Thinking Like a Political Scientist

Book Review

Reviewer: Alec Lalonde

Publisher: University of Chicago Press ISBN: 9780226327402
Author's page: Christopher HOWARD

Thinking Like a Political Scientist

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Christopher Howard, known chiefly for his contributions to the study of American politics with The Hidden Welfare State (1997) and The Welfare State Nobody Knows (2006), makes a pragmatic and unpretentious contribution to the already burgeoning literature on political methodology with Thinking Like a Political Scientist (hereafter TLPS).  Howard puts aside arcane statistical techniques and philosophical reflections in order to impart set vital methodological precepts that undergraduates should come to understand through an introductory research methods course.  In particular, he identifies three core questions animating empirical inquiry that every student of political science ought to grapple with: What happened? Why? and Who Cares?  The first question deals with the challenges of description, concept formation and measurement, the second with causal analysis, and the third wrestles with the normative and real-world implications of one’s research question.  Howard would like students and their teachers to give these basic questions sustained thought and attention.  Reflecting on his own experiences as a student, Howard declares, ‘What I really needed was some practical guidance about how to identify a good research question and how to answer it systematically and persuasively’ (vii).  He reminds us that thinking like a political scientist is less about memorizing abstract definitions and mathematical formulas and more about delivering comprehensive and compelling answers for the kinds of questions which ordinary people care about.

Howard divides his book into two parts.  Part One, ‘Asking Good Questions’, examines the three core questions.  Here, readers also learn how to conduct a proper literature review and how to employ various rhetorical strategies when entering into a scholarly debate, advice that should prove helpful for students embarking into unknown terrain.  In Part Two, ‘Generating Good Answers’, Howard introduces readers to the nitty-gritty details of sampling strategies and case selection, the fundamental differences between various types of experimental designs and observational studies together with their respective strengths and weaknesses, basic forms of large-n statistical analyses such as cross-sectional and time-series designs, the trade-off inherent in the quest for internal and external validity, and the importance of triangulating documentary and archival evidence to strengthen various types of empirical claims.  In the final chapter on ‘Using Numbers as Evidence’, Howard provides a thumbnail sketch of descriptive and inferential statistics, including an easy to understand introduction to the use of contingency tables and regression analysis.  I would note, however, that this last installment to Howard’s book is arguably the least useful since, by his own admission, ‘more than one semester of statistics is required to become truly proficient’ (193).  In short, from posing interesting questions and surveying the literature to testing and refining hypotheses through multiple regression analysis and case study, this book addresses a range of practical and analytical hurdles that students regularly face as they undertake independent research projects. 

Despite its obvious merits, there are at least three limitations to TLPS.  First, the absence of any bibliographic essay is a tad disappointing, especially since Howard implores his readers to pursue further coursework in individual methods such as field experiments, surveys, case studies and other techniques (p. x).  Some guide to further reading would indeed be useful for those students whose investigative appetites were sufficiently whetted by Howard’s introductory text.  Second, Howard’s discussion of causal analysis in chapter three makes no mention of the potential outcomes framework or what is sometimes called the Neyman-Rubin-Holland causal model.  Briefly, the potential outcomes framework utilizes an experimental template and counterfactual reasoning to make causal arguments about what would have happened under different treatment conditions.  This omission is unfortunate given that this framework has figured so prominently in debates over causal inference ever since King, Keohane, and Verba adopted it over two decades ago as their default model of causal analysis in Designing Social Inquiry (1994).  Outside of political science, the potential outcomes framework has inspired various books and technical discussions in fields as diverse as econometrics, sociology, demography, and epidemiology.  Its growing prominence across the social sciences hints at the need for a lucid and straightforward introduction in TLPS.  Finally, not every scholar will find this book useful for the kinds of political inquiry they like to teach.  This is because Howard’s implicit philosophical position is unabashedly neopositivist in orientation and, as such, fits securely within the mainstream of political science as practiced in the United States.  TLPS privileges a style of research uncongenial to most normative theorists, interpretivists, and critical scholars. The methods expounded in TLPS will undoubtedly encourage a style of research more agreeable to empirically-oriented social scientists who embrace neopositivism than it will normative or critical theorists who doubt that this philosophical premise offers an adequate point of departure.

We should commend Howard for his attempt to impart a set of ‘bread and butter’ tools for thinking that will enable students to design and carry out social research that is both interesting and analytically rigorous.  This is the kind of book I wish I had as an undergraduate.  Howard’s prose is clear and infused with a stylistic wit uncharacteristic of books on methodology.  Like other titles in this series, TLPS is primarily for students and their teachers.  The practical exercises included at the end of each chapter provide an opportunity for readers to apply some of the lessons conveyed throughout the text.  These exercises are challenging but achievable for the student who works hard and thinks well.  Seasoned scholars looking for methodological innovations or radical revisions will not find them here.  While Howard brilliantly distils and synthesizes a large corpus of existing wisdom, he does not break new ground by advancing fresh techniques.  Ultimately, this book should prove useful for instructors teaching introductory research methods courses and any undergraduate or novice craving a gentle introduction to mainstream social science methodology.

2019 - Volume 13 Issue 2