Chapter 2 And 3 The Working With Political Science Research Methods Text By Mycoff

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Chapter 2 The Empirical Approach to Political Science

In chapter 2 of the textbook, we describe the scientific method and argue that it underlies empirical political science research. We note that empiricism is not the only method of obtaining knowledge—there are others that lots of people fervently adhere to—and a case can be made against trying to study politics scientifically. (There are even disagreements about the definition and nature of the scientific method.) Nevertheless, this way of acquiring knowledge is so common that many social scientists take it for granted, as do many average citizens. The problem is that scientific claims are sometimes difficult to distinguish from other kinds of statements. Nor is it always clear whether and how empirical analysis can be applied to propositions stated in theoretical and practical terms. The following questions, problems, and assignments therefore offer opportunities for you to think about the application of the empirical approach. Note that not all of the questions have one “right” answer. Many, in fact, require a lot of careful thought. And it is often necessary to redefine or clarify words or phrases, to look for hidden assumptions, and to consider whether or not statements can be “translated” into scientific terms.

Exercise 2–1. Make a list of the characteristics of scientific knowledge. The list may help organize your thinking for other questions in this chapter.

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Exercise 2–2. The chapter mentions several characteristics of scientific knowledge. It also warns about confusing commonsense and casual observations with verified or potentially verifiable claims. In this exercise you will try to identify and differentiate between normative statements, which are statements that suggest how things should be, and empirical statements, which are statements that can be measured, tested, or verified through observation. For each of the following statements, decide if the statement is normative, empirical, a combination of the two, or if there is not enough information in the statement for you to decide. Write your responses in the space provided after each statement and briefly explain why you think your answer is correct.

a. The Republicans won a majority of seats in the U.S. Senate in the 2014 midterm elections.

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b. Offshore drilling should be banned in Alaska because it is immoral to risk damaging an otherwise pristine natural environment.

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c. Early voting periods should be shortened because they disproportionately favor Democratic candidates for office.

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d. Multiparty systems are better for representation than two-party systems.

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e. More people voted in the most recent election than in the previous election.

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f. Senior citizens are more likely to vote than college students.

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g. Scotland would be better off today if it had voted for independence in 2014.

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h. Freedom of religion is a fundamental right of all people.

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i. Democratic leaders always have better ideas on social policy than Republican leaders.

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j. Decriminalizing marijuana distribution and regulating sales can create a substantial source of tax revenue.1

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k. Too many people have been unable to find work.

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l. It doesn’t make any sense to vote because so many ballots are cast in an election that no single vote is going to make a difference in the outcome.

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Exercise 2–3. Below are several paragraphs drawn from an article in which the author discusses a debate over how congressional districts are drawn:

I argue that map makers ought to “pack” districts with as many like-minded partisans as possible. Trying to draw “competitive districts” effectively cracks ideologically congruent votes into separate districts, which has the effect of increasing the absolute number of voters who will be unhappy with the outcome and dissatisfied with their representative.

One common objection to this method of districting [packing] is that it would add to the polarization in Congress by creating overwhelmingly Republican (Democratic) districts that are more likely to elect very conservative (liberal) members.

Some states, like Arizona, have passed laws or referenda specifying that a districting plan ought to maximize the number of competitive districts. This is not particularly surprising because the common wisdom among most voters and certainly among the media is that the House of Representatives does not have enough competitive districts currently, and that an increase in the number of competitive elections or in the amount of turnover in Congress will somehow enhance representation.

From: Thomas L. Brunell, “Rethinking Redistricting: How Drawing Uncompetitive Districts Eliminates Gerrymanders, Enhances Representation, and Improves Attitudes toward Congress,” PS: Political Science and Politics 40 (January 2006): 77–85.

 

 

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a. Identify two normative statements or claims from the preceding text that can’t be tested empirically as currently expressed.

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b. Write down three statements or claims in the preceding text that are empirical and can be tested.

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Exercise 2–4. Many people make the following claim: “You can’t predict human behavior.” In light of our discussion of the scientific approach to political science, do you find this claim to be valid? (Hint: Try breaking human behavior down into more specific traits or properties. For example, consider if people are naturally aggressive. Then think of ways that this might be empirically investigated.)

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