On the unfortunate presentism of China political science

From Neil J. Diamant on why we might want to study things before Reform and Opening in order to understand Chinese politics:

“Given the short history of the PRC, and that much of what we have learned about its politics is based in the ‘pre-archival era,’ it is far too soon to relegate the foundational years and critical events of the prereform PRC to ‘history.’ Think about this: what would the field of American politics look like if anything that happened prior to the Carter administration was considered ‘historical,’ or if political scientists eschewed research in the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum because colleagues and others were more fascinated by the Obama administration?”

(Page 35 in Carlson, Gallagher, Lieberthal, and Manion. Contemporary Chinese Politics: New Sources, Methods, and Field Strategies. Cambridge University Press, 2010.)

“Unlike historians for whom archival research is a badge of professional métier, political scientists in the China field (less so in American, Latin American, or European politics, for whom forays into history are common) who rely on these sources might encounter a number of discipline-related hurdles. First, archival data can be very detailed and descriptive, which can militate against ‘parsimony’ in explanation, the gold standard for some political scientists. Second, despite the dismal record in predicting major political events, political science tends to reward ‘theoretical innovation’ more than the discovery of new information per se. Third, archival research is associated with ‘historical’ or ‘qualitative’ methods, which, in some quarters, are more suspect than methods such as survey research. Finally, there is the presentism issues. With all the news about China ‘rising,’ many political scientists, like the lay public, want to know what is happening in China now The rosier contemporary scene – not the brutal and poor Maoist period – is ‘hot.’”






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