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Monday, January 8, 2024

Description in Political Science

Carolyn E. Holmes, Meg K. Guliford, Mary Anne S. Mendoza-Davé and Michelle Jurkovich have an article as PS: Political Science and Politics titled "A Case for Description." Abstract:

Descriptive research—work aimed at answering “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “how” questions—is vital at every stage of social scientific inquiry. The creative and analytic process of description—through concepts, measures, or cases, whether in numeric or narrative form—is crucial for conducting research aimed at understanding politics in action. Yet, our field tends to devalue such work as “merely descriptive” (Gerring 2012), subsidiary to or less valuable than hypothesis-drive causal inference. This article posits four key areas in which description contributes to political science: in conceptualization, in policy relevance, in the management and leveraging of data, and in challenging entrenched biases and diversifying our field.

From the article:

Although the subject of policy or public relevance occasionally is debated as a goal of political science (see, e.g., Rogowski Reference Rogowski 2013), to the extent that there is an ambition to inform the policy-making process or the public at large, description is a central piece of the process. Informed and curated description of events and circumstances often is a front-line request by policy makers and mass media outlets, insofar as the expertise brought by political scientists can contextualize key points of tension and problems (Seay 2022; Shively 2022). Policy makers and the public want to know the who-what-when-where-how of complicated policy problems, which is currently evident especially in areas such as climate policy (Albistegui Adler 2022). Thorough qualitative description can help policy makers by cautioning them from excessive attention to outliers or in changing the framing of events with attention to cultural or institutional differences across contexts (Peh 2022).

Through generating summaries of data samples, statistical description can illuminate trends over time or illustrate the center, scope, and outliers of data samples. Additionally, experts can help to craft descriptive narratives to understand the precursors and key moments that have led to a particular point of public interest or a policy challenge (Lakin 2022) or to adjudicate among different explanations for outcomes (Harbin 2022). This work is important in part because “descriptive statistics, case studies, and similar material may be more valuable and accessible for policy makers and citizens, who typically learn and reason via discrete operating principles (or theory) as well as descriptive evidence” (Shively 2022).