Special session / Séance spéciale
Session: P10 - Presidential Address/Discours présidentiel
Participants & Authors/Auteurs: (Click titles for Abstract and Paper.)
Alain Noël (Université de Montréal) : What is it a Case Of? Studying Your Own Country
Abstract: As a scientific discipline, political science is predominantly organized around the theoretically grounded search for replicable causal explanations. In this perspective, the best is to have a large number of cases and conduct quantitative analyses. The second best is to make do with a small n, using either quantitative or qualitative comparisons to establish causality. And the least favourable situation is the single case study, where causality can still be inferred, but only if we have a good theoretical understanding of what this case represents. The first task, then, becomes to answer convincingly this haunting question: what is it a case of?
The appeal of this canonical view underpinned the recent argument in favour of a comparative turn in Canadian politics. Indeed, if we placed the study of Canada in a comparative perspective, we could move up the ladder of science, at least toward small n approaches, and better export our findings to the world.
The problem with this standpoint is that it does not correspond to what most political scientists working on Canada do. First, most of us do not pay much attention to the comparative standing of our case: we are less concerned with the broader theoretical significance of our analysis than with the substantive meaning of the case at hand. Second, we usually seek to develop usable knowledge, more anchored in a normative stance than in a neutral search for causal relations. And third, we stand in a unique position insofar as we work on our own country, which makes this commitment powerful and unavoidable. To borrow an expression from Alan Cairns, who was sceptical about the idea of a comparative turn, we work as “citizen scholars,” who participate in a unique way in the making of our own society.
Overall, Canadian political scientists are not doing badly. I would suggest, however, that we could better adjust our ontological, epistemological and methodological views to our real scientific practices. We should recognize more openly, in particular, that we are always citizen scholars, engaged in the politics of our own country.
Introduction: Guy Laforest (Université Laval)
Words of Thanks/Mots de remerciement: Peter Graefe (McMaster University)