What is Political Theory?

Political theory is an interdisciplinary endeavor whose center of gravity lies at the humanities end of the happily still undisciplined discipline of political science. Its traditions, approaches, and styles vary, but the field is united by a commitment to theorize, critique, and diagnose the norms, practices, and organization of political action in the past and present, in our own places and elsewhere.

Across what sometimes seems chasms of difference, political theorists share a concern with the demands of justice and how to fulfill them, the presuppositions and promise of democracy, the divide between secular and religious ways of life, and the nature and identity of public goods, among many other topics.

Political theorists also share a commitment to the humanistic study of politics (although with considerable disagreement over what that means), and skepticism towards the hegemony sometimes sought by our more self-consciously “scientific” colleagues. In recent years, and especially in the USA, the study of politics has become increasingly formal and quantitative.

Indeed, there are those for whom political theory, properly understood, would be formal theory geared solely towards the explanation of political phenomena, where an explanation is modeled on the natural sciences and takes the form of seeking patterns and offering causal explanations for events in the human world.

Such approaches have been challenged—most recently by the Perestroika movement (Monroe 2005)—on behalf of more qualitative and interpretative approaches. Political theory is located at one remove from this quantitative vs. qualitative debate, sitting somewhere between the distanced universals of normative philosophy and the empirical world of politics.

For a long time, the challenge for the identity of political theory has been how to position itself productively in three sorts of location: in relation to the academic disciplines of political science, history, and philosophy; between the world of politics and the more abstract, ruminative register of theory; between canonical political theory and the newer resources (such as feminist and critical theory, discourse analysis, film and film theory, popular and political culture, mass media studies, neuro-science, environmental studies, behavioral science, and economics) on which political theorists increasingly draw.

Political theorists engage with empirical work in politics, economics, sociology, and law to inform their reflections, and there have been plenty of productive associations between those who call themselves political scientists and those who call themselves political theo­rists. The connection to the law is strongest when it comes to constitutional law and its normative foundations (for example, Sunstein 1993; Tully 1995; 2002).

Most of the political theory has an irreducibly normative component—regardless of whether the theory is systematic or diagnostic in its approach, textual or cultural in its focus, analytic, critical, genealogical, or deconstructive in its method, ideal or piecemeal in its procedures, socialist, liberal, or conservative in its politics. The field welcomes all these approaches.

It has a core canon, often referred to as Plato to NATO, although the canon is itself unstable, with the rediscovery of figures such as Sophocles, Thucydides, Baruch Spinoza, and Mary Wollstonecraft, previously treated as marginal, and the addition of new icons such as Hannah Arendt, John Rawls, Michel Foucault, and Jürgen Habermas.

Moreover, the subject matter of political theory has always extended beyond this canon and its interpretations, as theorists bring their analytic tools to bear on novels, film, and other cultural artifacts, and on developments in other social sciences and even in natural science.

Political theory is an unapologetic mongrel sub-discipline, with no dominant methodology or approach. When asked to describe themselves, theorists will sometimes employ the shorthand of a key formative influence—as in “I’m a Deleuzean,” or Rawlsian, or Habermasian, or Arendtian—although it is probably more common to be labeled in this way by others than to claim the description oneself.

In contrast, however, to some neighboring producers of knowledge, political theorists do not readily position themselves by reference to three or four dominant schools that define their field. There is, for example, no parallel to the division between realists, liberals, and constructivists, recently joined by neoconservatives, that defines international relations theory.

And there is certainly nothing like the old Marx–Weber–Durkheim triad that was the staple of courses in sociological theory up to the 1970s. Because of this, political theory can sometimes seem to lack a core identity. Some practitioners seek to rectify the perceived lack, either by putting political theory back into what is said to be its proper role as arbiter of universal questions and explorer of timeless texts or by returning the focus of political theory to history.

The majority, however, have a strong sense of their vocation. Many see the internally riven and uncertain character of the field as reflective of the internally driven and uncertain character of the political world in which we live, bringing with it all the challenges and promises of that condition.

In the last two decades of the twentieth century, liberal, critical, and post-structuralist theorists have (in their very different ways) responded to the breakdown of old assumptions about the unitary nature of nation-state identities.

They have rethought the presuppositions and meanings of identity, often rejecting unitary conceptions and moving towards more pluralistic, diverse, or agonistic conceptions in their place.

These reflections have had an impact on the field’s own self-perception and understanding. Happily for political theory, the process has coincided with a movement within the academy to reconceive knowledge as more fundamentally interdisciplinary.

This reconsideration of the function and role of the boundaries of the academic disciplines may help others, as well as political theorists, to see the field’s pluralism as a virtue and a strength, rather than a weakness in need of rectification.

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