Statistics, politics, and the liberal arts

I earned my Ph.D. from a Political Science department that is a very strong proponent of using quantitative statistical analysis to answer important political questions (similar to the one described here). As such, I learned to approach political questions through a “scientific” lens: testing theoretically-driven hypotheses using statistical analysis of numerical data.

At times, though, I felt like a fish out of water because I believe that there are many important political questions that can’t be completely answered with statistics and numbers. Rather, some enduring questions are better suited for philosophical, theoretical, historical, or descriptive analyses and don’t lend themselves well to being reduced to a mathematical model. Alternatively, some philosophies and theories make specific predictions about the relationship between certain things… and these predications can be empirically tested, often with numerical or text-based analyses.

I now find myself at a liberal arts college where the dominant approaches tend to favor those non-quantitative tools that I received so little training in during graduate school. It’s certainly refreshing to engage with students and colleagues in a variety of approaches to tackle interesting questions in the political world. Thus, I am constantly adding “breadth” to my “depth” of political knowledge.

Personally, I enjoy using the scientific statistical tools to try to answer important questions raised by the classic questions in political philosophy. I think that both approaches can be profitably combined to enhance our understanding of the political world.

For example, philosopher John Locke argued that we’re born into the world as “tabula rasa” (blank slate) and that all knowledge comes from sensations and reflections. Recent research in political psychology, however, suggests otherwise: our brains are “hard-wired” to operate in certain ways and to be pre-disposed to more easily adopt certain political attitudes and ideas. Another example: philosophical arguments about the merits of different types of legislative representation can be empirically evaluated by analyses of representative voting patterns and their relationship to constituent characteristics.

In my view, one of the many values of a liberal arts education is the celebration of a diversity of approaches and paradigms for understanding the world. To the extent that the liberal arts can facilitate exposure to these various approaches and seek for a way to profitably combine them, so much the better, for both faculty and students.


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