3 Most Important Types Of Political Theory

Table of Contents


The discussion of political science remains incomplete unless the political theory is properly discussed. In the discussion of political theory, there are many questions arises in your mind.

  • What is Political theory and why should we study political theory?
  • What are the Functions of Political theory?
  • How Many types of Political theory in political science?

In this writing I have explained 3 most important types of political theory that you should know.

For the convenience of discussion, I will first give a brief overview of what political theory is.

Let’s get started.

Understanding Political Theory?

Political Theory is a set of an idea or observation that intends to explain the political, social, and economic conditions in the state.

Man by nature has the capacity of thinking and analyzing the individual’s political behavior as well as the state in the form of political theory.

Therefore the political theory is the core area of political science. Without theory, no subject cannot be considered as an academic discipline.

Earlier those who engaged in this enterprise styled themselves as philosophers or scientist.

From ancient Greece to the present, the history of political theory has dealt with fundamental and perennial ideas of political science.

To better understand the changing pattern of political theory from ancient times to the present, we need to know the types of political theory. Because the types of political theory basically mean what it meant at different times.

Types of Political Theory

Andrew Hacker

In his book ‘Political Theory’, describes political theory by dividing into two categories.

One is the traditional political approach which deals with the history of political ideas and the other is the modern political approach which deals with modern political behavior and scientific study.

David Easton

he classified political theory into two parts.

  1. Value Theory
  2. Causal Theory

Traditional political theories are value theory. This kind of theory focuses on human preferences.

All the political theories that discuss the relationship between different political events are called causal theories.

The contribution of causal theory in making human knowledge reliable or trustworthy is undeniable.

Ronald Pennock

Ronald Pennock divides political theory into five parts.

  1. Speculative Theory: Such doctrines speak of the establishment of ideal social structures and systems on the basis of imagination. Plato’s theory of the establishment of communism is notable as an example.
  2. Ethical Theory: In this theory, all discussions about the state and political life are based on the question of what ought to be and ought not to be.
  3. Legal Theory: In this theory, the state can be considered as a legal institution and all the relations of political life are reviewed from a legal point of view.
  4. Sociological Theory: In this theory, the state is basically seen as a social organization, and the emphasis is placed on empirical theory.
  5. Scientific Theory: In this theory, based on the information and statistical data, the method of reaching general conclusions through observation, analysis, etc. is adopted.

Rajeev Bhargava

He classified political theory into three categories in his book Political Theory: An Introduction.

1. Explanatory Theory

In explanatory theory he meant that different political theories of society have been interpreted by different political theorists according to their point of view and every theorist has found their theory acceptable.

For the clarification, he has said that- suppose that we wish to understand the birth of capitalist socio-economic formations. In the social sciences, we have several different explanations.

For example, Karl Marx offered a general theory of fundamental social change. In his theory, Marx explains the reasons behind the birth of the socio-economic structure of capitalism.

The main basis of his analysis was the relationship between productive force and means of production.

Max Weber, on the other hand, argues that –capitalism could not have come into existence without a change in the cultural climate, in the attitudes of a specific set of people.

This change of attitude was a component of and was brought about by transformation in the dominant religion of particular societies.

2. Normative Theory

To him, the normative political theorist must begin with assumptions that most people can endorse. In simple, this theory focuses on all the things by which a system goes from imperfect to perfect. (This theory have discussed in details in next section.)

3. Contemplative Theory

He draws Hannah Arendt’s context to explain this theory. Hannah Arendt in his, ‘The Human Condition’ has argued that “reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experience and our most recent fears”.

Human experiences are changing due to the new developments like satellite, man-made object stayed in skies, Atom Bomb, birth of a new language of mathematical symbols which cannot be replaced by speech, etc.

Further he also stated that political theory was not diminished by its explanatory or normative perspective, although obviously these actions were part of its defining feature.

For her, political theory, as with many others, was still the same as that of the continuing classical thinkers; deeply contemplative investigations for the general condition of mankind over a very long period of time or at a certain stage of their altered existence.

3 Most Important Types of Political Theory

types of political theory

From the above discussion, political theory can be classified into three important types.

  1. Normative or Prescriptive or Traditional Political Theory.
  2. Empirical or Modern or Scientific or Descriptive Political Theory.
  3. Contemporary Political Theory.

1. Normative or Prescriptive or Traditional Political Theory

In a sense, normative political theory is a kind of political theory through which certain formulas are given for transformation of an imperfect social order to a perfect one.

An example can be taken. Suppose you are very ill and you go to the doctor with that illness and the doctor prescribe you some medicines. As per the doctor’s prescription you ate medicines for a few days and got better.

Normative political theory is like a doctor’s prescription where some way is said about what an ideal state or society should be. And through implementation of that way, a sick state system will be healed. That’s why this political theory also called as prescriptive political theory.

According to normative political theory, no boundary has been drawn between political theory and political philosophy. Plato views political philosophy as a means of gaining political knowledge. The presentation of values was the key to political discussion in traditional political theory.

Normative theory is a systematic thinking about government, state and other government institution.

Plato’s ideal state, Hegel’s dialectics, Thinkers of divine theory of state, social contract theorist, all these thinkers build their theory based on values and ideas and their prime goal is to establish a good order of society.

This theory has been dominated from the ancient time to the eighteen century.


From the above discussion, we can identify some features of the normative political theory.

  • Normative political theory is a value-oriented political theory.
  • It focuses on what ought to be rather than what is or what’s going on.
  • It is concerned with political values that are implemented to achieve social harmony, stability, and unity in our common life.
  • The prime goal of normative political theory is to establish a good order society.
  • It is a practical philosophy that relates to the government.

2. Empirical or Modern or Scientific or Descriptive Political Theory 

Empirical theory has emerged in the 20th century. That is why this theory is called modern. The empirical theory relies primarily on data. This theory is based on observation and examination of the data. The main purpose of empirical political theory is to make political reality dependent on information.

This theory wants to explain what is actually happening, to the one who exists. What is supposed to be or should be is not so much a matter of this theory. This theory is developed by nurturing the philosophy of empiricism or positivism.

One of the main aims of this theory is to arrive at conclusions through scientific interpretation of information. That is why it is also called scientific theory.

Empirical political theory focuses on political behavior of individual. Proper observation of person’s political behavior and interpret it through quantitative assessment can lead to some conclusions about the political culture of the group in which he or she belongs to. This is easier to come to some conclusions about that group in favor of the political system.

For example, Women’s groups are protesting against government.

Why they are protesting?

What are the reasons behind these protests?

To find out the reasons of women’s protest, you have to do some field works.

Firstly, you have to observe those protests actively.

Secondly, you have to collect data about such protests from many sources.

Thirdly, you have to interview them to collect more data.

Fourthly, you have to interpret using scientific methods of those data. And

Lastly, you will get the conclusions which are generalized.

This is the way empirical political theory works.


From the above discussion some features of the Empirical Political Theory can be mentioned.

  • The only source of knowledge is the data that is collected by experienced or observation.
  • Use scientific methods are necessary when interpreting data.
  • The empirical political theory focuses on what is or what is happening rather than what ought to be.
  • There is no place of value in empirical or scientific political theory. It is value-free. So value neutrality is the key feature of this theory.
  • It also focuses on the quantitative assessment of the political behavior of individuals and people’s groups as well.

As a result of empirical political theory, the subject matter of political science, as well as social science, has broader than before.

This theory has invented many concepts in social sciences like elite, group theory and their role in political system, political system and subsystem, structural functional analysis, decision making approach, political culture, political socialization and so on.

Many political scientists like Max WeberGraham WallasArthur Bentley, etc, have given the empirical dimension to the study of political science.

Graham Wallas focuses on political realist from the corner of psychology of individuals in his book “Human Nature in Politics”.

Max Weber differentiated of what is to be done from of what is happening through his study of bureaucracy.

Arthur Bentley in his book “The process of government” has emphasized on the group politics by studying individual behavior. 

Robert Dahl, Charles Merriam, David Easton, Gabriel Almond, these are the other prominent scholars of empirical political theory.

3. Contemporary Political Theory

Since the 1970s there has been growing interest in political theory in the US, Europe, and other parts of the world.

Passing away from the shadow of World War 2, the reemergence of Europe and crisis in ideologies like socialism and communism bought about a new grace in political ideologies.

As a result of great debate, a number of important innovations in the study of political theory followed which culminated in a broad understanding of contemporary political theory.

If the task of political theory is, as it had been, to make us understand the political phenomenon, then it becomes necessary that it should confine itself to the explanation, investigation, and ultimate comprehension of what relates to politics- concepts, principles, and institutions. This is what contemporary political theory is doing.

According to David Held, contemporary political theory has four tasks.

  1. It is philosophical in nature which means it is concerned with the normative and conceptual framework.
  2. It is philosophical as well as empirical. It is concerned with the problems understanding and explanation of the concept.
  3. It is also historical which means it is concerned with the examination of the key concept of the political theory in historical context.
  4. It is strategic means it concerns within the assessment of the feasibility of moving from where we are where we might likely to be.

So it can be said that contemporary political theory basically involves these four different tasks (Philosophical, Empirical, Historical and Strategic).

In fact, there is a mixture of normative and empirical theory in the contemporary political theory where scientific explanations as well as the importance of values have got enough space.


From the above discussion on 3 Most Important Types of Political Theory, it can be concluded that over time, political theory has changed its character.

Normative political theory has dominated since ancient times, and its main focus has been on state and government. Normative political theory is essentially value oriented.

But the development of empiricism in the twentieth century influences political theory. Empirical theory is basically a value free theory. It is based on observation, data collection and testing.

But the post-1970s era witnesses new development in political theory. During this time normative political theory has gained its relevancy with the writing of Rawls, ‘A Theory of Justice‘.

According to Rawls, the task of political theory is not only to develop general principles for evaluating the social structure but also to design appropriate institutions, procedures, and policies.

Today political theory also concerned with the self-understanding of a particular community. The writing of Walzer, ‘Sphere of Justice‘ is a great example of understanding political theory from a communitarian perspective.

Today’s political theory is the combination of normative and empirical political theory. As a social scientist, we need facts and its values as well.

Let me share your experience what you have learned from “3 Most Important Types Political Theory”.

Share this to the needful students as much as you can.


  1. Hacker, Andrew. Political Theory: Philosophy, Ideology, Science. Macmillan, 1969.
  2. Easton, David. The Political System: an Inquiry into the State of Political Science. Knopf, 1971.
  3. Pennock, J.R. Political Theory. E.C Smith and A.J Zurcher (ed.s): A Dictionary of American Politics. New York, 1944.
  4. Bhargava, Rajeev. Political Theory: an Introduction. Pearson Education India, 2008.
  5. Mahajan, V. Political theory. 5th ed. India: S Chand & Company Ltd, 2015.
SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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