Gadfly Stings Poli Sci
Bad history is better than a lot of political science, says Thomas Ferguson, who urges reform. INTERVIEW
BOSTON — `THE average academic is selling optimism,'' says Thomas Ferguson, gazing out over Boston Harbor from a conference room at the University of Massachusetts's Columbia Point Campus. ``I'm not. I'm glad to hear we won the cold war, but we may now lose the hot peace. We need an American version of perestroika, and we need it fairly fast.'' With such outspoken warnings has Dr. Ferguson earned his controversial reputation. As a political scientist, he is busily involved in writing, speaking, and consulting about politics - how the political process works, how it is shaped by underlying social patterns, and how it affects the life of a society. A professor of political science and senior associate at the John W. McCormack Institute of Public Affairs here, he's been described as ``America's hottest young political scholar.'' But his writing has also generated a spate of critical articles and counter-articles within his field.
A native of Detroit, Ferguson grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, where his father worked for Westinghouse. As a high-school student, he was interested enough in physics and astronomy to grind his own lenses and mirrors for a telescope project in a local science fair. In his junior year he won a National Science Foundation award that took him to Louisiana State University for a summer's study of such things as quantum mechanics.
But the civil rights movement was also bubbling up, and he recalls doing ``a lot of reading in the library'' that summer. Having been student council president, he found that he liked political science and philosophy, and ended up majoring in both at Marquette University.
After a detour that included a period studying in West Germany and some work experience on Wall Street, he went on to Princeton University to study political philosophy. But ``when I got there,'' he recalls, ``I found I was a lot more interested in how things actually function.'' Working in both political science and economics, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the New Deal - basing his research not on oral interviews, but on written records stored in library archives.
This technique, bringing the skills of the historian to bear on political science, has become something of a cause c'ele`bre. ``In political science I am almost alone in using archives,'' he says. He says that ``the reliance on oral interviews has had a devastating impact on policy analysis. People make a lot of recall errors even when they're honest. It's just astounding what the memory just can't remember.''
Because of such errors - which don't loom as large in the archival approach taken by historians - Ferguson says that ``the craft standards of even bad history often turn out to be better than those of an awful lot of political science.''
Such errors arise, he says, because his field has ``weak intellectual traditions. It's not normal in political science, for example, to cite the bulk of the literature on your topic. You just cite a few articles and forget the rest.'' That weakness persists, he says, because ``an awful lot of political science is created by government agencies by grant - or funded by people who work very closely with them and who reflect roughly the same views.''
Such research, he says, produces ``an answer to nobody's problem. An awful lot of stuff is written not to be read, but to have been written.'' He likens his profession's body of literature to 17th-century Naples. ``It just keeps growing,'' he says, ``in a sort of semi-backwater condition that never collapses and never expands, but in which everybody goes on adding layer after geological layer.''
One cure, he says, is a greater use of statistics. ``If you've got sensible numbers and you pay attention to them,'' he says, ``you can get a lot out of them.''
When he looks at the institutions of contemporary society through the archival and statistical methods of his discipline, what does he see? Of greatest concern, he says, is the ``collapse of the interaction between thinking and activity.''
Every institution from corporations to churches, he says, shows signs of being ``calcified.'' He includes higher education in the indictment. ``In many cases the management practices at universities are 50 years behind the times,'' he asserts. As a result, education today is ``becoming quite like the caricature of manufacturing in the American economy, in that people are doing anything but making a product.'' He worries that, following legal changes in the early 1980s allowing universities to own patents, some institutions are ``getting out of the business of education and going into the business of producing patents,'' especially in potentially lucrative areas of the life sciences and engineering.
He also sees problems in the public-policy research arena, which is often the province of the universities. ``When you look at the business of contemplating alternatives - and think of it as a process of policy formation where you toss up alternatives and think about their consequences - that process is very abbreviated. In many cases, it never happens.
``And that leads to a vicious circle where folks get frustrated and tune out. Then things get worse, and soon people start looking for options or looking out for No. 1.''
Where does he see his field heading in the 21st century?
The direction, he says, will largely be shaped by global social and political conditions. Domestically, he worries that ``the total bill on Reaganomics - when you count the savings-and-loan bailouts, the bankruptcy in Medicaid, the nuclear cleanups, the environmental bills, the infrastructure - is going to be enormous.''
Internationally, he foresees the Axis powers of the World War II era, particularly Germany and Japan, becoming ``the primary economic powers on Earth, almost by inadvertence,'' while the United States remains ``overspecialized in a bunch of things that are not helpful, like massive defense spending.''
That context, he says, will shape the field of political science in several ways. First, as people feel the need for expert advice, it will exacerbate the ``very substantial industry that essentially talks about politics for cash. That is not political science at all.''
Beyond that lies a more subtle effect growing out of a widespread perception of crisis. ``It's very hard to get people's attention and hold it,'' he says, ``even if you've got the material.'' The result, on the one hand, will be a proliferation of literature which ``makes extravagant claims - that the world will end in a greenhouse effect, or something like that. That's the way to get attention.'' On the other hand, the literature that really does address the crisis will end up as ``shelves of stuff that nobody reads.''
The real need, he says, is for a greater knowledge of political history. ``I'm very big on history: Read it, write it, study it. I certainly don't think that historical modes of thought are the only ones. But systematic approaches to problems are really useful. Asking yourself, `How does this develop over time?' is a tremendous antidote to thinking that you're somehow facing something that's totally unique.''