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About this book

What does political science tell us about important real-world problems and issues? And to what extent does and can political analysis contribute to solutions? Debates about the funding, impact and relevance of political science in contemporary democracies have made this a vital and hotly contested topic of discussion, and in this original text authors from around the world respond to the challenge.

A robust defence is offered of the achievements of political science research, but the book is not overly sanguine given its sustained recognition of the need for improvement in the way that political science is done. New insights are provided into the general issues raised by relevance, into blockages to relevance, and into the contributions that the different subfields of political science can and do make. The book concludes with a new manifesto for relevance that seeks to combine a commitment to rigour with a commitment to engagement.

Table of Contents



As editors we should start this book by stating that we think that political science produces much work that is relevant but that it could do more to enhance the relevance of its work to policymakers, think tanks, non-governmental organizations and citizens. In 2010 we published a joint chapter on the issue (Peters et al. 2010), which developed that argument, and followed that by organizing a session at the American Political Science Association meetings that year on the topic of relevance. Here is a report on that session from a journalist (Jaschik 2010) who was present:
Gerry Stoker shared ‘a wicked thought’ he had when planning a session held on Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. What if he called as many senior figures in political science as he could reach and asked them ‘if they had ever said anything relevant in their entire careers’? Stoker, professor of politics and governance at Britain’s University of Southampton, didn’t embarrass his discipline’s luminaries by asking them one by one for any examples of relevance. (The laughter in the room, however, suggested that some might not have fared well if asked.)
The laughter in the room, we would like to think, also reflected the wit with which Stoker presented the issue; but there is undoubtedly a sense of unease when it comes to the issue of relevance both among American and other political scientists worldwide.
Gerry Stoker, B. Guy Peters, Jon Pierre

Perspectives on Relevance


Chapter 1. Challenging three blockages to relevance and political science: the obvious, the avoidable and the thorny

This chapter explores three blockages to relevance. The first argument rests on the observation that the use of research in the world of policy is prone to the play of politics and power and that the windows of opportunity for political science to demonstrate its relevance may therefore be relatively narrow and infrequent. This first blockage will come as no surprise to anyone in political science or in politics. The play of power in decision-making is a central feature in our mutual understanding of politics. The second explanation focuses more on the lack of incentives and organizational blockages experienced by those that prioritize relevance within the profession of political science, which in turn limit the numbers of those academics that seek to make their work obviously and directly relevant. This blockage is a product of the intended and unintended consequences of institutional and individual decisions made over the last few decades and which could be addressed by a different set of choices being made. It is, therefore, an avoidable blockage. The third blockage rests on thorny issues raised by the advocacy of relevance. These include the difficult issues of untangling matters of fact and value and more generally whether political scientists can offer evidence-based solutions and advice rather than explanations of ‘what is’. The first obstacle is something that has to be worked around, the second has to be confronted and the third puzzled about and hopefully addressed by new cadres of work that build on some pioneering examples.
Gerry Stoker

Chapter 2. The relevance of relevance

Social science is a species of practical knowledge. ‘Any problem of scientific inquiry that does not grow out of actual (or “practical”) social conditions is factitious’, Dewey writes:
All the techniques of observation employed in the advanced sciences may be conformed to, including the use of the best statistical methods to calculate probable errors, etc., and yet the material ascertained be scientifically ‘dead’, i.e. irrelevant to a genuine issue, so that concern with it is hardly more than a form of intellectual busy work. (1938: 499)
If social scientists cannot tell us something relevant about the world then they (we) are serving very little purpose at all (Adcock 2009; Bloch 1941/1953; Bok 1982; Haan et al. 1983; Lerner and Lasswell 1951; Lindblom and Cohen 1979; McCall and Weber 1984; Mills 1959; Myrdal 1970: 258; Popper 1936/1957: 56; Rule 1997; Shapiro 2007; Simon 1982; Smith 2003; Wilensky 1997; Zald 1990; see also the symposium in Political Science and Politics 43(4) (October 2010), with contributions by Amitai Etzioni, Jacob Hacker, Gary Orfield, Lorenzo Morris and Theodore Lowi).
John Gerring

Chapter 3. Relevant to whom? Relevant for what? The role and public responsibility of the political analyst

Like most bons mots, relevance is a seemingly unimpeachable virtue, an attribute one would like conferred upon one’s work, and something only others lack. Yet it is not always clear what relevance actually is; nor, relatedly, what might make a work of political analysis irrelevant. In this chapter I reflect on the question of relevance/irrelevance, considering what it might mean for political analysis to be seen or judged relevant — noting, in the process, both that relevance is a property or attribute that can really only be bestowed by others and that it tends to be task or, at least, context-specific. I will consider how a political science more clearly oriented to the attainment of relevance might differ from the one we have today. In the process I consider whether political science requires a paradigm shift in order to enhance its capacity to attain relevance, reflecting on the implied identification by its critics of a ‘crisis of irrelevance’ associated with the old paradigm. I look at how political science might engage better with its current audiences, extend the range of audiences with which it engages and, in the process, change at least some of its content and form. Yet I will suggest that, in the end, this entails no paradigm shift: that little if any contemporary political science is irrelevant — but that most of it could be made both more relevant and relevant to many more.
Colin Hay

Chapter 4. The rediscovery of the political imagination

‘Just now, amongst social and political scientists, there is widespread uneasiness, both intellectual and moral, about the direction their chosen studies seem to be taking’ — so wrote C. Wright Mills over 50 years ago. ‘This uneasiness, as well as the unfortunate tendencies that contribute to it, is, I suppose, part of a general malaise of contemporary intellectual life. Yet perhaps this malaise is more acute amongst social scientists, if only because of the larger promise that has guided much earlier work in their fields’ (1959: 19). But what is ‘the promise’ of the political and social sciences and how can such a quality of scholarship be rediscovered in the twenty-first century in a way that responds to the current debate about the relevance of political science? The aim of engaging with this core question is not to contribute to the fashionable flaying of political science but to chart a more positive and optimistic ‘road to relevance’ through which to emphasize just why the study of politics matters. The central argument of this chapter is therefore that the discipline needs to rediscover its political imagination, by which I mean an approach to scholarship that emphasizes bridging (i.e. the formation and cultivation of relationships within and beyond academe), accessibility (i.e. an approach to writing that defines the use of obscure, pretentious or trendy language as a sign of indecision, inability and deceit) and morality (in the sense of writing with a sense of social purpose and explicit relevance).
Matthew Flinders

Chapter 5. Guilty as charged? Human well-being and the unsung relevance of political science

The chapters in this volume clearly show that finding an answer to the question ‘Is political science relevant?’ demands that a more basic question is solved, namely ‘Relevant for what?’ Many different answers could be given to this question. Political science could be relevant for giving advice on how to win election campaigns, how politicians should best act so as to get enough support for their policies in legislative assemblies, when and if state leaders should go to war or how they should act in international negotiations for best furthering the interests of their countries, to name a few. In this approach to the issue of relevance, political scientists are seen as consultants or advisers to politicians in power who are ‘speaking truth to power’, to use Aaron Wildavsky’s famous phrase (1987). The level of the relevance of political science would then be determined by how successful the policies coming out from this type of advice are. I do not know of any systematic study of the success rate for this way of making political science relevant, but if we compare with our sister discipline, economics, our expectations should be modest (cf. Krugman 2009; Rodrik 2000, 2013).
Bo Rothstein

Chapter 6. Why did nobody warn us? Political science and the crisis

In 2008, Queen Elizabeth II went to the London School of Economics and Political Science to open a new economics building. To the consternation of the British economics profession, she took the opportunity to ask of it why nobody had warned us of the danger of a global financial crisis (Pierce 2008). The suffering the crisis brought her people may well have prompted Her Majesty’s question; in the first 18 months of the crisis, the British economy contracted by 7 per cent, a faster rate of decline than in the notorious Great Depression of the 1930s. Her question also prompted unusual soul searching within the economics profession and articles about a ‘shamed subject’ (discipline) (Skidelsky 2009). It is of course tempting for political scientists to gloat over any adverse development affecting the economics profession, which it might be said shows more than a little hubris. Before gloating too much, however, political scientists might also reflect on whether their discipline showed any greater percipience in relation to the crisis than economics.
Graham Wilson

Relevance: The Contribution of Sub-Disciplines and Diverse Approaches


Chapter 7. The relevance of the academic study of public policy

The field of policy studies is an interdisciplinary one that has evolved out of political science, public administration, economics, law and sociology, among other fields. As the primary academic discipline involved in the study of the exercise of power in society, political science has much to contribute to policy studies, and many policy theories and concepts owe their origin or substance to inquiry in political science. Policy-making is a central activity of governments and the study of policy processes, tools and outcomes, and the forces and variables which determine and affect them, and is an essential part of political science.
Sarah Giest, Michael Howlett, Ishani Mukherjee

Chapter 8. Why political theory matters

Political theory matters. But why? Unfortunately, this simple claim about the importance of political theory may be controversial. This is because it runs contrary to what we might call a common misconception dominant in many informal circles that real world impact is the stuff of other sub-disciplines in political science and not made to order for political theorists. If we search for examples of politics as practised, then too often an orthodox perspective for many political scientists is that theorists are expected to always come up short. One implication is that this orthodox view favours those sub-disciplines believed to offer some contribution to politics as practised above the perceived importance of political theorists to politics as understood.
Thom Brooks

Chapter 9. Constructivism and interpretive approaches: especially relevant or especially not?

The fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the global financial crisis after 2008, the sudden fall of authoritarian governments in the Arab Spring: these may be the biggest political developments of the past few decades. Each also constitutes a significant failure for the long-dominant approaches in political science and international relations (IR) that analyse politics in terms of rational individuals pursuing known interests. Of course we might not begrudge rationalist approaches for failing to predict these events, even if they typically endorse a philosophy of science in which their research should generate useful predictions. No social science approach has ever been very good at forecasting, and we might class major political events in a category with complex phenomena like the weather that we can understand fairly well but not predict very far out. Their failure is clearer, though, in the difficulty that such approaches meet with in accounting for these developments with hindsight. Without claiming that rationalists have nothing at all to say about the evolving material or organizational constraints to which individuals responded in these contexts, it seems fair to say that models of people rationally pursuing clear interests in well-structured interaction look only marginally relevant in these stories. All seem to involve massive uncertainty, considerable contingency and what looks like rather rapid change in how many people understood their interests.
Craig Parsons

Chapter 10. Is comparative politics useful? If so, for what?

One of my favourite findings in comparative politics was published several decades ago. A distinguished student of comparative public policy determined that the best predictor of per pupil educational expenditures among Swiss cantons was the altitude of the canton. The causal logic behind this finding is apparent, with lower population densities and higher general cost levels at high altitudes producing higher expenditures in the schools relative to the number of students. But is that finding really relevant, as there is nothing any political leader or institutional designer can do about altitude?
B. Guy Peters

Chapter 11. Can political science address the puzzles of global governance?

The idea of global governance continues to be little more than an idea. The failure of the Copenhagen meeting in December 2009 to produce a global agreement on carbon dioxide emission was yet another illustration of the tremendous difficulties in getting states to commit themselves to collective solutions. While transnational regions like South East Asia (Katzenstein 2005; Pempel 2005), Mercosur, the EU and the NAFTA area continue to develop concerted governance, the prospects of global governance continue to be bleak. At the same time, however, many of the top issues on the agenda of most nation states — environmental protection, national security, financial instabilities and pandemics — are inherently transnational or global issues requiring some degree of collective, concerted action to be resolved or at least addressed. Thus, it is fair to say that there is a global governance deficit. Despite the increasingly global nature of the most salient issues on the agenda, and the common view on the contemporary era as that of globalization, creating global governance remains extremely difficult.
Jon Pierre

Chapter 12. Maximizing the relevance of political science for public policy in the era of big data

The environment in which public policy is made has entered a period of dramatic change. Widespread use of digital technologies, the internet and social media means most of the activities of citizens and governments leave a digital imprint which can be harvested to generate so-called ‘big data’. So policy-making takes place in an increasingly rich data environment, which offers both promises and threats to policy-makers. The worlds of science and business have been quick to recognize and exploit the research and financial values of big data. For example, in physics, systems biology, neuroscience and climate change there have been enormous advances based on big data analysis of particles, cells, brain activity and weather. Corporations routinely exploit big data relating to customer behaviour. But in terms of establishing the public value of big data, and its potential for better governance and more efficient provision of public goods, the policy-making community has lagged behind. Policy-makers face cultural, organizational and technological barriers to generating and using big data, lack the expertise and analytic skills to maximize its potential for public sector innovation, and are deterred by unresolved ethical challenges. Although there is some exciting social science research that has applied a multi-disciplinary perspective to large-scale data and virtual environments to understand the changing political world, in the UK mainstream political science has been slow to capitalize upon the potential of big data, and is therefore not yet equipped to assist policy-makers in this endeavour.
Helen Margetts


In this conclusion we explore three issues. First, are there any ‘in principle’ objections to relevance that stand up? Our answer is a clear no. Second, what is stopping political science being relevant and how could the chances of relevance be increased? Here our answer is more nuanced and reflects several of the issues raised throughout the book. Third, we conclude the book with a new manifesto for relevance. Here we echo some of the arguments made by David Easton in 1969 in his call for a credo of relevance but argue that rather than an implied trade-off between methodological rigour and relevance the two need to go hand in hand alongside a broad commitment to methodological pluralism.
Gerry Stoker, B. Guy Peters, Jon Pierre
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