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Philosophical wagers

When reading through the introduction to these philosophical debates, I fell firmly on what I’ll call the “universal” side of all of them. That is, those sides of each debate which held that generalizeable research could be done and facts could be pulled closer to our grasp, even if we never achieve absolute certainty. (I.e. – realism, transcendentalism, etc.) After looking at some research and participating in our discussions, I am still confident in this position.

Coming from that base, I do think objective social research can be done. It can be noted here that I did not directly answer this question the way it is posed in the assignment — ” do you think you can be an objective observer of the social world?” This question looks in the wrong place. It looks at the researcher instead of the research. Humans definitely have biases and deficiencies. The proper reaction to this when preforming and consuming research is to consider it and adjust your evaluation of the research accordingly, not completely abandon the concept of capital-f Facts altogether. Some things are true, period. Some truths are universal, period. The difficulty of finding those universal truths may be beyond articulation, but that does not mean that good research cannot pull us ever closer.

In my estimation, researchers can make knowledge claims about any factual propositions. Whether these knowledge claims are valid depends on the veracity of their contents, and the reach of valid claims advances with our capabilities as researchers. If we can identify 500 variables that make parliamentary elections in Ghana different than those in Belgium, our research will be more valid, more capable of revealing a better picture of universal truths, than if we can only identify 10.

In making an ultimate evaluation of this philosophical debate, it is important to define the terms. This debate is about fundamental differences, not gradient differences. Possible versus impossible is a fundamental difference. Easier versus harder is a gradient difference.

Non-univseralists (constructionists, etc.) propose that social science is fundamentally difference than natural science — that universal facts can be determined in natural science but not in social science. The justification is that researchers (being human) are a part of society, and thus can’t objectively study it. But this ignores that researchers are also part of nature. No one would say that Einstein’s research on the physics of the solar system was not actually True because Einstein lived in the solar system. No one would say that biologists can’t make universal discoveries about cells just because they are themselves made of cells. There is not a fundamental difference. Humans are a part of society just like they are a part of nature. As a matter of fact, human society itself is a part of nature. The difference we observe is a gradient one. It is harder to find facts in social science because there is more stuff going on, as it were. But at a fundamental level, the possibility is still the same.

Portfolio post 2

I met with Prof. Mislan on September 7 for about 30 minutes. After meeting each other personally, we discussed my academic history at AU, my future academic plans, and how they relate to my research project. The first specific item we talked about was Reinhold Niebuhr’s book The Irony of American History, which Prof. Mislan suggested I read over the summer. I shared my opinion that the book is principally an argument against ideology in foreign policymaking. Niebuhr, writing during the Cold War, contended that both the Soviet Union’s communist ideology and America’s liberal ideology could distort their respective foreign policies if emphasized over factual nuances. The largest concern I shared with Prof. Mislan was that my topic, as of yet, has not been focused into a single puzzle or question. Prof. Mislan told me that there will always be a worthy, manageable research question in a rich thematic area. Accordingly, my next few steps in the process should be focused on finding a puzzle that I can get my question out of. Along with the research related readings from class, I think the best way to go about that would be to read academic literature on democratization, including in the Journal of Democracy.

Research Portfolio Post #1: Research Interests

The topic that I will be researching this year is the various methods of US democracy promotion, a topic I’m interested in for two reasons.

First, the expanding or declining trends of democracy worldwide have been a key theme of world history for the past few decades. The fall of the Soviet Union brought about democratization in Europe that helped expand the project of European economic and political integration started after World War II. The Arab Spring and subsequent faltering of democratic movements in the Middle East created new layers of instability in that region. And politics today in countries from Turkey to Russia to the Philippines is largely defined by increasing strength of authoritarian actors. Almost all current international events can be seen in part through a lens of forward or backward moving democratization.

And secondly, democracy promotion is a feature of US foreign policy that is often known a mile wide and an inch deep. Anyone who follows foreign policy knows that it plays a prominent part at least in the rhetoric of American leaders, and it was perhaps the most prominent element of the foreign policies of Presidents Clinton and Bush 43. (Its relative absence with Obama and Trump is equally notable.) However, while the basic concept of democracy promotion is widely known, the various methods remain largely untouched in conversations about the topic. When they are discussed, discussions revolve around large scale military intervention, which is important but excludes a large part of the policy. Smaller military action, commercial tactics, and the use of aid and diplomacy receive practically no mention or evaluation. With this research, I hope to make the conversation about democracy promotion more holistic.

The “puzzle” I used when applying for the program was to determine the effectiveness of the various methods of democracy promotion. I thought that such a question was probably too broad at the time, and I now think that even more so. To further focus my work, I could evaluate individual tactics or compare the democratization in countries targeted by America versus other democratizing countries, etc. I am still largely unsure of a particular direction I want to take the project.