Explorations: Reading and Conducting Empirical Research in Political Science

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Short Answer Questions

1. Name the four parts of the scientific epistemology and explain how they relate to the scientific study of politics.

The evidence political scientists use is obtained by the application of a methodological approach (the scientific method) that is informed by the scientific epistemology. The epistemology has four key beliefs: empiricism, the belief that knowledge is derived from real world observation; determinism, the belief that everything has a cause; objectivity, the belief that science should create an accurate, unbiased representation of reality; and replication, the belief that knowledge is acquired through repeated observation and testing under varying conditions. These key beliefs inform the scientific methodology: researchers aim to collect real-world data (empiricism), seek to identify causes (determinism), strive to reduce bias and subjectivity (objectivity), and remain open to understandings of the political world being revised and modified as new and (hopefully) better information is available (replication). Empirical political research can be conducted in a number of ways, with qualitative or quantitative approaches and with theory-building and theory-testing goals, but at the core of empirical research are these key beliefs.

2. What are some key questions to ask when evaluating political science research?

Once you see the world as a political scientist, it changes how you approach, process, and critically assess arguments about the political world. As a starting point, you begin to demand satisfying answers to basic questions when you read and encounter arguments: What is the evidence for the claim? Who is making the claim, and is there reason to assume that they are unbiased and objective in making the claim? Is the evidence supporting the claim limited to one study, or is there also a larger literature or body of evidence?

3. What is research nihilism and why should be it be avoided?

When reading research as a newly trained political scientist, you need to be careful that your understanding of the fact that there is no “perfect” study does not lead you to slip into “research nihilism.” As Edward J. Mullen and David L. Streiner argue, “it is very easy to find flaws with all studies. It is much more difficult, though, to teach people to differentiate between limitations and fatal flaws; that is, to judge whether the problems are serious enough to jeopardize the results or should simply be interpreted with a modicum of caution. Without this judgment, it is easy to become nihilistic, feeling that no study can be believed” (2004, 118). Adopting a research nihilism position makes it easy to dismiss evidence that does not conform to your pre-existing beliefs, or to ignore evidence entirely and instead base decisions on ideology, the edicts of political leaders, religious leaders, and other authority figures, or just random preference. Many people do this in everyday life, of course, but this is not political science.