Lessons from Political Science

This semester, I’m taking a course in Interdisciplinary Methodologies in which a motley group of social scientists attempts to learn about the approaches, assumptions, and research styles of a wide array of disciplines. I have already discussed one of the ways that learning about economics has informed my own research, which was inspired by readings done for this class. This week we read about political science, and the most striking reading we had was by Gregory J. Kasza entitled “Unearthing the Roots of Hard Science: A Program for Graduate Students”. This work encourages graduate students to reflect on the methods that they are being taught and to question the basic assumptions of the discipline of political science. Kasza encourages his readers to “Let your experience and self-reflection as a human being be your first guide as you seek to answer the basic questions about politics.” The point he makes is that if your life and your choices cannot be described by the ways that you try to describe the lives and choices of others, can you be certain about your theory? “If your political views and actions are not guided mainly by material interests, why should you imagine that the views of others will be? If your life has not followed rational choices or mathematical equations, why should that be true of others’?” (page 226)

Basically, he’s encouraging us not to deceive ourselves and others. Can we apply this to linguistics? I have been thinking about my own behavior in relation to some of the theories and ideas that I tackle often, and even some that I wholly dismiss.

The different theories of syntax, including ones with movement and without — when I make a question, am I really following rules of movement that I’ve learned? Or am I just doing things the way they’re supposed to be with the constructions I’ve learned from examples in my environment? Syntacticians have been arguing this for decades, and I wonder what the role of self-reflection is in the creation of these different theories.

Another topic that I often take for granted: When I use short forms when I’m chatting in Warcraft or texting, am I just being lazy (as some language mavens and non-linguist language column writers would have it)? No, I’m not; when I really think about my own behavior, I’m following patterns that I know are accepted, and I’m adhering to these other rules of interaction. Character limits on texts, for example, sometimes results in me testing “smtg” instead of “something”. It’s not laziness, it’s not a corruption of the language, but rather a switch to adhere to a new rule set. I am someone who actually engages in this linguistic behavior, and I can analyze it from that vantage point.

This has me really thinking about game theory, as I described in my last post about economics, and loot rule behaviors. I described there that I struggled with the behaviors of my guildmates, and in fact my own behavior, a lot when thinking about changing perceptions of behavior in loot systems. I, myself, am doing things that a year ago I would have described as greedy and undesirable; furthermore, I am understanding and accepting of similar behaviors in people who I call my friends. It seems that I came at the game theory interpretation the right way — that is, through self-reflection and the attempts to understand the patterns and changes in my own life. The theory seems to fit. (And others agree — more on that later, I hope!)

This is why participant-observation is a great style of research. As a participant, you go through similar things as the people you are observing, and therefore you can come at your explanation from the point of view of someone who has experienced it. I have heard many times that self-reflection has no place in academic discourse, that we should remove the “I” from our writing. As social scientists, we cannot afford to do that; we risk ignoring our own biases, our own experiences, and our own interpretations of the event. We cannot be perfectly objective as scholars of people simply because we are people ourselves. If we are talking about the biases and motivations of others, does it make sense to ignore our own biases and motivations? This is an old argument that has been hashed out, but through this class I have encountered a similar argument in a discipline that I have never touched before. In some ways, it’s heartening to know that scholars across fields engage with the same issues in their work as I do; in other ways, it is unfortunate that some disciplines are so isolated when we do have a lot in common and wrestle with the same issues.

We all have a lot to learn from each other.

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