Dear Chris –
I promised you last year I would eventually write a rejoinder to your blog entry “Political Scholars fiddle while Rome Burns”. I apologize for taking so long!
In that blog, you lamented the assault on the study of Canadian politics. You pointed to the gradual replacement of Canadian scholars by comparative ones in political science departments throughout the country and to the growing promotion of the “comparative turn in Canadian political science”, rather than a focus solely on Canada. In this year’s presidential address at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Alain Noël was similarly very critical of the “comparative turn”.
I share many of your worries about the future of our discipline. And I could not agree more with you “that political science departments in this country need to do more to protect, prioritize, and publicize the study of Canadian politics”.
It might seem strange that I share some of your critiques of the “comparative turn in Canadian politics” considering that I recently published a co-edited volume entitled Comparing Canada: Methods and Perspectives on Canadians Politics. Whereas the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science explored the ways in which Canadian scholars contribute (or not) to comparative politics theories, our book explores the ways in which the comparative method allows us to better understand Canada.
In our book, while promoting the potential benefits of the comparative method to the study of Canadian politics, we also acknowledge three potential limits or problems with what your present as “embracing the comparative turn”.
The first one is simply that our discipline cannot and should not be reduced to a subfield of comparative politics. Normative and critical perspectives on Canadian politics have been and are still central to our discipline. Moreover, some of the main contributions of Canadians to international political science and comparative politics have been the result of our interest (some might say obsession) with normative issues raised by the country’s struggle over national unity and debates about Canadian multiculturalism.
The second potential problem is that a focus on comparison can lead us to dismiss case studies or Canada-centred studies. As discussed in the introduction of our book, such case studies are crucial to explore under-studied aspects of Canadian politics and also to inductively develop new theoretical perspectives. Moreover, as Alain Noël stressed in his presidential address, comparative politics privileges a positivist epistemology. The object of social science inquiry is not always to explain, but also to interpret or to criticize. In such case, a comparative strategy might not be useful in light of the researcher’s intentions.
The third problem is that it can give a relatively distorted view of the history of our discipline. The main strength of the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science is that it documents, I believe, a real shift in the 1990s and 2000s as the number of cross-national studies of Canada increased significantly. The different contributors also artfully explore the way Canadian political scientists have been “givers” or “takers” when it comes to theories of comparative politics. These are important contributions that should not be dismissed.
I find problematic though the idea that, somehow, Canadian political science was before the 1990s “introspective, insular, and largely atheoretical”, to quote from the The Comparative Turn‘s blurb. While Canadian political scientists were certainly preoccupied by national unity concerns, they engaged with theoretical debates in international political science and used some of those approaches to illuminate the Canadian case. Just to give an example from our book, political economy in Canada was influenced by and engaged with theoretical perspectives such as British neo-marxism and the French regulation school.
Many of the critiques of the “Comparative Turn”, whether fair or not, came down to the fact that it gave the impression that our first objective as students of Canadian politics should be to contribute to the international comparative scholarship. The first objective, critiques responded, should be in fact to better understand Canada.
I believe that the comparative approach to the study of Canadian politics can contribute to the revitalization, not the cannibalization, of the study of Canadian politics. In order to do so, we must first recognize that the comparative approach is one of many other approaches that can help us better understand Canadian politics. We must also acknowledge that in order to contribute to the study of Canadian politics, our students need to know better the history of our discipline, and not only the most recent comparative theoretical approaches.
Comparison can play an important role in the study of Canadian politics. It allows us to overcome a number of potential pitfalls: making erroneous normative claims about aspects Canadian politics, exaggerating Canada’s specificity or uniqueness, neglecting the country’s internal diversity (which brings the important of comparative provincial or local studies), and over-emphasizing the centrality of certain factors in explaining different political phenomena.
More importantly for the study of Canadian politics though, the comparative method and continuing engagement with the comparative literature can leads us to ask new questions about our country and explore aspects of Canadian politics previously neglected or overlooked. As Stretton argued in the late 1960s, the function of comparison is perhaps less to simulate an experiment than to stimulate imagination.
Ultimately, one of the main merits of the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science is to have contributed to a debate about methodological approaches to the study of Canadian politics. We need to pursue that reflection. There are a number of methodological approaches in fact that have not been sufficiently explored in the study of Canadian politics (life history, political ethnography, different experimental methods, etc).
More than a decline of Canadian politics, I see a renewal. The national unity crisis of the post-1970s had a defining impact on our discipline, contributed to the intervention of many political scientists in the public sphere and influenced their research. What I see today are a number of political scientists exploring previously under-studied aspects of Canadian politics and using different platforms to disseminate their findings. In most cases, those who adopt a comparative perspective do so not because of some sort of misguided belief in the superiority of comparative approaches, but because they think that such approaches allow us to gain important insights about our country.
I’m a big fan of Luc Turgeon, both as a person and as a scholar. The first time I met him, we clashed in the Sidney Smith lunch room over the value of Canadian political science. I was a very junior PhD student and Luc was one of the rising stars in the department. I don’t remember who argued what but I do remember we had a vigorous debate and that I must have been losing because some of my colleagues began to inch away from me as the debate continued!
Luc’s letter sounds promising. I like the nuance he provides in terms of the contributions and relationship between Canadian and comparative politics. How many political scientists in Canada, however, agree? Maybe this book will spur a much needed debate in Canada political science departments. Will the anti-Canadianists listen?