History versus political science

February 16th, 2009

I have been pondering lately, among other things, the great difference between political science and history.  Partly I am nervous about the Long Wait to hear back about my three grad school applications.  (Should I have applied to multiple programs at UBC Vancouver?  Should I have applied to Berkeley like I wanted to?  And general anxious questions, because I’m me…)  And partly I just can’t understand the difference and it bugs me.

History is about stories, and about figuring things out from the past using whatever bits of data (information, letters etc) happens the have survived the years.  Historians try to see things as patterns across time, but generally concede that life and relationships are more complicated than not.

Political science is about theories, diagrams and hypotheses, and about figuring things out from the past using whatever bits of data that historians decide to publish and write about (books, articles, and “fact” databases that share numbers – such as birth/death rates or casualties).  Political scientists try to reduce life and relationships to a single set of axioms or beliefs about the way things are, but generally do not come to a consensus.

Historians, therefore, tend to get caught up in the details or go off on tangents that don’t particularly help anyone learn a lesson for future engagements.

Political scientists, however, tend to get caught up in modelling life to notice that life actually is more complicated than a single diagram can accurately describe.  Unless you use a very large piece of paper and very small print to create a flow chart.  And even then, you’re probably missing something.

Why does this debate matter to me?  Well, depending on where I get in (God, I hope I get in somewhere!) I’ll either become an historian or a political scientist.  And the more I think about becoming a political scientist in Vancouver, the more I dread graduate school.  But then I think about becoming an historian in Toronto, and struggle with first having to live in Toronto, and second with having to become an historian.  To me, political scientists lose too much of the Big Picture in their petty debates on whose model is fittest.  And historians lose too much of the Big Picture focusing on all the little details that make their case studies unique.  I want the middle of the spectrum.

Conversation brought to you by GOVT 329/International Security homework.


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