The “problem solving” approach and social science methodology

I have a new “methodology big think” essay that argues in favor of political scientists orienting their research toward trying to address clearly-defined societal problems. Here is a link to the pdf: [pdf]

The essay is intended for a forthcoming handbook on political science methodology. I do think it makes points that would be of interest to social scientists more generally.

For some, it may seem obvious that social scientists should be working on clearly-defined societal problems. In political science, however, this is not how many people think about their research. Rather, the idea of “disinterested” or “agenda-free” pursuit of “explanation” and “puzzle solving” is very common, perhaps dominant. In my view, such an approach makes research largely an aesthetic exercise where judgments about research quality are driven by idiosyncratic tastes. That is just not the way I think about what I do, and frankly, if such a “disinterested” approach were to define our discipline, I’d have a hard time explaining why anyone should devote serious resources to it. There are much more compelling ways to meditate on the exercise of power and the human condition than “disinterested” regression studies in a political science journal.

The essay argues that taking a “problem-solving” mindset can help to organize one’s thinking about methodological questions. I propose that a problem-solving research program operates through three steps: (1) problem definition and description, (2) primarily observational examination of mechanisms that perpetuate the problem, and (3) primarily experimental studies to test intervention strategies to mitigate the problem. Social scientists should develop skills to operate through each of these stages, although some specialization in one of the phases makes perfect sense. Social science journals should devote nearly equal space to each of these types of research.

I have organized my teaching, advising, and assessments of research on the basis of this mindset. I think it is very powerful, and it helps me to address questions of priority in a systematic way. I think that students find it clarifying too.

My thinking is strongly influenced by recent contributions by Duflo ([link]) in economics and Moynihan ([link]) in public administration. I highly recommend these.

I would love to know what you think.


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