On February 21, Stanford professors Kenneth Schultz and Thomas Mullaney of the political science and history departments, respectively, faced off in a friendly debate on the merits of both disciplines. Nearly 40 students crammed in to the small Robinson House lounge to hear the professors tackle an oft joked about but seldom discussed question: just which is the better discipline, history or political science?
Debate host and history department Chair Philippe Buc opened the debate on a light-hearted note by calling for each of the contestants to share a joke about his opponent’s academic field. Schultz and Mullaney obliged, and then all three scholars very quickly got down to business. While the atmosphere of the debate remained very friendly throughout, Schultz and Mullaney offered many poignant insights into precisely what sets the two fields apart.
Professor Schultz began by noting that “the basis of science is understanding causality,” and that to make up for that fact that controlled experiments are usually impossible to conduct in the social sciences, “we have to come up with creative methodologies and research designs to reach closer to the ideal of a controlled experiment,” in political science. Schultz also explained that while political scientists tend to focus on “what makes things the same” by examining causal trends in historical data; historians tend to be interested in “what makes [things] idiosyncratic” by examining the stories of individual people and events.
For Mullaney, history is somewhat of a tragic art form for this very reason. In telling a particular person’s story, “the author is so desperately trying to do justice to the story she’s telling, and knows that she cannot, but is…trying to compensate for it through the creation of a work of art.”
Mullaney noted that history “draws on multiple methodologies, and sets them against each other, because any one methodology is going to lead to a particular way of thinking,” noting that historians have witnessed the fall of too many “isms” and all-encompassing theories to view political science theories without skepticism.
The two professors readily agreed on several issues. When Mullaney explained that “history is a discipline that embraces and gave rise to a number of disciplines that are underneath it, including political science” Schultz agreed, adding that “polisci is substantively a subset of history, but we also come much closer to the contemporary period, so if you’re thinking about who’s going to win the 2008 election, you’d be much better off asking a political scientist than a historian.”
Schultz and Mullaney offered food for thought to many as yet undeclared majors who attended the debate in hopes of gaining an illuminating perspective on their decision. Both scholars outlined the personal experiences which lead them to their separate fields. Ultimately, Professor Mullaney advised students that “you have to decide what you do based on who you are,” a comment that Professor Schultz agreed with.
The debate was co-sponsored by The Stanford Review and the history department.