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Political Science

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Political science is a social science discipline concerned with the study of the state, government, and politics. Aristotle defined it as the study of the state.[1] It deals extensively 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 works."[2] Political science intersects with other fields; including economics, law, sociology, history, anthropology, public administration, public policy, national politics, international relations, comparative politics, psychology, political organization, and political theory. Although it was codified in the 19th century, when all the social sciences were established, political science has ancient roots; indeed, it originated almost 2,500 years ago with the works of Plato and Aristotle.[3]

Political science is commonly divided into five distinct sub-disciplines which together constitute the field:

  • political theory

  • comparative politics

  • public administration

  • international relations

Political theory is more concerned with contributions of various classical thinkers such as Aristotle, Niccolo Machiavelli, Cicero, Plato and many others. 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, behavioralism, 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the social sciences, uses methods and techniques that relate to the kinds of inquiries sought: primary sources such as historical documents and official records, secondary sources such as scholarly journal articles, survey research, statistical analysis, case studies, experimental research and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."[4] 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.[5] Whereas classical political philosophy is primarily defined by a concern for Hellenic and Enlightenment thought, political scientists are also marked by a great concern for "modernity" and the contemporary nation state, along with the study of classical thought, 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.[citation needed] Private enterprises such as think tanks, research institutes, polling and public relations firms often employ political scientists."[citation needed] In the United States, political scientists known as "Americanists[disambiguation needed]" 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 when political scientists engage in public administration.[7]

The national honor 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]

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 subcontinent

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.


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.


The works of the French philosophers Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot to name a few are paragon for political analysis, social science, social and political critic. Their influence leading to the French revolution has been enormous in the development of modern democracy throughout the world.

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.

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 (see experimental political science).[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 science 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. Often in contrast with national media, political science scholars seek to compile long-term data and research on the impact of political issues, producing in-depth articles breaking down the issues

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 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.

Recent developments

In 2000, the 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.[14]

Evolutionary psychology theories argue that humans have evolved a highly developed set of psychological mechanisms for dealing with politics. However, these mechanisms evolved for dealing with the small group politics that characterized the ancestral environment and not the much larger political structures in today's world. This is argued to explain many important features and systematic cognitive biases of current politics.[15]

Around the world


‘de facto political science’ existed in the Soviet Union as early as in 1960s before it became ‘de jure political science’ in 1989. In the USSR, political studies were carried out under the guise of some other disciplines like theory of state and law, area studies, international relations, studies of labor movement, "critique of bourgeois theories" etc. Soviet scholars were represented at the International Political Science Association since 1955 (since 1960 by the Soviet Association of Political and State Studies). In 1979 11th World Congress of IPSA took place in Moscow.

Until the late years of the Soviet Union, political science as a field was subjected to tight control of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The development of political science was marked by two major tendencies in the scientific community and in society in general. One was a general distrust of political scientists and institutions that were engaged in political science. Anti-communists accused political scientists of being "false" scientists and of having served the old regime. This atmosphere of animosity created heavy moral and professional strains on those who had worked for the introduction of political science under the old regime. They had to face a certain ignorance and ideological animosity from those pretending to be the "true" bearers of democratic ideals.[16]

Two of the major institutions dealing with political science – the Institute of Contemporary Social Theories and the Institute of International Affairs – were disbanded, and most of their members were actually left without jobs and had to look for new professional careers. These institutes were victims of the first wave of anti-communist euphoria and of in many ways unfounded ideological attacks. Many of the people working in these institutes were competent scientists with a proficient knowledge of political science, and some of them, through their works, had played an important role in reforming the Communist Party and had helped to bring about the radical changes in 1989.[16]

Today the Russian Political Science Association unites professionals-political scientists from in Russia.


The main difficulties that haunted its development during the first two decades are still there: deficiency of means for research and development of university centers, need for funds for empirical research, a shortage of academic literature, disproportion in allocation of resources between center and periphery, deteriorating status of political science in university curriculums (at non-political-scientist departments) etc. At the beginning of 1990s, one of the major problems was absence of professionals with special education. Later in 2000s (decade) with the first graduations at political-science departments, the keenest problem turned out to be low inclusive capacities of the academic labor market. There are a lot of problems with connections between political science and political practice.


Most political scientists work broadly in one or more of the following five areas:

  • Comparative politics, including area studies

  • International relations

  • Political philosophy

  • Public administration

  • Public law

Some political science departments also classify methodology as well as scholarship on the domestic politics of a particular country as distinct sub fields.

In contrast to this traditional classification, 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 American Political Science Association, for example, has 42 organized sections that address various methods and topics of political inquiry.[17]

See also

  • Outline of political science - structured list of political topics, arranged by subject area

  • Index of politics articles - alphabetical list of political subjects

  • Political lists - lists of political topics

  • Outline of law

  • Index of law articles

  • Process tracing

Unit 1 Overview

Politics as Science

Politics. It is the process by which things get done. While it is most often applied in the context of a government setting, politics is observed through all human interactions, from the corporate boardroom to the dinner table. It is where we as a species negotiate, cajole, or otherwise impress upon our fellow human beings that our way is the right way. It is how we make decisions.

Thinking about politics as a process of government more so than the power interactions throughout society is due to the philosophical foundations the study of politics grew out of. The word politics comes from the Greek word polis, meaning city-state, and the Greek word politicos means city-state affairs. Interestingly, Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, called politics the “master science.” By that he meant that almost everything happens in a political context.

As you move through this course, you will see that this is true. Politics touches on almost every aspect of human endeavors. As a result, it is truly an interdisciplinary major.

In this unit we will delve into the origination of politics as a science and place it firmly within the social sciences. Most social science make boundaries through which that discipline is viewed. Political science attempts to do the same, but the social, economic, cultural, and psychological influences on the power actions of actors means that this line is often blurred.

Unit Outcomes

  • Describe the fields and subfields in the discipline of political science

  • Detail the study of politics as a science

  • Understand the classic theories in political thought

  • Understand the contemporary theories in political thought

  • Apply the Course Outcomes practiced in this unit:
    PO101-1: Define Political Science as a social science discipline.

Course Outcomes practiced in this unit:

PO101-1: Define Political Science as a social science discipline.

What do I have to do in this unit?

  • Introduce yourself
    See the Introductions page

  • Read Chapters 1 in Political Science
    On the Reading page

  • Participate in Seminar
    25 Points

  • Participate in the discussion
    20 Points

  • Take the quiz
    60 Points



Politics as the Master Science

As you know, it was Aristotle who said that politics is the master science. That is, everything happens in a political context and government influences most things. Decisions about war and peace, the economy, taxes, and crime are all made by government institutions. It is through the scientific method that political scientists quantify data to validate hypotheses and theories. In conducting research, political scientists seek to analyze events and persons as they are and not as they wish them to be. Yet, there are many confounding factors that need to be described, like cultural and psychological phenomenon, and rational and irrational factors. So is politics a science?

Read Chapter 1 of Political Science with the following questions in mind:

  • Should politics be treated as a science?

  • What does it mean for political science to be treated as an empirical discipline?

  • How can a political hypothesis be objectively analyzed?

  • What outcomes are sought to be achieved by treating politics as a science?

Review this week's key terms

Authority – a political leader’s ability to command respect and exercise power

Comparative Politics – examines politics within other nations to establish generalizations about democracy, stability, and policy

Constitutional Law – studies the applications and evolution of the Constitution within the legal and political system

Legitimacy – the popular acceptance of a governing regime or law as authority

Political Theory – the study of politics, and the examination of such thing as, what politics is, why it is needed, what makes government legitimate, what rights and freedoms should be protected, and what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government

Public Policy – analyzes the relationships of economics and politics to develop effective programs

Sovereignty – independent authority over a piece of territory

U.S. Politics – focuses on institutions and processes, such as parties, elections, public opinion, and executive and legislative behavior


Thomas Hobbes

In this week's seminar, we will discuss the following:

  • What is the definition of Political Science?

  • Why is Political Science considered the "master science?"

  • Critical Thinking Point: If you were going to use political science to understand current issues in US politics, what are some questions you might ask? Be sure to bring in one current issue to share with the class and how you would view it through the lens of political science

  • Quiz

  • Unit 1 Quiz

  • This quiz is worth 60 points (three points per question). To begin, click Quiz on the left sidebar

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