Political studies and the contextual turn: a methodological/normative critique

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Recent developments in political studies have seen much greater attention paid to ideas about history, culture and associated notions of context. This reflects, at least in part, a dissatisfaction with positivism and modernist empiricism and an interest in alternative methodologies and epistemologies. As part of this general development, the language of non-traditional approaches to politics has become replete with the language of contextualism – emphasizing specificity, particularity and contingency. There is certainly much to be welcomed in the turn away from an ahistorical, objectivist and materialist positivism towards more nuanced approaches. Contingency attends virtually every development in human affairs, making predictability a very inexact science. And facts simply do not speak for themselves. They are made to speak in different ways by different people located in varying positions of power and influence and with particular agendas or projects. Thus the notion that adequate explanations of political practices and actions can be obtained in the absence of a narrative account of the beliefs that sustain them is indeed difficult to defend. Even so, critiques of objectivist approaches which substitute specific historical and/or cultural contexts for universals may turn out to be simply using another method of objectification. Furthermore, far from providing a critique of domination, I argue that key aspects of the contextualist turn actually reinforce it. So while agreeing with the general point that attention to context, both historical and cultural, is essential to good political analysis, this paper is nonetheless critical of certain key aspects of contextual approaches. In addition, it highlights certain difficulties in devising a general theory of context due to some important contradictions between cultural and historical versions of methodological contextualism.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAPSA 2007
Subtitle of host publicationrefereed papers
EditorsDavid Wright-Neville
Place of PublicationMelbourne
PublisherMonash University Publishing
Number of pages19
Publication statusPublished - 2007
EventAustralian Political Studies Association Annual Conference (55th : 2007) - Melbourne
Duration: 24 Sept 200726 Sept 2007


ConferenceAustralian Political Studies Association Annual Conference (55th : 2007)


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