The Politics of Postmodernity: An Introduction to Contemporary Politics and Culture


John R. Gibbins & Bo Reimer

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    We wish to thank the European Science Foundation for providing us with the opportunity to converse during participation in the Beliefs in Government Project (1989–1995), to Max Kaase and Ken Newton, the directors of the project, and to Jan Van Deth and Elinor Scarbrough, convenors of the Impact of Values working group. Support for John Gibbins also came from the Ferran Requejo, the doctoral students, Anita Noguera, Angel Guevara Casanovas, and the Facultat de Ciencies Socials i de la Communicacio, Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona for the opportunities a visiting post gave, to draft chapters in Spring 1997. Thanks are due to the University of Teesside for the time and to its Centre for Social and Policy Research for encouragement. Bo Reimer wishes to express his gratitude to faculty and students at the Department of Communication, San Jose State University, as well as to colleagues at the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Göteborg University. A special thanks to Magnus Andersson, Andre Jansson and James Lull for stimulating discussions and valuable suggestions.

  • Postscript: The Future of Political Science

    How can political science respond to the challenges posed by postmodernity? This question divides into two others: (1) How do we do political science in post-modernity? And (2) How do we organize the political science profession in postmodernity? Answers to these questions will depend upon how we define the key concepts ‘political’, ‘postmodern’, ‘political science’ and ‘professional’. The first two have been analysed extensively above, but we must comment on the latter two. By political science can be meant the narrow field of empirical and positivistic studies of politics that have blossomed since the 1950s in American and Western European political science and government departments, associated with such figures as Almond, Blondel, Dahl, Easton, Lasswell, Lipset, Parsons, Rokkan and Verba – all men. At the other end of the spectrum political science is the general term for the whole family of disciplines and approaches that study politics, in political theory, philosophy, sociology, psychology, history, management, geography, social policy, criminology, media and cultural studies – many led by women.

    We intend to answer the question in regard to the second definition. By a profession we mean an occupational grouping established by its varying ability to monopolize a specialist skill and service provision; by the recognition that it can control entry, training, discipline and exit; and that it is allowed to regulate itself by having its own code of conduct, impose its own standards, and transmit a common culture to its members.

    Postmodern discourse, we argued, arises both from changes in the way we look at the world and from changes in the world. We may summarize the new challenge for a postmodern political science by two arguments: the epistemological world of modern political science has changed, and so has that modern world it studies (Gibbins and Reimer 1995). In summary, many political scientists are somewhere along the line of abandoning empiricism, foundationalism, univer-salism and the idea of academic neutrality in epistemology, and they find themselves studying a world where the older practices, institutions and belief systems associated with modern liberal democracies seem to be undergoing radical and asystemic change.

    Epistemologically, postmodernists are moving to explore how we can study this new world by embracing contemporary trends towards neo-idealist hermeneutic epistemologies, towards an array of anti-foundational hermeneutic or phenomenological methods, and by a commitment to study the diverse and the particular – alongside a realization that knowledge is connected to power in newer and deeper ways. We must also consider reinventions of old actors in politics, as well as acknowledging new actors, values, allegiances, behaviours, structures, parties, movements, processes and organizations – locally, nationally and globally.

    A number of new directions for political science seem to be emerging from this encounter with postmodernism, all of which suggest that a restructuring or reinvention metaphor may be appropriate to characterize the situation. Although most of our examples are British, we consider that the restructurings to which we refer have applications to the wider Western world. At the heart is the abandonment of the idea that political science is a unitary study with a consensus on methods. Most departments today are recognizably multi-disciplinary and multi-paradigmatic and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Next, political science is today abandoning the enterprise of defending discipline boundaries and is entering the less chartered waters of inter- and multi-disciplinary study. It is now the norm for scholars to have to understand the languages of many, if not all, of the disciplines listed above, so political historians today, much to the chagrin of Oakeshott, must respond to the language and agenda of sociologists who study movements, professionalization and postmodernization; to media and cultural theorists studying construction and representation; to gender theorists studying feminism and masculinities; and to poststructuralist philosophers such as Foucault and Lyotard.

    Whereas critical analysis is the basis of all modern political science, the art of deconstruction is newer and more profound. Here the minimal aim is to challenge and deny the binaries around which political science is constructed – binaries such as science/arts, public/private, political/moral, legal/criminal, legitimate/subversive – as have feminists and critical theorists, and then to explore various points inbetween. Concerted deconstruction would seek to challenge the whole vocabulary of political science in order to reveal implicit values, the power implied by knowledge, and the exclusionary effects of various discourses. As postmodernism is shaped so centrally by the new philosophies of language, we envisage that political science will be shaped in the future by the explicit rather than implicit application of linguistic devices, and by the study of discourses, voices, vocabularies, texts, authors, canons, genres, conversations and dialogical methods.

    The acceptance of the relationship of knowledge/power in political science should lead to a rewriting of the history of the subject, and especially the unearthing of the economic, political and social contexts accompanying the development of its agenda, and of the manipulative role of intellectuals and other professionals. Just as feminists have unearthed the male nature of political science, and post-colonialists are unearthing the imperialistic character of Western political science, so will we need to go on and rewrite our history from the vantage point of other excluded minority groups. The changing of the political science canon should follow on from this endeavour so that minor pamphleteers, journalists, union officials and activists will gain the same status in the canon as members of representative assemblies and academics. We will need to look at the abuses as well as the uses of political science and its poor track record of assisting the already powerful and handicapping the excluded.

    This will direct us to new sites for study, beyond those contained in the core subjects in most political science undergraduate programmes. We should expect the whole gamut of excluded groups, processes of exclusion and writing out of history to be made visible, such as modules on gay politics; animal rights; film, novels, art, music and the media; the study of the politics involved in school curriculum, newspapers and magazines; doctors' surgeries, shopping malls, supermarkets, public toilets; motor vehicles, the countryside, food production and reprocessing, tourism, sexuality, clothing and our bodies (Gibbins 1998b). It is likely that a vast amount of research will go into understanding the consumers of politics; the readers of the political texts presented by key actors.

    We expect the study of political values and cultures will develop to provide insight into the way that both actors and consumers of politics are constructed and construct in turn. Political culture and the study of values, preferences and ethics should extrude formerly central concerns like political behaviour, class, ideology and power. Similarly, we expect the study of political aesthetics and style to become central in a world where simulation and the simulated are so intricately intertwined.

    On methods we should expect the present explosion of types and styles so effectively found in feminism and cultural studies to continue. Methods formerly considered mutually exclusive, such as the empirical and theoretical, the comparative and the psychological, the qualitative and the quantitative, will be bound together in eclectic mixes that will survive if they work in hermeneutic terms. We should expect that just as the language and methods of literary studies and discourse analysis have now penetrated political science successfully, we may expect the same from other disciplines and fields of study, each taking turns to nourish or strangle the other.

    Sceptical postmodernists will contend that as there is no correct method for political research and researching the political, we must adopt an ‘anti-rules’ method, while the affirmatives may adopt an ‘anything goes’ approach. Feyerabend's book title Against Method: Outlines of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975), seems to be the best example of the former approach, while Giddens' New Rules of Sociological Method (1976) and the eclectic collection Theory and Methods in Political Science (1995), edited by Marsh and Stoker, illustrate the second. For ourselves we promote an approach best described as ‘horses for courses’, the idea that several methodologies may well need to be blended together to provide the best method to researching a problem. We should embrace this – along with openness and reflexivity – and reject all demands that research and researchers conform to any one research strategy. This amounts to more than ‘anything goes’ (Heller 1986; Rorty 1979: 318; Rosenau 1992: 116–127). We argue that ‘more goes’ better captures the postmodern attitude to methodology.

    A key conceptual link between postmodern method and theory is the tendency towards subjectivity, particularity and relativism, and away from objectivism, universalism and absolutism in their most extreme forms. Postmodernists are inclined to start with the particular forms of life and life-worlds of particular individuals and groups, and to favour methods of introspection, ethnography and interpretation. That an infinite number of life-worlds and interpretations are possible prevents ascription to any idea of final or ultimate knowledge as advanced in the Enlightenment, and by positivists and Fukuyama (1992) since. The lessons of literary studies dominate much of modern social sciences at present – notions of authors, readers, readings, texts, genres, narratives and canons – and we expect the import of methods from other fields to continue. That this may amount to a method itself is hard to contest, but it is a different, more open, critical and reflexive method. What it rejects is the grounding of a research project in one methodology or paradigm, such as positivism, Marxism or feminism. Postmodern feminists were the first postmodernists to reject the essentialist foundations of other variants of feminism and have shown the way forward (Fraser 1989; Fraser and Nicholson 1988; Nicholson 1990; Shildrich 1997). As well as deconstructing theories, multi-theories will be constructed. That it will not be a purely destructive method should become apparent (Habermas 1987: 161).

    Political theory is already fully immersed in the experience of pluralization, differentiation and eclecticism found in cultural studies. Conference agendas and programmes will continue these trends and will see the incorporation of new theories from other disciplines and fields of study. However, theory will be entwined in a different way with practice, prescription and prognosis than was acceptable in modern political science. Whereas the founding Directors of the London School of Economics, such as Tawney, Laski and Beveridge, were promoting modernist and Fordist political projects such as the welfare state, the present incumbent, Anthony Giddens, plays a very different role, entrepreneurial, mercurial, journalistic – in short postmodern (Giddens 1998). A postmodern political scientist will not play at neutrality, but his or her loyalties and engagements will not be predictable and stable over time. Postmodernists will prescribe, but not necessarily for the good of central interests. Above all, political scientists must respond to the question of why they buy into the theories, explanations, understandings and languages they do, and need to look for non-structuralist and non-determinist answers that may allow for more engaged practices.

    This brings us finally to question (2) around organization of the profession of political science, its research centres, departments, schools, professional bodies, journals, training, codes of conduct and culture. University academics had a monopoly on the political science profession until the late nineteenth century in Britain, but since then, under the impact of state policy to expand higher education, this has slowly been eroded. A process of de-professionalization was engendered as the state imposed control on the universities via funding bodies; conditions of entry, curriculum and training, fees and salaries, quality assessment of teaching and research, control on budgets and the research agendas via the activities of Research Councils. At the same time, university academics have fought to re-professionalize, using all the techniques listed by Foucault in aid of this project of knowledge/power: monopolization; creation of an episteme, mentality and discourse; surveillance, discipline and control (MacDonald 1995: 174–186). The rise of the big national professional associations of political scientists, with their annual conventions, bureaucracies, journals and lines of communication, their professional codes and political advocacy, illustrates this process. While the conflict between these processes of de- and re-professionalization is not and perhaps will not be resolved, we may provide an interpretation from a postmodern perspective.

    Modernization, as Weber informs us, was premised upon rationalization of life, including the professions. The aspects of professions that modern states hated the most have been the pervasive and residual traditionalism at their centres. The professionalization of law, teaching, banking, the civil service, the police, army, clergy and architecture in the nineteenth century was conducted in a way that allowed culture and friendship to dominate. Commercialism, utilitarianism and instru-mentalism took second place to these factors. The contemporary attack on professions by New Right politicians, under the guise of an attack upon commercial monopoly, can be interpreted as a late modern attempt to rationalize the professions and impose a competitive entrepreneurial commercial ethos upon them. Alternatively, it can be interpreted as a necessary deconstructive attack on the knowledge/power processes that postmodernists encourage. The critical work by feminists such as Witz (1992) on exposing the patriarchal tenets of professions may act as a precursor of what may come in future work on the professions. We expect that the role, status and power of excluded groups, the part-time lecturers, post-graduate students, contract researchers will be renegotiated to provide greater inclusion (Doyle and McGregor-Riley 1996).

    For us the fact that professions did not conform to Weber's notion of rationalization is evidence that no unilinear or universalistic account of professions will stand up to rigorous study. The current attack by The New Right on professions illustrates one effect of post-modernization: the demand that all services become able to operate in a flexible global commercial and consumer market. The work of feminists illustrates some future directions for postmodern research on professions focusing on the exclusory regimes and impacts of the operation on professional bodies (Witz 1992).

    What our work on expressivism suggests is that we need to make political science a more open, reflexive and dialogical profession. Pyramidal organizations are giving way either to flatter alternatives or, as Rhodes (1996) suggests, to interlinked and self-managed networks that need less central governance. Political scientists in postmodernity will not take easily to old-style Fordist management and will prefer some more post-Fordist alternatives (Burrows and Loader 1994; Rhodes 1996). Within academic departments it is becoming obvious that common collegiate culture and practice is harder to evoke. Most departments are loose confederations of individuals more or less internally and externally networked. Networking and being networked are now perhaps the most important determinants of the success of both academics and their departments – if we overlook the presentation, representation and reproduction of signs of prestige and achievement. University departments may wish to recognize and facilitate this in their own management of affairs. The provision of resources, resource allocation, policy making and implementation should reflect the global/local nature of political science and allow a variety of sub-organizations to bloom with self-managed budgets, all co-ordinated via regular reviews of missions and achievements and conformity to ethical standards, rather than direct and permanent regulation.

    Allowing self-management should be accompanied by a recognition of differences and distinctions in organizations. That there is no right way to run a department or research centre should allow and encourage a variety of types and styles of management rather than impose a corporate model. Plurality, not monopoly, and a concern to establish and practise a code of ethics should inform the corporate strategy. Networking will be facilitated by the use of all available types of information transfer, and political organizations must ensure they are well placed to reflect the kind of information- or cyber-democracy that is planned for the public world. Being networked by user groups, mailing lists, web sites and subject mail groups are just some of the tools departments must ensure political scientists can access, utilize and set up for others.

    Such a strategy would allow the bringing of new groups and formerly excluded groups of users into departments and debates. The opening of departments and centres to the community in its widest sense is a strategy to encourage, and will need a particular type of organization to accommodate. The modernist dichotomies of professional/practitioner, professional/client and profession/public will have to be permeated to facilitate the revised and wider role of political science conjectured above. Political activists and practitioners should be able to use political scientists as a resource. Departments will need to be networked with the movements and bodies they formerly stood outside to explain. Already this is happening around areas concerned with energy, the environment and feminism, but needs to be extended to voluntary associations, new age groups and movements around sexualities (Heelas 1996).

    Within professional bodies, several lines of organizational change are indicated by a postmodern approach. National bodies should become more like new states, devolving power and budgets to small sub-groups and networks and sharing national remits and agendas with other national and international bodies, such as the Association of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences (ALSSS) and the Academy for Social Sciences (ASS) in Britain. Centrifugal pressures are resulting in the mushrooming of smaller specialist professional organizations, journals and networks, such as the Political Theory Collective at Oxford with its links to the Conference for the Study of Political Thought centred now at the University of Colorado, with the attendant danger that generalist national bodies will lose legitimacy. In Britain the Political Science Association recognizes this trend and has responded by expanding the list of specialist study groups, and by its co-operation with a transnational body like the European Consortium for Political Research, other national bodies such as the American Political Science Association, and international bodies such as the International Political Science Association.

    Sharing, co-operating and joint funding rather than protecting, competing and budgetary sovereignty seem better ways towards realizing a postmodern political science profession. Political science needs to be a world-wide profession, and it has to make its discursive practices more widely available. Making it world-wide while encouraging access and responsiveness to the agenda of expressive individuals and groups, to practitioner groupings and the formerly excluded, all within a customer service policy that is highly inclusive, is the agenda for the future postmodern profession of political science.


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