Radical Approaches to Political Science (book review)

You have to be a bit of a polsci nerd to fully enjoy Radical Approaches to Political Science. Roads Less Traveled, a collection of essays by German political scientist Rainer Eisfeld. 
But if you choose to indulge in this eclectic collection, I can almost promise you that you will come across new and interesting insights from fields of inquiry that are certainly not political science mainstream or well-covered by conventional literature. And even though Rainer Eisfeld does not explicitly talk about ‘international development’ he actually presents quite a few things that are relevant in the context of regime (changes), history and the complex shades of grey that often get lost in dominant black and white narratives.
The research and writings that were part of my undergraduate degree in political science in Germany were part of the canon that Eisfeld criticizes right from the beginning as ‘political studies (that) have largely been reduced to a functionalist science of “managing” parliamentary and party government’ (p.14). Understanding Eisfeld’s work as ‘radical’ also gives you a good insight into how traditional and conventional a lot of political science in Germany and many other parts of Europe has been.

The first part of the volume engages with the (non-) emergence of political science in Central and Eastern Europe. ‘Towards Creating a Discipline With a “Regional Stamp”: Central-East European Political Science and Ethno-Cultural Diversity’ identifies three major challenges for the discipline in the region:

A paucity of normative theory-building (…); a need for a thematic focus, around which a major part of segmented research efforts in a number of countries might crystallize; and a comparatively informed, decidedly “regional stamp” of that focus, which might serve to strengthen cross-border cooperation of political scientists. (p.23).
As all of his writing, the chapters are deeply embedded in historical reflections and insights into contemporary issues of political science turn into history lessons on the Cold War and efforts of left-leaning academics to engage with the ‘Eastern Bloc’ and foster exchanges of ideas and opportunities for professional relationships beyond seemingly impossible ideological differences. ‘Pluralism as a Critical Political Theory’ is a theoretical reflection, but the bibliography alone is worth the read as it provides plenty of critical resources from the 1960s to the 1980s on political science, arms trade and the political economy of trade during the Cold War.

The second part of the book starts off with one of the most interesting case studies that hides behind the slightly non-descriptive title of ‘Political Science in Central-East Europe and the Impact of Politics: Factors of Diversity, Forces of Convergence’. Together with Leslie A. Pal, Eisfeld provides an empirically rich case study of the age of transformation after the end of the Cold War:

While there was of course some sensitivity to local circumstances and pride, the agenda was basically to encourage reforms that would align these disciplines with Western standards. (…) (Local academics) willing embraced and participated in this “knowledge transfer”, in part because in many case enormous resources flowed with the reform process. (p.85)
This is certainly not an unheard of dynamic in any international development ‘capacity-building’ effort and an essential part of, for example, the liberal peacebuilding debate: How local, quickly and fundamentally need a transformation from one regime to another, from ‘war’ to ‘peace’ be if there are very dominant power structures in place that can dictate change and have a clear vision of the ‘right’ path?

The Soros Foundation, the European Union, American, German and Scandinavian agencies, foundations and university departments and the Bologna process were earlier identified as external factors pushing the region’s nascent political science disciplines toward a measure of convergence. However, the rise of “hybrid” political regimes has been operating as a countervailing force (…) (and) any proliferation of defectively democratic or competitively autocratic regimes will bode ill for the existence of independent political science in Central and Eastern Europe (p.104).
The real gem of this book is a chapter based on Eisfeld’s seminal research on the complexities of German political science at the beginning of the 20th century with an emphasis of the disciplines’ responses to the ‘Third Reich’. ‘German Political Science at the Crossroads: The Ambivalent Response to the 1933 Nazi Seizure of Power’ deals with a difficult chapter of German academic history and unpacks the dominant narrative of a steadfast democratic discipline that was immune to the Nazi regime’s advances. The powerful influence of German political scientists who left Germany and became seminal figures in Anglo-Saxon academia (e.g. Hannah Arendt, Hans J. Morgenthau or Karl W. Deutsch) seems to underline the popular narrative that political science was ‘the only discipline uniformly rejecting any cooperation with the Nazis’, as historian Andreas Beckmann put it. Eisfeld’s research establishes a more complex narrative by looking at the origins of the discipline after World War I: 
As the discipline started to evolve in Weimar Germany, three different schools – a national, a functional and a democratic approach – emerged. When the curtain came down in 1933, these were to differ considerably in their degree of immunity to the antidemocratic temptation (p.106).
The chapter is a very powerful example of how historic narratives always deserve closer attention and thorough research and how reliance on a convenient truth, diaspora researchers and an uncritical believe in the positive transformative power of post-war societies where only the ‘good guys’ will have a voice will ultimately lead to an incomplete picture and protects those who collaborated or sympathized with undemocratic regimes.

It is quite a leap from the Germany’s Nazi past to other noteworthy chapters of the book. It is eclectic, but on the other hand the author does not pretend otherwise. If you read it as a collection of papers/essays, contributions on American gun culture and the ‘Changing Faces of an Imaginary Mars’ are interesting cultural studies observations that always have the ‘bigger picture’ in mind:

Identifying Mars as merely another “frontier”, projecting a morale purpose on the adaptation of that so-called planetary frontier to human settlers’ needs, tops a tradition of invoking a highly-problematic cultural stereotype (p.202).
The book finished with two chapters on yet another subject, but one that is more tangible and contemporary with regards to political science and critical research. Eisfeld’s papers on the political and economic transformation of post-autocracy Portugal in the 1970s and 1980s and the strategic role of its EC membership have implications for interpreting today’s ‘crisis’ in the Mediterranean EU region. Eisfeld’s final words originally written in 1986 ring very true more than a quarter of a century later:
Portugal has been and is, economically as well as politically, a weak applicant. It will remain weak during the rest of the 1980s. (…) contrary to what is commonly said or even assumed, accession might make matters, by its impact, considerably worse for the country (p.238).
All in all, the collection is neither easy reading for the summer holidays nor a must-read for outsiders of the political science community. That said, Eisfeld does take the reader on an intellectual journey of ‘Roads less traveled’. The collection is a very good example of old fashioned socio-historic research that will leave the reader with the good feeling of having learned something interesting and being able to make the connection between our hectic, new, super-modern, digital present and a past that remains relevant and informative if studied carefully and employed to contemporary challenges that often lie at the heart of international development.

Eisfeld, Rainer:


Radical Approaches to Political Science. Roads Less Traveled.
ISBN 978-3-8474-0028-8, 267 pages, 28,00 €, 
Barbara Budrich Publishers, Farmington Hills, MI.

 Full disclosure: I received a free review copy from Barbara Budrich Publishers in June 2012.

Popular posts from this blog

A few reflections on the new OECD flagship report on Data for Development

Links & Contents I Liked 256

Blogging and curating content as strategies to decolonize development studies

The Lomidine Files (book review)

Links & Contents I Liked 257