines beyond publishing books, articles, etc. Or at least, that is the impression you get talking to an engineer (or “hard” scientist) about political science “research.”

That last word is in scare quotes simply because that is the reaction you receive when your research includes no “discoveries,” important new laws or theories or “experiments” done in a “laboratory.” Most of the time, when research fails to meet any of these categories, the aforementioned students and experts will cast disdain or incredulity toward the notion of calling this research.

But at its most basic level, research is the idea of seeking answers to seemingly hard to answer (perhaps impossible to answer) questions about life, the human condition and the world around us. In fact, research is derived from an old French word meaning, roughly, “looking into with care.” This definition is patently more helpful when considering the types of academic and social work that can qualify as research.

This week, I submitted an abstract to the SOURCE Intersections research symposia. Coming out of my capstone, I realized that developing an argument has been a feet-first encounter with Political Science research. Thus, I submitted the abstract. As I did so, I talked with Dr. Sheila Pedigo, the director of the SOURCE office. And she, much like me, agreed that research as it stands has too shallow a definition on most of our campus.

We talked about the experiences we’ve had trying to illustrate the value of social science and humanities research to biologists and physicists. Perhaps the most telling quote from the conversation was, “[Engineers] look at social science research and say ‘What’s the point? They didn’t discover anything.’ And I respond ‘It’s not about finding the new thing, but a new way of looking at something.”

To an extent that quote is right. In many of the social sciences and humanities, new discoveries are rare. For psychologists, schizophrenia has been around for a long time; we just named it. For historians, things are happening now, but now we know what happened before. For political scientists, democracies have been around for thousands of years, now we know how.

The list continues on, but exploring that simple and hastily-constructed example shows that discoveries happen. Of course there are more esoteric example. My research, for one, involves a reinterpretation of the strength of the presidency. Is it a weak office? Or is it strong? In the end, when a chemist asks me what the practical application of it is, I might have to answer that it simply looks at history and politics in another way. I’m reinterpreting what has happened since 1789, and coming to a conclusion about the way the presidency was envisioned. To the unacquainted individual, the most immediate application might be the ability to criticize Carter for being too weak, or Reagan for being too strong.

But still that project is research. There is: a set-out and defined question, a formulated hypothesis, a process and method by which I am investigating my question and, ultimately, a conclusion about the hypothesis. Even the scientific method I just described has its roots in the work of a man equally known as a biologist, physicist and philosopher: Aristotle.
With a method, questions to answer and a plan of attack, it is hard to see that social science, humanities and the liberal arts could not be included with “hard” sciences and engineering as research-oriented subjects.

For some this comes as no surprise, including some of the same scientists I am criticizing. I personally know many medical doctors, physicists, chemists and others who find great delight in exploring the expanding frontiers in social science. Simply look at the attendance at the weekly Public Affairs luncheons (talks centered around politics, policy and research) or at the events of the Baker Nord Center for the Humanities where at least half of the audience comes from a strong science or engineering background.

The point is, research takes place across campus. For those (hopefully few) who only envision research as professors’ work in the buildings of the old Case Institute, look around and experience some of the exciting work accomplished by professors outside your discipline. We all hear about yours, thanks to the incessant Daily.

And on April 18, I look forward to standing among students of all disciplines, excited to hear about the work being done by our promising undergraduates. Hopefully they will be willing and excited to hear mine too.

Andrew Breland is a double major in political science and English, vice president of the Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity and former chair of the Case Western Reserve Constitution Day Committee.