Political science, epistemic snobbery and the Corbyn problem

My notes on Allen, P. (2019). Political science, punditry, and the Corbyn problem. British Politics.

There has been a widespread failure by political scientists to predict, explain or account for Jeremy Corbyn’s rise and the emergence of Corbynism as a political movement. What explains political science’s Corbyn problem? In this paper, Peter Allen addresses this question and uses it to explore the contemporary status of political science and how it is changing. He begins by considering the intensely politically involved and their capacity to influence political common sense. From pg 3:

When I speak of the intensely politically involved I have in mind a group of individuals who hold positions of social power that allow them to shape dominant conceptions of politics and political activity. These people make a lot of the proverbial political weather and are continually asked to comment on it in some sort of professional capacity. They include prominent members of the news media, notable academics or other leading political professionals, and former or current politicians who are especially in uential or highly thought-of within the two previous groups. Indeed, the chances are that if you are reading this paper, you are one of these people or have the potential (in terms of resources, education, connections, and so on) to become one of them. It’s a category that is perhaps wider in scope than the oft-referred to ‘political class’, but more limited than ‘the elite’ or ‘the establishment’

These people have been empowered by a professionalisation of politics which creates a rupture between the political sphere and everyday life, increasing the reliance of ordinary people on political experts to interpret the unfolding of political events. The rise of the pundit can be seen as part of this, with opinion taking space away from reporting and being written by figures who increasingly become stories in themselves through their use of social media. Other groups involved are professional consultants and policy intellectuals, each using social media in a way that builds their connections while ensuring their prominence. These figures have material interests, reflected in what we know about the socio-economic composition of their group. We can assume their shaping of politics will have consequences for these interests regardless of whether it is intentional or not. This is why we should be concerned that “those advocating social change are going to struggle to be taken seriously by those who hold the power to shape dominant meanings and conceptions of valid political opinions and activities and who could potentially aid the political success of their ideas” (pg 7).

Allen’s argument stresses how significant it is that a small number of political scientists have become part of this group, as well as the visibility and influence of political science as a whole having increased throughout it. These figures loom large in public perception of the discipline and inevitably find themselves playing the role of figureheads for it. Furthermore, political science discussion increasingly often takes place in real time in a way that is publicly accessible through social media. Political science now has a much more public character, directly and indirectly, through a process which is simultaneously changing its as an epistemic community.

He identifies five features of the intensely political involved’s reaction to Corbynism, though I assume he’s not suggested all of the critics within this group have expressed all of them:

  1. An ideological attack focusing on his beliefs and their putative consequences as beyond the contours of legitimate debate
  2. A preoccupation with the idea that he and his supporters are unintelligent and/or uneducated.
  3. A scepticism that the perceived newcomer status of many of his supporters meant they were unserious, unlike those who had always been involved in politics.
  4. A dismissal of Corbynism’s methods and activities (e.g. protests and rallies) as fundamentally unserious
  5. A claim he was fundamentally devoid of credibility (e.g. not ‘prime ministerial’) and thus simply couldn’t be taken seriously. It treats credibility as “fixed, non-ideological, and context-resistant” in a patently absurd manner.

These responses correlate with the centrism of the New Labour era and first period Cameronism, neither of which can plausibly be argued now to represent some ahistorical standard of the political mainstream. Furthermore, these standards have to be argued and established, rather than merely asserted. I’m not sure this is quite the author’s point but it occurs to me that the very fact they are asserted quite so vituperatively reveals their own absurdity. If they were self-evidently objective then why would so many reject them?

His overarching point concerns the epistemic snobbery these responses embody. They reflect an implicit idea of serious participation by serious people, deviations from which invite suspicion or derision. These serious people with their sober concern for electoral politics and lived contact with credibility, informed by a quasi-scientific awareness of the views of the median voter, look after politics for the rest of us. They can tolerate the occasional political participant, expressing their views through the ballot box then retreating again. But to engage regularly and enthusiastically with politics, outside their bounds of credibility, invites their ire and scorn.

It is this context that he seeks to start a conversation about the increasingly public role of political scientists. This entails being realistic about the fact that “given increasing pressures on media outlets to generate content at relatively low cost, academics are likely to look like a budget-friendly option whenever a talking head is required in the newsroom”. In this context political scientists are framed as neutral experts in command of the facts and beyond the political fray. Polling experts loom large amongst those who are popular with the media. The pressures they are subject to, to present convincing data and offer compelling explanations, militate against epistemic risk taking. In contrast, think, to someone like Will Davies whose theoretically-saturated political sociology leads him to offer fresh and compelling accounts of rapidly changing events, even though he can sometimes be very wrong e.g. as in the case of Mayism’s coming dominance. My perception is that didn’t damage his standing in the slightest whereas for a political scientist whose expertise was grounded on fact-mastery, it would have been a damaging misstep. Unfortunately, the way in which political science is being done in public is such that “it becomes about giving an answer, not interrogating or reframing the question”.

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