Harold Wilensky Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Comparing Rich Democracies: Conversation with Harold L. Wilensky, Professor Emeritus of Political Science; October 29, 2002, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Research Methods

One of the notions about doing research that appears in your work is the importance of doing interdisciplinary work of not being trapped by your own discipline if the problem requires more. Talk a little about that.

If you take Chicago as the model of a university that is interdisciplinary, the social science division there did not make a lot of the disciplinary boundaries. I was hanging out with labor economists and labor historians, like Val Lorwin. I had something of a contempt for economics by the time I got into my sociology degree, but I was hanging out with the people in industrial relations who were economists, and they ran a kind of Oxford tutorial for me. book coverSo I learned some economics and got serious about reading it. Chicago encouraged this kind of thing. They made sociologists take anthropology, for example. I was taking interdisciplinary courses in a lot of my graduate years, and I moved from discipline to discipline. The basic idea is, don't let these damned sub-fields put you in prison, intellectually.

There's so much Balkanization of the social sciences now. Graduate students ought to break out of it and let their intellectual curiosity roam, and follow the problem, not the disciplinary boundaries. In fact, some of the best, very best social science in the last two hundred years has been in the interstices of the disciplines, like political economy (markets and politics) or political sociology (the social bases of politics). They are interdisciplinary right off.

Another characteristic feature of your work is the importance of doing comparative research. You wrote about your own work, "When dealing with internal strains within various systems, do the job of systematic comparison." So, "Compared to what?"; "In what specific policy area?" Explain that to us.

Let's say you're a student of American life, and you think that the U.S. is exceptional. American exceptionalism is a theory, in political science and philosophy and other disciplines as well. How can you know what's exceptional about the United States unless you compare it with other countries, either poorer countries or all the rich democracies (which I do)? You'll find quickly that there isn't a lot that's exceptional about the United States. There are few things that are very marked.

So comparative studies help you in this effort to frame your propositions so you can disconfirm them?

That's correct. Let me give you an example. book coverLet's say you believe the welfare state is a drag on the economy -- you know: pensions, health insurance, family policies, miscellaneous aid to the poor or the handicapped. All right, so you've got the welfare state: "it's a drag on the economy." Well, you could find that's true, if you compared Switzerland and Japan to Denmark and Italy, because in the postwar period, Italy and Denmark were big spenders with lousy economic performance, whereas Japan and Switzerland were lean spenders and they were great performers for forty years. What we're talking about here is the four exceptional cases, because when you bring the whole universe of nineteen rich democracies to view, you find that there is a positive correlation between social spending and economic performance until 1974 or even a little later. And then there is no relation after that. None. So it's just a mistake. If you don't do your comparative job, you will never know whether you're dealing with an exceptional or deviant case, or not.

The last point I want to make about the way you do research is that in this massive tome, which I refer to as "The Bible" book cover-- an extraordinarily comprehensive look at this set of problems -- you say, "This is not just quantitative research." You are concerned about doing qualitative research also. You did over four hundred interviews with leading policy figures and analysts, and others.

Yes; politicians, health and welfare officials, budget officers, union and management negotiators -- the people running those places.

But the interplay between those two ways of doing research is very important in your work.

Oh, yes. I have been telling students for forty years, "Don't get caught up in these methodological ideologies. The false dichotomy between qualitative and quantitative, positivists and humanists -- all of those things are misleading. Not only that, they stop you from doing good work." Methodological ideologies are excuses for not learning something about the work of others who don't use your style of research. To me, that's copping out. So I read people I disagree with a lot, and people who have very different perspectives from my own.

First, follow the problem, don't follow the disciplinary boundaries. Second, don't get caught up in methodological ideologies.

I'd like to hear the definition between quantitative versus qualitative. It's not very clear. Not only that, you have to do qualitative work if you're going to do quantitative work that is relevant. It's relevant when you're doing taxing and spending -- you've got to measure the taxing and spending, but you can't make any sense out of the numbers unless you do some case studies and intensive work of some kind. You can't make any sense out of it if you don't put it in historical and political context, over time, also. Now that's a big demand on a student. If you're doing a Ph.D. dissertation, you're not going to do all of the above. But in the course of a career, you can do it. And in the course of thirty years of research, like this project, I could do it all, and put it in one place.

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