Political science is an academic discipline that seeks to study politics scientifically and to address empirical (factual) and normative (ethical) questions about politics.
Politics is not only a mere institution of governance but also a mechanism for achieving societal goals. Political science is concerned with the theory and practice of politics and the description and analysis of political systems and political behavior.
It includes matters concerning the allocation and transfer of power in decision making, the roles and systems of governance including governments and international organizations, political behavior and public policies.
Brief History of Political Science
Political science often traces its beginnings to ancient Greece and the teachings of political thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Political science as an academic field, however, is much newer.
In the United States, the first political science department was organized at Columbia University in 1880, and in 1903 the American Political Science Association (APSA) was formed.
At the turn of the twentieth century, probably no more than a couple of hundred people in the entire United States thought of themselves as political scientists.
From these beginnings, political science has developed different subfields (areas of specialization) and research methods, and the discipline has grown to include more than 15,000 political scientists in the APSA alone.
In its early years, political science generally involved the analysis of formal, legal, and official sides of political life. This approach is known as traditionalism.
Traditionalists tried to understand politics by examining laws, governmental offices, constitutions, and other official institutions associated with politics; they tried to describe how institutions operated by formal rules and publicly sanctioned procedures.
A traditionalist, for example, who wished to understand the U.S. Supreme Court might study the official rules the Court followed in making judicial decisions, or, perhaps, the formal/legal basis of the Court’s authority as spelled out in the U.S. Constitution.
Traditionalists often tended to focus on what was going on inside government as opposed to looking at social and economic processes in the country.
Traditionalist approaches were often both historical and normative: historical in outlining the processes by which the formal rules of politics were modified over time through court decisions, laws, executive orders, and the like, and normative in the sense of hoping to provide information for improving these rules.
Although traditionalist approaches are still present in political science research, additional approaches have supplemented traditionalism.
Behavioralism is one alternative to traditionalism. Behavioralism became popular in political science after World War II. The roots of behavioralist political science have been traced back to the 1920s and the works of political scientists such as Charles Merriam.
Merriam asserted the usefulness of looking at the actual behavior of politically involved individuals and groups, not only the formal/legal rules by which those individuals and groups were supposed to abide.
Thus, a behavioralist approach to the study of Congress might include an examination of how members of Congress actually behave in their positions. For example, a behavioralist might ask the following type of question:
How much time is devoted by members of Congress to such tasks as writing laws, interacting with lobbyists, raising money for reelection, giving speeches, studying domestic issues, attending committee and subcommittee meetings, casting votes, meeting with foreign dignitaries, and the like?
The behavioralist, therefore, is less interested in how Congress looks officially “on paper” (for example, what the U.S. Constitution says about Congress) and more interested in how Congress becomes an arena of actions, the origins and motivations of which may be found outside the formal sphere of government
Behavioralist approaches stress the importance of empirical analysis. Behavioralists ask how better to study behavior than through careful observation of specific actions. Indeed, behavioralism is almost synonymous with empiricism, according to many political scientists.
Empiricism is a means of collecting data based on observation. From an empirical standpoint, X is a fact if X is observed.13 Behavioralists often favor statistical, mathematical, and economic models of analysis, insofar as they allow for a more minute empirical investigation of phenomena than would be provided by assessing the content of constitutions, laws, and governmental procedures.
Postbehavioralism is an alternative to both traditionalism and behavioralism. In 1969, David Easton announced that a postbehavioral orientation had arrived in political science. What had inspired it?
Easton was very explicit in his answer: Postbehavioralism emerged as a reaction against the empirical orientation of behavioralism by political scientists who found such an orientation excessive and irresponsible.
Empiricism, if taken to the extremes of denying the importance of values and ethics and encouraging a narrowing of research questions to only those matters self-evidently observable, could undermine political science.
In such cases, postbehavioralists warned, political science would produce data that were scientifically reliable (empirically observed) but irrelevant. Moreover, postbehavioralists asserted that behavioralism is not truly value free because it implicitly affirms that understanding comes from observation, not ethical assessments.
Postbehavioralists argue that political science should be relevant as well as empirically reliable, and that the information produced by political science has ethical implications.
Easton tried to remind political scientists that political phenomena were often matters of life and death—matters pertaining to war, population growth, environmental degradation, and racial and ethnic conflict.
Political scientists have a responsibility to acknowledge that what they choose to investigate through the empirical methods of political science and what they discover by means of these methods affect the lives of women and men.
Key Concepts in Political Science
Power is one of the most important concepts in political science. In fact, some political scientists see it as a defining element of the discipline. Power affects how resources are distributed, how countries interact, whether peace or war prevails, and how groups and individuals pursue their interests; that is, power affects the myriad of topics studied by political scientists.
Ironically, however, power is one of the most difficult concepts to defi ne. At its most fundamental level, power can be defi ned as an ability to influence an event or outcome that allows the agent to achieve an objective and/or to influence another agent to act in a manner in which the second agent, on its own, would not choose to act.
In terms of the first meaning, an interest group, for example, could be said to have power if it succeeded in reaching its policy goals. The interest group, in this case, would have achieved its objective if its policy preferences were enacted. Significantly, this type of power may or may not involve exercising power over another agent.
However, in regard to the second meaning, having power means having power over another agent. For example, one country can be viewed as exercising power over another if it can influence the second country to act in a manner favored by the first country but not favored by the second country.
A state is an organization that has a number of political functions and tasks, including providing security, extracting revenues, and forming rules for resolving disputes and allocating resources within the boundaries of the territory in which it exercises jurisdiction.
In providing security, states may create large military establishments or small ones, seek membership in international treaty organizations, or pursue isolationism. In funding their operations through extraction, states may create tax structures to fund expansive or limited social welfare programs.
In setting the ultimate rules of conflict resolution, states may create court systems with the judicial review or may reject judicial review; states may allow for or ban gun ownership by private citizens, just as states may legalize or prohibit the organization of private security forces (such as militias).
States may be organized in a variety of ways. Unitary states concentrate power at the central, or national, level. The United Kingdom, France, China, and Japan are examples of unitary states. Federal states create different divisions and levels of government and divide power among those divisions and levels.
The United States is a federal state, with power accorded to offices at three levels: national or federal offices, state offices, and local offices. Germany, India, Canada, Brazil, and Mexico also have federal systems.
A nation is a group of people with a sense of unity based on the importance the group attributes to a shared trait or custom. A common language, religion, ethnicity, race, and/or culture are often the foundations of national identity.
Indeed, the very origins of the word nation attest to such foundations because the nation is based on the older Latin word natus (birth), and nations generally consist of people whose sense of unity is based on something shared by virtue of the group into which they are born.
• Political theory is a subfield of political science, which studies normative aspects of politics. In Plato’s allegory of the cave, the process of thinking critically and analytically about the ethical issues that constantly arise in our common, political lives. The Socratic method offers us a means of thinking beyond the boundaries of convention.
• Plato and Hobbes provide radically different perspectives on the role of the state. For Plato, the state must promote justice; for Hobbes, the state’s justification is found in its ability to increase the chances of humanity’s survival.
• Aristotle, Jefferson, Tecumseh, and Mendes are theorists of equality. Whether you think of equality in a manner reminiscent of Aristotle (equal consideration of interest), Jefferson and Tecumseh (equality of rights), or Mendes (equality of participation), you can find in the teachings of these diverse theorists creative ways to think about and argue in favor of equality. Nietzsche and Vonnegut, by contrast, challenge us to think about the intriguing possibility that government promotion of equality can bring harmful consequences.
• States can be organized to facilitate the use of maximum state power or to curb state power. If Machiavelli is correct, the first type of state—the one that maximizes power—is the more desirable state because such a state can better protect its citizens. Madison’s theory would suggest otherwise, however. If Madison is correct, institutional protections against maximum state power (for example, separation of power) are necessary if citizens are not to be subject to the tyrannical power of Machiavellian states.
• From antipornography laws to antidrug laws, you can find evidence of state policies designed to shape people’s choices. Sometimes it appears as though government were trying to make us more ethical. Should this be a goal of government? On this question, John Stuart Mill parts company with fundamentalists such as Taliban members and Patrick J. Buchanan. For Mill, individuals judge best for themselves how to live. For fundamentalists such as Buchanan, governments have an obligation to pass laws that discourage what fundamentalism defines as immoral choices.
Some of the Subfields in Political Science
Political science has a variety of subfields. Each subfield focuses on a particular set of questions. The major subfields include:
• Comparative politics, focusing on examining how different political systems operate. It can include comparisons of systems at a macro or micro level, that is, comparing general political structures or focusing on individual elements of political systems. For example, comparative politics can include a comparison of how democratic and authoritarian political structures differ, as well as a comparison of how specific rules governing campaign contributions differ from one country to the next.
• American politics, consisting of an analysis of government and politics in the United States. This subfield encompasses studies of federal, as well as state and local, politics and government. Some political scientists view it as an element of comparative politics.
• International relations, focusing on relationships between and among states. Unlike comparative politics, which zeroes in on how government or politics operates within a country, international relations studies what transpires between states. Its subject matter includes war, regional integration, international organizations, military alliances, economic pacts, and so on.
• Public policy, studying how laws, regulations, and other policies are formulated, implemented, and evaluated. This subfield looks closely at such questions as “What makes a new policy necessary?” How can policies be designed to meet specific needs effectively? What contributes to a policy’s effectiveness? Why are ineffective policies sometimes continued rather than discontinued? What should be the standards for evaluating policies?
• Political research methods, focusing on a study of the many details of empirical social science. Data collection, measurement, and analysis are key areas of inquiry in this subfield. The study of political methods seeks to understand the empirical research process in all its complexity and to develop means of achieving scientific rigor in the collection and interpretation of data.
• Political theory, in some ways unique among the subfields of political science insofar as it is concerned with normative questions. Political theory includes the study of the history of political philosophy, philosophies of explanation or science, and philosophical inquiries into the ethical dimensions of politics.
In addition to these historical subfields, political science is organized into a number of more specialized groups. For instance, in 2010, the APSA provides numerous specialized sections, including:
• Federalism/Intergovernmental Relations
• Legislative Studies
• Public Policy
• Political Organizations/Parties
• Representation/Election Systems
• Political Methodology
• Urban Politics
• Information Technology
• International Security/Arms Control
• Comparative Politics
• Politics/Society Western Europe
• Political Communication
• Political Economy
• Political Psychology
• Foreign Policy
• Race, Ethnicity, and Politics