Ukrainian Political Science and the Study of Ukraine within American Political Science: How Similar, How Different?

April 2015

From: JUPS #1, 2015 (pp. 23-32).

The School of Athens or Scuola di Atene is a painting by the Italian High Renaissance artist Raphael Sanzio. Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) are considered to be the "Fathers of Political Science."
What are the Lessons and Possible Ways Forward for Political Science in Ukraine?

So what can be done to bring Ukrainian political science from the periphery into the global disciplinary mainstream? This essay has not set out to provide recommendations for reforming the discipline in Ukraine but rather to compare the state of affairs of political science in Ukraine and in the West, primarily in America.  The task of reforming the discipline, starting with taking the very decision that reforms are indeed needed, is something that Ukrainian political scientists will need to consider.  Comparative analysis in the essay however raises some questions Ukrainian colleagues may want to think about.

One such question is how scholars’ personal political beliefs and ideologies (be they patriotic or, say, of a pro-Russian orientation) affect the quality of political science research and the discipline at large.  As a relatively new state, and especially a state currently facing an aggressive irredentist Russian neighbor, the situation Ukrainian political scientists find themselves in now is not directly comparable to the situation of colleagues in Western states.  However, it is not that dissimilar from American political science in the late 19th and early 20th century when American political science as a discipline was founded not to dispassionately study politics but, as discussed above, to advance a political agenda, namely the realization of “state will”, understood as creation of a unitary nation state with virtuous citizenry. In pursuit of this goal, scholars studies tried to expose “corruption, patronage, party machines, parochialism, and regionalism” of American institutions (Dryzek 2006, p. 487-488). 

Ideologically-motivated choice of topics and the presence of normative ideal and educational objectives towards the society and its citizenry of  early American political science closely echo contemporary criticisms of Ukrainian political science discussed in this essay, such as avoidance of certain topics (far right, government corruption, etc.) and the perceived need to further patriotism and political consciousness of the citizens. Ukrainian political scientists thus might decide that if their American colleagues went through this stage without harming the discipline, why cannot they as well. The problem is, however, that when American political science was going through this phase of normatively-driven research, global political science essentially did not existand, thus, American political scientists were not outliers of the disciplinary mainstream. In fact, whatever they did was the mainstream. Today, however, to defend normatively-oriented research would relegate Ukrainian political science to the periphery of the global community of political science scholarship, since in its methods and approaches the discipline moved far away from where American political science was at the turn of the 20th century.  With simultaneous pursuit of patriotism and social science problematics, Ukrainian political scientists need to think about which one they want to prioritize and be cognizant of the consequences of this choice.

One final question to end this essay: are the fates of Ukrainian democracy and Ukrainian political science related? In other words, can Ukrainian political science flourish and successfully compete on the global arena if democracy fails to consolidate in Ukraine in the post-Maidan era?  It is true that some important theoretical advances in political science have emerged in non-democratic settings (transitology theory, for example, originated in Latin America, but there authoritarianism was punctuated by periods of greater pluralism). However, the bulk of high quality contemporary political science output is produced overwhelmingly in Western democracies, which raises the question:  if the success of one is dependent on the success of the other?  Some political scientists argue explicitly that this is the case. If political scientists do their job, Keohane argues, they will be “irritating to political leaders, since we illuminate their deliberate obscurities and deceptions, we point to alternative policies that could be followed, we question their motivations and dissect the operations of organizations that support them and governments over which they preside. They will try to buy us off or, failing that, if not prevented from doing so, shut us up. As a result, we have a symbiotic relationship with democracy. We can only thrive when democracy flourishes, and democracy – in a smaller way – needs us, if only as a small voice of dispassionate reason” (Keohane 2009, p. 363). Perhaps Ukrainian political scientists can move the discipline along by helping advance democracy in Ukraine through their commitment to democratic pluralism when it comes to topics and questions they pursue, and by striving for objectivity in seeking answers to these questions. The goal of objectivity can never be fully realized, Keohane reminds us, but we should strive for it nevertheless “because otherwise people with other preferences, or who do not know what our values are, will have no reason to take our findings seriously.”  (Keohane 2009, p. 363).

Oxana Shevel is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at Tufts University and an Associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. She can be reached at



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  • 1.Rudych notes in this regard that there has been a debated in Ukraine whether political science should be a separate discipline or, because it studies questions also addressed by other social sciences, political science was essentially political sociology rather than a distinct discipline. Rudych also notes that discussion took place over whether “scientific nationalism” should form the basis of Ukrainian political science, and whether Ukrainian political science should be conceived as a discipline specific to Ukraine (since in every country the study of politics is tied to national specifics). According to Rudych, the outcome of these discussions was to reject the idea that nationalism needs to be a theoretical and practical foundation of state-building in Ukraine, and also to reject the conceptualization of political science in Ukraine as a Ukraine-specific discipline. Instead, a “Ukrainian political science school” needs to be created that would contribute theories and other intellectual products that would be distinct from what other schools have to offer and thus would be the forte of Ukrainian political science. (Rudych 2003b).
  • 2.In Ukraine there are 47 recognized think-tanks, which place Ukraine 25th in the world and 3rd in Eastern Europe (Matsievskyi 2012).



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