Political Science


Political Science, academic discipline, the focus of which is the systematic study of government in its broadest sense. It encompasses the origins of political regimes; their structures, functions, and institutions; all the ways in which governments discover and deal with socio-economic problems—from dog licensing to diplomacy; and the interactions of groups and individuals that play a part in establishing, maintaining, and changing governments.


Political science is usually viewed as one of the social sciences, which also include anthropology, economics, history, psychology, and sociology. Its relationship to these disciplines can be seen from two perspectives. Some say that political science occupies a central position because the human and social concerns of the other social sciences must take place within—and be affected by—the political beliefs, practices, and authority that exist everywhere. The opposite view is that political science is the “handmaiden” of the other social sciences because it depends on them for its concepts, methods, and understandings. Whichever side one takes, it remains true that throughout the history of political science as an academic field, first one and then another of the other social sciences has been seen as the key to comprehension of political matters.

The precursors of political science were concerned with the attainment and securing of ideal ends. Questions about the best form of government are now widely considered outside the scope of the discipline, which is regarded as being concerned not with what ought to be but, rather, with what actually is. Although the question of the ideal is usually placed in the field of political philosophy, some scholars argue that because value questions are implicit in all political inquiry, they need to be squarely faced.

Today most published research and formal study in political science deals primarily with tangible topics such as political campaigns and elections, the legislative process, executive power, administrative regulations, tax and welfare policies, international relations, comparative politics, judicial decision making, and the actions and effects of groups involved in business, labour, agriculture, religion, ethnic cultures, the military, and the media.


Strong interest in the nature of the state, its organs of control, and the place of the citizenry within its boundaries existed as far back as ancient Greece. Most scholars would agree that Aristotle was the earliest forerunner of the political scientist. Among other things, his treatment of types of regimes in his Politics presaged countless efforts to classify forms of government and has remained a major influence on the discipline. Plato, whose The Republic presented his theoretical development of a utopia or perfect city, was another important early political philosopher.

Over the centuries, other classics of the field were written by the Roman statesman Cicero, by St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, by the Italian statesman Niccolò Machiavelli, by the British philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, by the French writers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Baron de Montesquieu, and by the German philosophers Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and Karl Marx. The Federalist (1787-1788), a series of essays, most of them by the American statesmen Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, is a classic of political thought in the early years of the United States. Almost all of these authors dealt with the possibility that a society could provide the conditions for a good life for all its people. These works are still read, largely because they go beyond material comfort to treat such higher values as justice, equality, liberty, and the promotion of human excellence.

The successes achieved in the natural sciences led many political scientists to the belief that in time, if they borrowed the orderly analysis and methodology of physics, chemistry, and biology, and if they, too, developed explanatory theories, the study of government and politics could become as much a scientific endeavour as were the established laboratory sciences. In their efforts to achieve this scientific credibility, these scholars allied themselves primarily with researchers in the fields of sociology and psychology. From sociologists, they borrowed statistical methods of collecting and analysing data on people’s political behaviour. From psychologists, they took definitions, propositions, and concepts to help in understanding why human beings act in certain ways. History was used as a source of facts to be analysed by the political scientist. Economics was relegated to a supplementary position, although the economists’ ability to collect quantifiable data became the envy of many students of politics. As a result of these borrowings from other social sciences, political science came to be seen as an important field in its own right; no longer was it considered merely an adjunct to the fields of moral philosophy, law, political economy, or history.


Despite this early call for a completely realistic and independent discipline based on an objective approach and using the tools of science, the older, library-based, speculative, and normative study of politics remained standard until the mid-20th century, when the scientific approach finally began to dominate the field. The experience of academics who returned to the campus after government service in World War II (1939-1945), had a profound effect on the entire discipline. Employment in agencies polished their skills in applying the methods of social science, including public opinion surveys, content analysis, statistical techniques, and other means of collecting and systematically analysing political data. Having seen first-hand how the game of politics is really played, these professors often came back to their research and to college classrooms eager to use these tools to determine precisely who gets political power in a society, why and how they get it, and what they do with it.

This movement came to be called “behaviouralism” because its proponents insisted that objective observation and measurement be applied to the full range of human behaviour as it manifests itself in the real world.

Opponents of behaviouralism have maintained that there can be no true science of politics. They contend, for example, that any form of experimentation in which all the variables are controlled in a political situation is not legal, ethical, or even possible with human subjects. To this argument, the behaviouralists have replied that small increments of systematically gathered knowledge will add up, over time, to broad-gauged theories that can be used to explain human behaviour.

Some political scientists developed sophisticated models of human activity to guide their research, frequently drawing on computer technology for concepts as well as hardware. The widespread study of politics as a system—with “inputs”, “outputs”, and “feedback”—is a major example of the influence of computers on the discipline of political science.

Other political scientists created a burgeoning field of policy analysis, which they promoted as an independent discipline. It calls for the mastery of rigorous scientific methods in order to put the policy analysts in a position to judge what would and would not work among the alternatives proposed to cope with public problems.

The debate about what political science is or should continue to the present time. For all the differences that exist concerning methodology and approach, however, no one disputes that the study of government and politics is both proper and necessary. To the extent that the vitality of any scholarly discipline may be measured by how much its members care and argue about what should constitute its core, political science remains vigorous indeed.

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