Political science

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Political science is a social science concerned with the theory and practice of politics and the analysis of political systems and political behavior. Political scientists "see themselves engaged in revealing the relationships underlying political events and conditions. And from these revelations they attempt to construct general principles about the way the world of politics work."[1] Political science intersects with other fields; including anthropology, public policy, national politics, economics, international relations, comparative politics, psychology, sociology, history, law, and political theory.

Political science is commonly divided into three distinct sub-disciplines which together constitute the field: Political Philosophy, Comparative Politics and International Relations. Political Philosophy is the reasoning for an absolute normative government, laws and similar questions and their distinctive characteristics. Comparative Politics is the science of comparison and teaching of different types of constitutions, political actors, legislature and associated fields, all of them from an intrastate perspective. International Relations deals with the interaction between nation-states as well as intergovernmental and transnational organizations.

Political science is methodologically diverse and appropriates many methods originating in social research. Approaches include positivism, interpretivism, rational choice theory, behavioral, structuralism, post-structuralism, realism, institutionalism, and pluralism. Political science, as one of the social sciences, uses methods and techniques that relate to the kinds of inquiries sought: primary sources such as historical documents and official records, secondary sources such as scholarly journal articles, survey research, statistical analysis, case studies, and model building.

"As a discipline" political science, possibly like the social sciences as a whole, "lives on the fault line between the 'two cultures' in the academy, the sciences and the humanities."[2] Thus, in some American colleges where there is no separate School or College of Arts and Sciences per se, political science may be a separate department housed as part of a division or school of Humanities or Liberal Arts.[3] Whereas classical political philosophy is primarily defined by a concern for Hellenic and Enlightenment thought, political scientists are broadly marked by a greater concern for "modernity" and the contemporary nation state, and as such share a greater deal of terminology with sociologists (e.g. structure and agency).


Political scientists study 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. They measure the success of governance and specific policies by examining many factors, including stability, justice, material wealth, and peace. Some political scientists seek to advance positive (attempt to describe how things are, as opposed to how they should be) theses by analyzing politics. Others advance normative theses, by making specific policy recommendations.

Political scientists provide the frameworks from which journalists, special interest groups, politicians, and the electorate analyze issues. According to Chaturvedy, "...Political scientists may serve as advisers to specific politicians, or even run for office as politicians themselves. Political scientists can be found working in governments, in political parties or as civil servants. They may be involved with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or political movements. In a variety of capacities, people educated and trained in political science can add value and expertise to corporations.[4] Private enterprises such as think tanks, research institutes, polling and public relations firms often employ political scientists."[5] In the United States, political scientists known as "Americanists" look at a variety of data including constitutional development, elections, public opinion and public policy such as Social Security reform,..... foreign policy, US Congressional committees, and the US Supreme Court — to name only a few issues.

Most United States colleges and universities offer B.A. programs in political science. M.A. or M.A.T. and Ph.D or Ed.D. programs are common at larger universities. The term political science is more popular in North America than elsewhere; other institutions, especially those outside the United States, see political science as part of a broader discipline of political studies, politics, or government. While political science implies use of the scientific method, political studies implies a broader approach, although the naming of degree courses does not necessarily reflect their content.[6] Separate degree granting programs in international relations and public policy are not uncommon at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Master's level programs in political science are common while political scientists engage in public administration.[7]

The national honour society for college and university students of government and politics in the United States is Pi Sigma Alpha.


Niccolò Machiavelli, one of many influential political theorists

Political science as a separate field is a relatively late arrival in terms of social sciences. However, the term "political science" was not always distinguished from political philosophy, and the modern discipline has a clear set of antecedents including also moral philosophy, political economy, political theology, history, and other fields concerned with normative determinations of what ought to be and with deducing the characteristics and functions of the ideal state.

The antecedents of Western politics can be traced back to the Socratic political philosophers, Plato (427–347 BC), Xenophon (c. 430–354 BC), and Aristotle ("The Father of Political Science") (384–322 BC). These authors, in such works as The Republic and Laws by Plato, and The Politics and Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle, analyzed political systems philosophically, going beyond earlier Greek poetic and historical reflections which can be found in the works of epic poets like Homer and Hesiod, historians like Herodotus and Thucydides, and dramatists such as Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Euripides.

The rise and fall of the Roman Empire

During the height of the Roman Empire, famous historians such as Polybius, Livy and Plutarch documented the rise of the Roman Republic, and the organization and histories of other nations, while statesmen like Julius Caesar, Cicero and others provided us with examples of the politics of the republic and Rome's empire and wars. The study of politics during this age was oriented toward understanding history, understanding methods of governing, and describing the operation of governments. Nearly a thousand years elapsed, from the foundation of the city of Rome in 753 BC to the fall of the Roman Empire or the beginning of the Middle Ages. In the interim, there is a manifest translation of Hellenic culture into the Roman sphere. The Greek gods become Romans and Greek philosophy in one way or another turns into Roman law e.g. Stoicism. The Stoic was committed to preserving proper hierarchical roles and duties in the state so that the state as a whole would remain stable. Among the best known Roman Stoics were philosopher Seneca and the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Seneca, a wealthy Roman patrician, is often criticized by some modern commentators for failing to adequately live by his own precepts. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, can be best thought of as the philosophical reflections of an emperor divided between his philosophical aspirations and the duty he felt to defend the Roman Empire from its external enemies through his various military campaigns. According to Polybius, Roman institutions were the backbone of the empire but Roman law is the medulla.[8]

The Middle Ages

With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, there arose a more diffuse arena for political studies. The rise of monotheism and, particularly for the Western tradition, Christianity, brought to light a new space for politics and political action. Works such as Augustine of Hippo's The City of God synthesized current philosophies and political traditions with those of Christianity, redefining the borders between what was religious and what was political. During the Middle Ages, the study of politics was widespread in the churches and courts. Most of the political questions surrounding the relationship between church and state were clarified and contested in this period. The Arabs lost sight of Aristotle's political science but continued to study Plato's Republic which became the basic text of Judeo-Islamic political philosophy as in the works of Alfarabi and Averroes; this did not happen in the Christian world, where Aristotle's Politics was translated in the 13th century and became the basic text as in the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas.[9]

Indian Sub-Continent

In ancient India, the antecedents of politics can be traced back to the Rig-Veda, Samhitas, Brahmanas, the Mahabharata and Buddhist Pali Canon. Chanakya (c. 350–275 BC) was a political thinker in Takshashila. Chanakya wrote the Arthashastra, a treatise on political thought, economics and social order. It discusses monetary and fiscal policies, welfare, international relations, and war strategies in detail, among other topics. The Manusmriti, dated to about two centuries after the time of Chanakya is another important Indian political treatise.

East Asia

Ancient China was home to several competing schools of political thought, most of which arose in the Spring and Autumn Period. These included Mohism (a utilitarian philosophy), Taoism, Legalism (a school of thought based on the supremacy of the state), and Confucianism. Eventually, a modified form of Confucianism (heavily infused with elements of Legalism) became the dominant political philosophy in China during the Imperial Period. This form of Confucianism also deeply influenced and were expounded upon by scholars in Korea and Japan.

West Asia

In Persia, works such as the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and Epic of Kings by Ferdowsi provided evidence of political analysis, while the Middle Eastern Aristotelians such as Avicenna and later Maimonides and Averroes, continued Aristotle's tradition of analysis and empiricism, writing commentaries on Aristotle's works. Averroe did not have at hand a text of Aristotle's Politics, so he wrote a commentary on Plato's Republic instead.

The Renaissance

During the Italian Renaissance, Niccolò Machiavelli established the emphasis of modern political science on direct empirical observation of political institutions and actors. Machiavelli was also a realist, arguing that even evil means should be considered if they help to create and preserve a glorious regime. Machiavelli therefore also argues against the use of idealistic models in politics, and has been described as the father of the "politics model" of political science.[10] Later, the expansion of the scientific paradigm during the Enlightenment further pushed the study of politics beyond normative determinations.

Like Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, well-known for his theory of the social contract, believed that a strong central power, such as a monarchy, was necessary to rule the innate selfishness of the individual but neither of them believed in the divine right of kings. John Locke, on the other hand, who gave us Two Treatises of Government and who did not believe in the divine right of kings either, sided with Aquinas and stood against both Machiavelli and Hobbes by accepting Aristotle's dictum that man seeks to be happy in a state of social harmony as a social animal. Unlike Aquinas' preponderant view on the salvation of the soul from original sin, Locke believed man comes into this world with a mind that is basically a tabula rasa. According to Locke, an absolute ruler as proposed by Hobbes is unnecessary, for natural law is based on reason and equality, seeking peace and survival for man.

The Enlightenment

Religion would no longer play a dominant role in politics. There would be separation of church and state. Principles similar to those that dominated the material sciences could be applied to society as a whole, originating the social sciences. Politics could be studied in a laboratory as it were, the social milieu. In 1787, Alexander Hamilton wrote: "...The science of politics like most other sciences has received great improvement." (The Federalist Papers Number 9 and 51). Both the marquis d'Argenson and the abbé de Saint-Pierre described politics as a science; d'Argenson was a philosopher and de Saint-Pierre an allied reformer of the enlightenment.[11]

Other important figures in American politics who participated in the Enlightenment were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Modern political science

Because political science is essentially a study of human behavior, in all aspects of politics, observations in controlled environments are often challenging to reproduce or duplicate, though experimental methods are increasingly common.[12] Citing this difficulty, former American Political Science Association President Lawrence Lowell once said "We are limited by the impossibility of experiment. Politics is an observational, not an experimental science."[13] Because of this, political scientists have historically observed political elites, institutions, and individual or group behavior in order to identify patterns, draw generalizations, and build theories of politics.

Like all social sciences, political sciences faces the difficulty of observing human actors that can only be partially observed and who have the capacity for making conscious choices unlike other subjects such as non-human organisms in biology or inanimate objects as in physics. Despite the complexities, contemporary political science has progressed by adopting a variety of methods and theoretical approaches to understanding politics and methodological pluralism is a defining feature of contemporary political science.

The advent of political science as a university discipline was marked by the creation of university departments and chairs with the title of political science arising in the late 19th century. In fact, the designation "political scientist" is typically reserved for those with a doctorate in the field. Integrating political studies of the past into a unified discipline is ongoing, and the history of political science has provided a rich field for the growth of both normative and positive political science, with each part of the discipline sharing some historical predecessors. The American Political Science Association was founded in 1903 and the American Political Science Review was founded in 1906 in an effort to distinguish the study of politics from economics and other social phenomena.

Behavioral Revolution and New Institutionalism

In the 1950s and the 1960s, a behavioral revolution stressing the systematic and rigorously scientific study of individual and group behavior swept the discipline. A focus on studying political behavior, rather than institutions or interpretation of legal texts, characterized early behavioral political science, including work by Robert Dahl, Philip Converse, and in the collaboration between sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld and public opinion scholar Bernard Berelson.

The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed a take off in the use of deductive, game theoretic formal modeling techniques aimed at generating a more analytical corpus of knowledge in the discipline. This period saw a surge of research that borrowed theory and methods from economics to study political institutions, such as the United States Congress, as well as political behavior, such as voting. William H. Riker and his colleagues and students at the University of Rochester were the main proponents of this shift. Criticisms of the use of this rational choice theorizing has been widespread, even among political scientists who adopt quantitative methods.[14]

This trend toward formalization has continued and accelerated, even as the behavioralist revolution has subsided. At the same time, because of the interdependence of all social life, political science also moved towards a closer working relationship with other disciplines, especially sociology, economics, history, anthropology, psychology, public administration, law, and statistics without losing its own identity.[15]

Increasingly, political scientists have used the scientific method to create an intellectual discipline involving quantitative research methods, as well as the generation of formal economics-style models of politics to derive testable hypotheses followed by empirical verification. Over the past generations, the discipline placed an increasing emphasis on relevance and the use of new approaches to increase scientific knowledge in the field and provide explanations for empirical outcomes.

Kenneth R. Mladenka, a political scientist at Texas A&M University, was among the academics who proceeded to bring acceptance of the newer urban studies component of the discipline. In the 1970s and 1980s, he found that urban scholars were not as prominent on the editorial boards of the major political science journals, and that traditional scholars, called empiricists, regard most urban research, dependent on case studies, paradigms, qualitative analysis, and theoretical perspectives, as less reliable than the traditional emphasis of the discipline. The urban scholars such as Mladenka stress "local settings where global, national, and voting behavior outcomes happen at street level and where day-to-day lives are affected."[16][17]

Recent Developments

In 2000, the so-called Perestroika Movement in political science was introduced as a reaction against what supporters of the movement called the mathematicization of political science. Those who identified with the movement argued for a plurality of methodologies and approaches in political science and for more relevance of the discipline to those outside of it.[18]


In the United States, most political scientists work broadly in one or more of the following five areas:

In some departments, Methodology is also classified as a subfield.

In contrast to this traditional distinction, some academic departments organize scholarship into thematic categories, including political philosophy, Political behavior (including public opinion, collective action, and identity), and political institutions (including legislatures and International organizations). Political science conferences and journals often emphasize scholarship in more specific categories. The America Political Science Association, for example, has 42 organized sections that address various methods and topics of political inquiry.[19]

See also


  1. Political Science. Unc.edu (1999-02-22). Retrieved on 2010-11-13.
  2. Stoner, J. R. (2008-02-22). "Political Science and Political Education". Paper presented at the annual meeting of the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference (APSA), San José Marriott, San José, California. http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/2/4/5/5/8/p245585_index.html. Retrieved 2009-02-04. "… although one might allege the same for social science as a whole, political scientists receive funding from and play an active role in both the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities [in the United States]."  <http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p245585_index.html>.
  3. See, e.g., the department of Political Science at Marist College, part of a Division of Humanities before that division became the School of Liberal Arts (c. 2000).
  4. Chaturvedy, J. C. (2005). Political Governance. Gyan Publishing House. p. 4. ISBN 8182053175. http://books.google.com/books?id=kzV4V59udu8C&pg=PA4&dq=people+trained+in+political+science+can+add+value+and+expertise+to+corporations#v=onepage&q=people%20trained%20in%20politcal%20science%20can%20add%20value%20and%20expertise%20to%20corporations&f=false. 
  5. Chaturvedy, J. C. (2005). Political Governance. Gyan Publishing House. p. 4. ISBN 8182053175. 
  6. Politics is the term used to describe this field by Brandeis University; Cornell College; University of California, Santa Cruz; Hendrix College; Lake Forest College; Monash University; Mount Holyoke College; New York University; Occidental College; Princeton University; Ursinus College; and Washington and Lee University. Government is the term used to describe this field by Bowdoin College; Colby College; Cornell University; Dartmouth College; Georgetown University; Harvard University; Smith College; Wesleyan University; the College of William and Mary; the University of Sydney; the University of Texas at Austin; the University of Ulster; the University of Essex; Victoria University of Wellington, which has both a "School of Government" and a separate "Political Science and International Relations Programme"; and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Politics and government is the term used by the University of Puget Sound. Government and politics is used by the University of Maryland, College Park.
  7. Vernardakis, George (1998). Graduate education in government. University Press of America. p. 77. ISBN 0761811718. http://books.google.com/books?id=Rd3DDiQm3M8C&pg=PA77&dq=political+science+international+relations+degree#v=onepage&q=political%20science%20international%20relations%20degree&f=false. "...existing practices at Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Michigan." 
  8. Almond, Gabriel Abraham (2002). Ventures in political science. Lynne Rienner Publishers. p. 29. ISBN 1588260802. http://books.google.com/books?id=VMwpeKhifwcC&pg=PA29&dq=political+science+Roman+Stoics#v=onepage&q=political%20science%20Roman%20Stoics&f=false. "Polybius attributes the remarkable growth and power of Rome to its political institutions." 
  9. Muhsin, Mahdi (2001). Alfarabi and the foundation of Islamic political philosophy. p. 35. ISBN 0226501864. http://books.google.com/books?id=y6BF52Uw9BIC&pg=PA35&dq=Political+science+Plato%27s+republic&lr=#v=onepage&q=Political%20science%20Plato's%20republic&f=false. "...a combination of Plato and Plotinum, could do much more to clarify political life as it then existed..." 
  10. Lane, Ruth (1996). Political science in theory and practice: the 'politics' model. M. E. Sharpe. p. 89. ISBN 1563249402. http://books.google.com/books?id=4nB0LuuYYCkC&pg=PA89&dq=Political+science+Plato+the+republic&lr=#v=onepage&q=Political%20science%20Plato%20the%20republic&f=false. "Discussion then moves to Machiavelli, for whom the politics model was not an occasional pastime..." 
  11. Gay, Peter (1996). The enlightenment. 2. W. W. Norton & Co.. p. 448. ISBN 0393313666. http://books.google.com/books?id=gQPna6P69i0C&pg=RA2-PA448&dq=political+science+the+enlightenment&lr=#v=onepage&q=political%20science%20the%20enlightenment&f=false. "The men of the Enlightenment sensed that they could realize their social ideals only by political means." 
  12. Druckman, James N., Donald P. Green, James H. Kuklinski, and Arthur Lupia. 2011. Cambridge Handbook of Experimental Political Science. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  13. Lowell, A. Lawrence. 1910. "The Physiology of Politics." American Political Science Review 4: 1-15.
  14. Cohn, Jonathan. "Irrational Exuberance: When did political science forget about politics?" The New Republic. October 15, 1999. http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~ckennedy/nra.htm
  15. Farr, James; Seidelman, Raymond (1993). Discipline and history: political science in the United States. University of Michigan Press. pp. 230–233. ISBN 0472065127. http://books.google.com/books?id=e9_jbbroRHsC&pg=PA230&dq=political+science+other+discipline&ei=m63DSoY415Ay9dO42AM#v=onepage&q=political%20science%20other%20discipline&f=false. "...ultimately all social life is interdependent..." 
  16. "Dr. Theising’s Reflection on Scholarship". siue.edu. http://www.siue.edu/~atheisi/scholarship.htm. Retrieved October 17, 2010. 
  17. Kenneth R. Mladenka and Bryan D. Jones, Urban Politics and Political Science," "Political Science: Looking to the Future," Vo. 4. in American Institutions, William Crotty, ed., Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern Illinois University Press, 1994, pp. 287–289
  18. Chronicle of Higher Education 2001
  19. http://www.apsanet.org/content_4596.cfm

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