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Political Science

  Political science is an academic discipline, devoted to the systematic description, explanation, analysis and evaluation of politics and power. It might be more accurately labelled ‘politology’ than political science because the subject is not characterized by one unified body of theory or paradigm (as in some of the natural sciences), and some political scientists reject the idea that their discipline is like that of the natural sciences. The scope of political science is marked by a multiplicity of sub-fields of inquiry: notably political thought, political history, political theory, political institutions, public administration, public policy, rational choice, comparative political analysis, political sociology, and theories of the state.

Some political scientists describe themselves first and foremost as political historians—albeit with a bias towards contemporary history. They tend to be divided into two camps: (a) students of ‘high politics’, who study élite decision-makers, believe that the personalities and machinations of key élites shape history and cannot be subsumed away as mere by-products of other causes, and generally believe that self-aggrandisement and self-interest will account for most élite behaviour (sometimes such people are denigrated by their colleagues in the profession as mere biographers); and (b) students of ‘low politics’, or history from below, who believe that the political activities of non-élites, or mass political behaviour, provide the key to explaining major political episodes, rather than the charisma, plots or blunders of political leaders.

The intellectual origins of political science lie in the classics of political thought: the accumulated body of texts and writings of great philosophers, especially the ‘canon’ of Western thinkers from Plato through Machiavelli and Hobbes to Kant, Hegel, Marx and J.S. Mill. Ancient, medieval and early modern political thought shared three common preoccupations, which are still live issues among political scientists: (1) the nature and justification of the state; (2) the nature of justice; and (3) the nature of a good political order (see Utopianism). Historians of political thought differ over the reasons they advance for paying detailed attention to classical texts. A minority believe that the classics contain permanent truths although they dispute which particular authors and texts contain them. They think that it is the duty of civilized educators to transmit these truths to subsequent generations, and regard empirical political science as a betrayal of ‘the great tradition’. Some historians of political thought, by contrast, argue that though the classics address timeless questions, they may be more important for the questions they raise than the answers they provide. For example, the abstract question, ‘Would rational persons in a state of nature agree to establish a state, and if so of what type?’, helps to clarify the issues underlying political obligation, political legitimacy and our beliefs about human nature. Others argue that the classics, far from being timeless, are texts addressed to contemporaries engaged in political arguments of specific relevance to their own times. They think it is the task of political thought to recover the original meanings and contexts of classical discourses which naturally issues in the question which present debate such historians are themselves addressing.

Political theory has evolved from the history of political thought. It addresses in an analytical vein, often with mathematical and logical rigour, many of the themes raised in political thought and contemporary political science. Political theorists partly see their task as that of conceptual clarification, explicating the possibly contradictory meanings of key political concepts, like democracy, liberty, equality, and justice. However, they also seek to answer major normative questions, such as ‘What is justice?’: an issue famously addressed in recent times by John Rawls\' A Theory of Justice, 1971). Much contemporary political theory has a deductive and analytical flavour reflecting the rising ascendancy of rational choice within this field.

The study of political institutions, especially the role of constitutions, executives, legislatures, judiciaries and political parties, occasioned the formal establishment of political science departments in most Western universities of liberal democratic states. The concerns of many institutionalists were often indistinguishable from those of constitutional or public lawyers. Contemporary political scientists still spend much of their time monitoring, evaluating, and hypothesizing about the origins, development and consequences of political institutions. They are interested primarily in tracing the origins and developments of political institutions, and providing ‘thick’ or ‘phenomenological’ descriptions, normally of the countries in which they reside. (Some of their insulting colleagues claim they engage in ‘thick’ description simply because they are thick.) They assert, by contrast, that they are real political scientists: the activities of their colleagues who are area-specialists or knowledgeable about government or public administration in one country, while providing essential data for political science, are not themselves scientific. They maintain that a comparative focus is the only way to be genuinely social-scientific. In their view political science is concerned with establishing ‘universal laws’ or ‘theories of the middle range’: that is, generalizations which can provide rigorous and tested time-bound explanations of political phenomena. In its narrowest form ‘comparative political institutions’ has developed as a discipline which compares constitutions, executives, legislatures and judiciaries either within or across states with a view to explaining differences in the way in which political issues are processed and resolved. However, it can also involve the comparison of militaries, political parties, electoral systems and systems of interest-representation. In its wider form, comparative political analysis, political scientists use general concepts which are not country-specific and are commitment to positivist methods. Comparative political analysis developed as part of the behaviourist movement in the social sciences which criticized the formalistic and legalistic nature of institutional political science of the 1950s and the 1960s. It sought to test and quantify propositions about political behaviour, arguing that constitutional, legal and formal analyses frequently had little substantiated empirical support. The behavioural revolution was accompanied by rigorous quantitative research on electoral systems and electoral behaviour, the functioning of political parties, the role of interest groups, and the making of public policy, with the emphasis often being on studies of decision-making. However, the antithesis between institutionalists and quantitative political scientists has mostly been overcome modern empirical political scientists normally embrace the insights to be derived from both approaches. The marriage between institutionalism and the use of modern empirical techniques such as survey research and statistical testing is perhaps most fruitfully revealed in the testing of cross-national generalizations. Arend Lijphart\'s Democracies: Patterns of Majoritarian and Consensual Government in Twenty One Democracies (1984) is an exemplary work of comparative political analysis.

Public administration and public policy are empirical and normative branches of political science. Whereas public administration focuses on the institutional arrangements for the provision of public services, and historically has been normatively concerned with ensuring responsible and equitable administration, public policy analyses the formation and implementation of policies, and addresses the normative and empirical merit of arguments used to justify policies. Neither public administration nor public policy have one dominant approach: exponents of pluralism, behaviourism, rational choice, Marxism and feminism are to be found engaged in debate with institutionalists who derive their inspiration from the work of Max Weber. The most vigorous intellectual debates in public administration presently centre on the ‘new public management’ and the validity of economic and rational choice interpretations of the workings of political institutions, especially public bureaucracies. Political scientists of a more quantitative bent, especially those with a training in economics, decision-analysis and social policy, have also been developing the field of public policy. The subject matter of this sub-discipline is the formulation, implementation and evaluation of public policies. These political scientists examine who has the power to put policy-proposals on the agenda for example, voters, interest groups, ethnic groups, professional organizations, dominant classes, political parties, mass media, (policy formulation); how policies are made (decision-making) and executed by elected and unelected officials (implementation); and whether or not public policies are effective (evaluation). The distinction between area-specialists, who focus on public policies in one country or one set of institutions (such as the European Community), and specialists in ‘comparative public policy’ who seek to be genuine social scientists, is also characteristic of the field. In comparative public policy attempts are made to explain both policy-divergences and policy-convergences both within and across states. Specialists in this field ask and attempt to answer questions such as: ‘Does it matter which political parties are in power in explaining policy-outcomes?’

Political economy describes the work of an increasing number of political scientists at the boundaries of politics and economics. Some believe that theories of political behaviour, just like theories of economic behaviour, should start from simple assumptions about human beings and construct predictions about their behaviour from these assumptions. Their critics claim that they share with economists the belief that human beings are simply overgrown pigs: human nature being understood by many of them as the insatiable pursuit of utility. However, for such political scientists the test of a good theory is its predictive power rather than the incontestable truth of its assumptions. The practitioners in this field are specialists in rational choice or in political economy. They generally make the assumption that human beings are rational and self-interested agents, and consequently build ‘testable’ political hypotheses on the assumption that voters wish to maximize their utility, that politicians are pure office-seekers who wish to maximize the votes they can win at elections, and that utility-maximizing bureaucrats seek to maximize their departmental budgets. However, and confusingly, the label political economy is also used by political scientists working within the Marxist or neo-Marxist tradition, who generally accept the propositions of historical materialism.

Political sociology is an important sub-discipline within both sociology and political science, and has evolved since the 1950s. Political sociologists reject the firm distinction between the political and the social, and stress the high degree of interaction between the two, which traditional approaches to both sociology and political science under emphasized. Political sociology\'s original focus upon the relationship between social structure (mainly economic class) and political behaviour (mainly voting) has expanded considerably since the mid-1960s to include all aspects of power relations between and within social groups. Debate in this field is often between those who treat political institutions as largely autonomous from social structural determination, those who believe that political institutions are largely reducible to social structural determination, and those who view the distinction between the political and social as fluid and indeterminate. The latter are dominant. For example, theories of political and social movements proposed by Tilly and Gamson distinguish between ‘the polity’, where formal political influence is concentrated, and ‘the external society’, but regard the processes of mobilizing social resources in pursuit or defence of interests as essentially similar for both challengers and members of the polity in line with pluralist conceptions of the state and society. Another division within political sociology is between those who espouse functionalist theories which treat conflict as an aberration from a ‘normal’ state of equilibrium, and approaches of a Marxist or pluralist origin which view conflict as a continuous and ubiquitous feature of politics. Subjects studied in political sociology include the influence of childhood socialization on political beliefs; the importance of sex, ethnicity, religion and class in shaping and explaining political beliefs and preferences; and the influence of the mass media in politics. The subject draws upon arguments developed from the works of the most famous sociologists, notably Weber and Émile Durkheim, but also Karl Marx—now principally known as a falling statue but a key figure in shaping inquiry and debate in political science.

Political science is therefore a multi-theoretical and vibrant field of inquiry, not likely to disappear unless politics is abolished. Many would concur that the subject matter of theories of the state provide the most unified focus for political theory, political thought, political sociology and empirical political inquiry. However, as in politics, so in political science, no judgement of this kind is likely to receive unanimous consent. BO\'L

See also conservatism; élite theory; liberalism; socialism and social democracy.Further reading T. Bottomore, Political Sociology; , P. Dunleavy and , B. O\'Leary, The Politics of Liberal Democracy.



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