Political Realism as Anti-scholastic Practice: Methodological Lessons from Muckraking Journalism

Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
AuthorJ. S. Maloy
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-186Ruiz9iSkpCu/input 873973PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919873973Political Research QuarterlyMaloy
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(1) 27 –39
Political Realism as Anti-scholastic
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
Practice: Methodological Lessons
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919873973
from Muckraking Journalism
J. S. Maloy1
What does the trend of “realism” in political theory portend, if anything, for how social and political scientists do their
work? We can best see where realism’s rubber hits the road by re-examining the methodological comparison between
political science and political journalism, according to which the academic field has long harbored assumptions of
its own superiority. When the comparison between these two approaches to knowledge about politics is explicitly
made, political science is typically justified by reference to distinctive (and higher) purposes and methods. Here, we
reconsider conventional assumptions by reconstructing the journalistic practices and methodological reflections of
two early figures in the American muckraking tradition, Lincoln Steffens and R. S. Baker. While their purposes were
similar to those upheld by advocates of a publicly engaged political science, their methods, somewhat more surprisingly,
are also applicable to the academic profession. Several anti-scholastic lessons on method—relevant to qualitative,
quantitative, and interpretive approaches alike—emerge from the muckrakers’ example. The realist movement in
political theory is congruent with the proposition that political science’s superiority complex is less easily defended
and more obstructive to good research practice than even the most civically engaged researchers commonly assume.
political methodology, political realism, investigative journalism, disciplinary history, American political thought
Every craft is sustained by both explicit doctrine and
(Thussu 2007) and in the United States (Fallows 1996;
implicit assumptions. The profession of political science
but see Hamilton 2016) may offer a niche to be filled, and
is sustained in part by assumptions about its superiority to
concerns about the public engagement and relevance of
journalism. The notion that academic research produces
the discipline (Cramer 2016; Maloy 2017; Smith 2015),
(or at least should produce) a higher or better kind of
as well as its attendant ability to lay claim to govern-
knowledge than political reporting has recently been
ments’ and taxpayers’ support, make filling that niche an
articulated during debates about standards of research
urgent question.
transparency and governmental funding of the discipline,
To investigate whether and how far political science
as it was in previous debates about rational choice theory
should embrace elements of journalistic methodology,
and disciplinary perestroika. The appeal of this conceit
below I consider the “muckraking” period in American
ranges from the positivist’s posture of contempt for “mere
journalism (ca. 1890–1910). The muckrakers’ sense of
journalism” (Niou and Ordeshook 1999, 96) to the more
purpose should appeal to the anti-scholastic sensibility of
widespread notion that “scholars study causes, journalists
those who champion a more publicly engaged political
look at outcomes” (Hochschild 2015, 115).
science today. Their methods exhibited a sophisticated or
The distinction academic researchers draw between
non-naive form of empiricism as well as a healthy skepti-
themselves and those in the journalistic profession is nec-
cism about ethical questions—two features also of the
essary and understandable. Yet it is possible to take it too
trend toward realism in political theory in recent decades.
far. Here I offer a counterintuitive proposition in political
methodology: political science could improve itself by
becoming more like political journalism, in certain
1University of Louisiana at Lafayette, USA
respects. This is a vital question to reconsider in an era
when the financial foundations of teaching and research
Corresponding Author:
J. S. Maloy, Department of Political Science, University of Louisiana at
are in flux and under threat. The long-term decline of
Lafayette, P.O. Box 43581, Lafayette, LA 70504, USA.
civic and investigative journalism around the world
Email: maloy@louisiana.edu

Political Research Quarterly 73(1)
My analysis concludes that two early muckrakers,
journalism and the social sciences on a par, as professions
Lincoln Steffens and R. S. Baker, should be regarded as
using case-study methods toward the end of offering
canonical sources for political methodology. More spe-
practical advice to policy-makers. Lasswell (1963, 189–
cifically, their body of work illustrates four methodologi-
93) viewed political science as pursuing a more system-
cal precepts that would enable academic researchers to
atic style of inquiry than journalism but believed that an
make their central goal of understanding the realities of
intermediate style of research was both possible and
politics more accessible and more powerful: address pub-
desirable. Both Lasswell and Sola Pool identified Walter
lic concerns, tell causal stories, make stories “add up,”
Lippmann as a relevant real-world example from the
and acknowledge normative trade-offs. Once these pre-
early and middle decades of the century (de Sola Pool
cepts have been elaborated and exemplified, the muck-
1969, 215; Lasswell 1963, 206).
rakers’ example appears worthy of methodological
The decline in political scientists’ level of reverence
consideration today because it supplements some famil-
for political journalism in the last fifty years or so is
iar instincts with some forgotten insights. Their model
unmistakable. The reasons for the self-professed superi-
might even be regarded as “a road not travelled” in the
ority of political science may be motivated less by its own
history of the discipline.
virtues than by journalism’s deficiencies. To the extent
that the news media provide “echo chambers” (Jamieson
A Useful Comparison?
2008) for partisan or ideological audiences who seek self-
confirmation, or “infotainment” (Thussu 2007) for igno-
It is common for academic political scientists to express
rant or disengaged audiences who seek escapism, the
their sense of superiority over political journalists infor-
journalistic model of political methodology is bound to
mally, in seminar rooms and other professional spaces.
be dismissed as alien to the self-image of political science
As noted by one political science Ph.D. who worked out-
as a knowledge-building enterprise. If promotion (echo
side academia, doing survey research for a national news
chambers), amusement (infotainment), and investigation
website, “if academics think I’m a reporter, some become
can be considered three distinct dimensions of the jour-
extremely condescending” (Jackson 2016, 516). During
nalist’s mission, we might say that the ideal journalist
times of introspection about political science’s basic
should succeed with all three purposes but that only the
methods and purposes, however, the comparison with
investigative purpose overlaps with most political scien-
political journalism is more likely to be explored deliber-
tists’ sense of their vocation. For this investigative dimen-
ately and publicly.
sion, the development of American journalism during the
In recent debates about the future of the profession and
“muckraking” era (ca. 1890–1910) has left us a rich body
of higher education itself, the growing role of Internet-
of evidence with a surprisingly direct bearing on issues of
based communications in public discourse has brought
political methodology.
this comparison into focus. Some scholars have urged
political journalists and bloggers to make greater efforts
What Was Muckraking?
to submit to the wisdom of political science (Noel 2010;
Nyhan and Sides 2011). New Internet-only journals have
Niccolo Machiavelli, considered by some to be the father
been created to connect academic research more closely
of modern political science (for references, see Dyer and
with the real world, an effort at engagement also embod-
Nederman 2016, 430–31), was also considered by some
ied in the online Scholars Strategy Network. Meanwhile,
readers to be a kind of muckraker. In 1642, with civil war
leaders of recent moves to standardize procedures of
underway between parliamentarians and royalists in
“data access and research transparency” (DA-RT) are
England, a rare pamphlet in defense of Machiavelli
also responding to the power of the Internet and the influ-
praised him for having exposed the corruption of kings
ence of journalists. A central concern in the DA-RT effort
and courtiers. If “a Common-wealth is like a natural
is about the need to demonstrate the academic discipline’s
body,” the author reasoned, Machiavelli’s contribution
superior “capacity for honesty” or “openness” with
was to reveal its inner workings of “blood, filth, and
respect to “news reports” (Lupia 2014, 3). The underly-
stench”; his detractors objected only because Machiavelli
ing hope is that DA-RT standards will both enable and
“hath raked too far in this,” and they could not tolerate the
require scholars to provide the public with “information
odors of...

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