James Scott on Agriculture as Politics, the Dangers of Standardization and Not Being Governed

James-c-scott Via Crooked Timber, in Theory Talks:

What is, according to you, the biggest current challenge or principal debate in politically oriented social sciences? What is your position or answer to this challenge / in this debate?

This is not a question I pose to myself often. About the only time I did was, however, some years ago. I don’t know if you know about the Perestroika Movement in Political Science? Some time ago, an anonymous manifesto signed by Mr. Perestroika appeared. It started out with the observation that Benedict Anderson and I had never read the American Political Science Review, and it proceeded to ask why—arguing that perhaps this journal and the hegemonic organization that backed it were irrelevant and indeed inhibitive of progress. Now the Perestroika Movement connected with the European Post-Autistic Economics Movement, which propagates heterodox economics as a challenge to all-consuming mainstream neoclassical economics. I was on the Executive Council of the Political Science Association because they invited me as a result of the Perestroika insurgency, and that was the only time I got actively involved in trying to think about what political science ought to do. By and large, I do what I do and let the chips fall where they may; I prefer not to spend my time in the methodological trenches of the fights are swirling around me.

As you can see, I haven’t thought deeply about how political science ought to be reformed; but I do believe that in political science, the people who do have pretentions to ‘scientificity’ are actually very busy learning more and more about less and less. There is an experimental turn in political science, consisting of people conducting what they call ‘natural experiments’ and that are carefully organized the way a psychology experiment would be organized, with control groups and so on. But the questions they ask are so extraordinarily narrow! They imagine that you answer as many of these questions as possible and you are slowly constructing a kind of indestructible edifice of social science, while I think all you have then is a pile of bricks that doesn’t add up to anything.