all about Political Science

political science, the systematic study of governance by the application of empirical and generally scientific methods of analysis. As traditionally defined and studied, political science examines the state and its organs and institutions. The contemporary discipline, however, is considerably broader than this, encompassing studies of all the societal, cultural, and psychological factors that mutually influence the operation of government and the body politic.

Although political science borrows heavily from the other social sciences, it is distinguished from them by its focus on power—defined as the ability of one political actor to get another actor to do what it wants—at the international, national, and local levels. Political science is generally used in the singular, but in French and Spanish the plural (sciences politiques and ciencias políticas, respectively) is used, perhaps a reflection of the discipline’s eclectic nature. Although political science overlaps considerably with political philosophy, the two fields are distinct. Political philosophy is concerned primarily with political ideas and values, such as rights, justice, freedom, and political obligation (whether people should or should not obey political authority); it is normative in its approach (i.e., it is concerned with what ought to be rather than with what is) and rationalistic in its method. In contrast, political science studies institutions and behaviour, favours the descriptive over the normative, and develops theories or draws conclusions based on empirical observations, which are expressed in quantitative terms where possible.

Although political science, like all modern sciences, involves empirical investigation, it generally does not produce precise measurements and predictions. This has led some scholars to question whether the discipline can be accurately described as a science. However, if the term science applies to any body of systematically organized knowledge based on facts ascertained by empirical methods and described by as much measurement as the material allows, then political science is a science, like the other social disciplines. In the 1960s the American historian of science Thomas S. Kuhn argued that political science was “pre-paradigmatic,” not yet having developed basic research paradigms, such as the periodic table that defines chemistry. It is likely that political science never will develop a single, universal paradigm or theory, and attempts to do so have seldom lasted more than a generation, making political science a discipline of many trends but few classics.

Fields and subfields

Modern university departments of political science (alternatively called government or politics at some institutions) are often divided into several fields, each of which contains various subfields.

  1. Domestic politics is generally the most common field of study; its subfields include public opinion, elections, national government, and state, local, or regional government.
  2. Comparative politics focuses on politics within countries (often grouped into world regions) and analyzes similarities and differences between countries.
  3. International relations considers the political relationships and interactions between countries, including the causes of war, the formation of foreign policy, international political economy, and the structures that increase or decrease the policy options available to governments. International relations is organized as a separate department in some universities.
  4. Political theory includes classical political philosophy and contemporary theoretical perspectives (e.g., constructivism, critical theory, and postmodernism).
  5. Public administration studies the role of the bureaucracy. It is the field most oriented toward practical applications within political science and is often organized as a separate department that prepares students for careers in the civil service.
  6. Public law studies constitutions, legal systems, civil rights, and criminal justice (now increasingly its own discipline).
  7. Public policy examines the passage and implementation of all types of government policies, particularly those related to civil rights, defense, health, education, economic growth, urban renewal, regional development, and environmental protection.

Historical development

Ancient influences

Analyses of politics appeared in ancient cultures in works by various thinkers, including Confucius (551–479 BCE) in China and Kautilya (flourished 300 BCE) in India. Writings by the historian Ibn Khaldūn (1332–1406) in North Africa have greatly influenced the study of politics in the Arabic-speaking world. But the fullest explication of politics has been in the West. Some have identified Plato (428/427–348/347 BCE), whose ideal of a stable republic still yields insights and metaphors, as the first political scientist, though most consider Aristotle (384–322 BCE), who introduced empirical observation into the study of politics, to be the discipline’s true founder.

Aristotle’s students gathered descriptions of 158 Greek city-states, which Aristotle used to formulate his famous sixfold typology of political systems. He distinguished political systems by the number of persons ruling (one, few, or many) and by whether the form was legitimate (rulers governing in the interests of all) or corrupt (rulers governing in their own interests). Legitimate systems included monarchy (rule by one), aristocracy (rule by the few), and polity (rule by the many), while corresponding corrupt forms were tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. Aristotle considered democracy to be the worst form of government, though in his classification it meant mob rule. The best form of government, a polity, was, in contemporary terms, akin to an efficient, stable democracy. Aristotle presciently noted that a polity functions best if the middle class is large, a point confirmed by modern empirical findings. Aristotle’s classification endured for centuries and is still helpful in understanding political systems.

Plato and Aristotle focused on perfecting the polis (city-state), a tiny political entity, which for the Greeks meant both society and political system. The conquest of the Mediterranean world and beyond by Aristotle’s pupil Alexander the Great (336–323 BCE) and, after his death, the division of his empire among his generals brought large new political forms, in which society and political system came to be seen as separate entities. This shift required a new understanding of politics. Hellenistic thinkers, especially the Stoics, asserted the existence of a natural law that applied to all human beings equally; this idea became the foundation of Roman legalism and Christian notions of equality (see Stoicism). Thus, the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE), who was strongly influenced by the Stoics, was noteworthy for his belief that all human beings, regardless of their wealth or citizenship, possessed an equal moral worth.

Early Christian thinkers, such as St. Augustine (354–430), emphasized the dual loyalty of Christians to both God and temporal rulers, with the clear implication that the “heavenly city” is more important and durable than the earthly one. With this came an otherworldly disdain for politics. For eight centuries knowledge of Aristotle was lost to Europe but preserved by Arab philosophers such as al-Fārābī (c. 878–c. 950) and Averroës (1126–1198). Translations of Aristotle in Spain under the Moors revitalized European thought after about 1200. St. Thomas Aquinas (1224/25–1274) Christianized Aristotle’s Politics to lend it moral purpose. Aquinas took from Aristotle the idea that humans are both rational and social, that states occur naturally, and that government can improve humans spiritually. Thus, Aquinas favoured monarchy but despised tyranny, arguing that kingly authority should be limited by law and used for the common good. The Italian poet and philosopher Dante (1265–1321) argued in De monarchia (c. 1313; On Monarchy) for a single world government. At the same time, the philosopher Marsilius of Padua (c. 1280–c. 1343), in Defensor Pacis (1324; “Defender of the Peace”), introduced secularization by elevating the state over the church as the originator of laws. For this, as well as for proposing that legislators be elected, Marsilius ranks as an important modernizer.

Early modern developments

The first modern political scientist was the Italian writer Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527). His infamous work The Prince (1531), a treatise originally dedicated to Florence’s ruler, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, presented amoral advice to actual and would-be princes on the best means of acquiring and holding on to political power. Machiavelli’s political philosophy, which completed the secularization of politics begun by Marsilius, was based on reason rather than religion. An early Italian patriot, Machiavelli believed that Italy could be unified and its foreign occupiers expelled only by ruthless and single-minded princes who rejected any moral constraints on their power. Machiavelli introduced the modern idea of power—how to get it and how to use it—as the crux of politics, a viewpoint shared by today’s international relations “realists,” rational choice theorists, and others. Machiavelli thus ranks alongside Aristotle as a founder of political science.

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) also placed power at the centre of his political analysis. In Leviathan; or, The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651), completed near the end of the English Civil Wars (1642–51), Hobbes outlined, without reference to an all-powerful God, how humans, endowed with a natural right to self-preservation but living in an anarchic state of nature, would be driven by fear of violent death to form a civil society and submit to a single sovereign authority (a monarch) to ensure their peace and security through a social contract—an actual or hypothetical agreement between citizens and their rulers that defines the rights and duties of each. English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), who also witnessed the turmoil of an English civil war—the Glorious Revolution (1688–89)—argued in his influential Two Treatises on Civil Government (1690) that people form governments through a social contract to preserve their inalienable natural rights to “life, liberty, and property.” He further maintained that any government that fails to secure the natural rights of its citizens may properly be overthrown. Locke’s views were a powerful force in the intellectual life of 18th-century colonial America and constituted the philosophical basis of the American Declaration of Independence (1776), many of whose drafters, particularly Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), were well acquainted with Locke’s writings.

If Hobbes was the conservative of the “contractualists” and Locke the liberal, then the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) was the radical. Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762) constructs a civil society in which the separate wills of individuals are combined to govern as the “general will” (volonté générale) of the collective that overrides individual wills, “forcing a man to be free.” Rousseau’s radical vision was embraced by French revolutionaries and later by totalitarians, who distorted many of his philosophical lessons.

Montesquieu (1689–1755), a more pragmatic French philosopher, contributed to modern comparative politics with his The Spirit of Laws (1748). Montesquieu’s sojourn in England convinced him that English liberties were based on the separation and balance of power between Parliament and the monarchy, a principle later embraced by the framers of the Constitution of the United States (see separation of powers; checks and balances). Montesquieu also produced an innovative analysis of governance that assigned to each form of government an animating principle—for example, republics are based on virtue, monarchies on honour, and despotisms on fear. Montesquieu’s analysis concluded that a country’s form of government is determined not by the locus of political power but by how the government enacts public policy.

The Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723–90) is considered the founder of classical economic liberalism. In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), he argued that the role of the state should be restricted primarily to enforcing contracts in a free market. In contrast, the classical conservatism of the English parliamentarian Edmund Burke (1729–97) maintained that established values and institutions were essential elements of all societies and that revolutions that sought to destroy such values (e.g., the French Revolution) delivered people to irrational impulses and to tyranny. Burke thus introduced an important psychological or cultural insight: that political systems are living organisms that grow over centuries and that depend on a sense of legitimacy that is gradually built up among their subjects.

The early development of political science was also influenced by law. The French political philosopher Jean Bodin (1530–96) articulated a theory of sovereignty that viewed the state as the ultimate source of law in a given territory. Bodin’s work, which was undertaken as the modern state was first developing, provided a justification of the legitimacy of national governments, one fiercely defended to this day. Many political scientists, especially in international relations, find Bodin’s notion of sovereignty useful for expressing the legitimacy and equality of states.

19th-century roots of contemporary political science

Contemporary political science traces its roots primarily to the 19th century, when the rapid growth of the natural sciences stimulated enthusiasm for the creation of a new social science. Capturing this fervour of scientific optimism was Antoine-Louis-Claude, Comte Destutt de Tracy (1754–1836), who in the 1790s coined the term idéologie (“ideology”) for his “science of ideas,” which, he believed, could perfect society. Also pivotal to the empirical movement was the French utopian socialist Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), a founder of Christian socialism, who in 1813 suggested that morals and politics could become “positive” sciences—that is, disciplines whose authority would rest not upon subjective preconceptions but upon objective evidence. Saint-Simon collaborated with the French mathematician and philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857), considered by many to be the founder of sociology, on the publication of the Plan of the Scientific Operations Necessary for the Reorganization of Society (1822), which claimed that politics would become a social physics and discover scientific laws of social progress. Although “Comtean positivism,” with its enthusiasm for the scientific study of society and its emphasis on using the results of such studies for social improvement, is still very much alive in psychology, contemporary political science shows only traces of Comte’s optimism.

The scientific approach to politics developed during the 19th century along two distinct lines that still divide the discipline. In the 1830s the French historian and politician Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59) brilliantly analyzed democracy in America, concluding that it worked because Americans had developed “the art of association” and were egalitarian group formers. Tocqueville’s emphasis on cultural values contrasted sharply with the views of the German socialist theorists Karl Marx (1818–83) and Friedrich Engels (1820–95), who advanced a materialistic and economic theory of the state as an instrument of domination by the classes that own the means of production. According to Marx and Engels, prevailing values and culture simply reflect the tastes and needs of ruling elites; the state, they charged, is merely “the steering committee of the bourgeoisie.” Asserting what they considered to be an immutable scientific law of history, they argued that the state would soon be overthrown by the industrial working class (the proletariat), who would institute socialism, a just and egalitarian form of governance (see also communism).

The first separate school of political science was established in 1872 in France as the École Libre des Sciences Politiques (now the Institut d’Études Politiques). In 1895 the London School of Economics and Political Science was founded in England, and the first chair of politics was established at the University of Oxford in 1912.

The early 20th century


Developments in the United States

Some of the most important developments in political science since it became a distinct academic discipline have occurred in the United States. Politics had long been studied in American universities, but usually as part of the curricula of law, philosophy, or economics. Political science as a separate discipline in universities in the United States dates from 1880, when John W. Burgess, after studying at the École Libre in Paris, established a school of political science at Columbia University in New York City. Although political science faculties grew unevenly after 1900, by the 1920s most major institutions had established new departments, variously named political science, government, or politics.

Political science in the United States in the last quarter of the 19th century was influenced by the experience of numerous scholars who had done graduate work at German universities, where the discipline was taught as Staatswissenschaft (“science of the state”) in an ordered, structured, and analytic organization of concepts, definitions, comparisons, and inferences. This highly formalistic and institutional approach, which focused on constitutions, dominated American political science until World War II. The work of American political scientists represented an effort to establish an autonomous discipline, separate from history, moral philosophy, and political economy. Among the new scholars were Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), who would be elected president of the United States in 1912, and Frank Goodnow, a Columbia University professor of administrative law and, later, president of Johns Hopkins University, who was among the first to study municipal governments. Their writing showed an awareness of new intellectual currents, such as the theory of evolution. Inspired by the work of Charles Darwin (1809–82), Wilson and others led a transformation of American political science from the study of static institutions to the study of social facts, more truly in the positivist temper, less in the analytic tradition, and more oriented toward realism.

Arthur F. Bentley’s The Process of Government, little noticed at the time of its publication in 1908, greatly influenced the development of political science from the 1930s to the 1950s. Bentley rejected statist abstractions in favour of observable facts and identified groups and their interactions as the basis of political life. Group activity, he argued, determined legislation, administration, and adjudication. In emphasizing behaviour and process, Bentley sounded themes that later became central to political science. In particular, his insistence that “all social movements are brought about by group interaction” is the defining feature of contemporary pluralist and interest-group approaches.

Although Bentley’s effort to develop an objective, value-free analysis of politics had no initial consequence, other movements toward this goal enjoyed more immediate success. The principal impetus came from the University of Chicago, where what became known as the Chicago school developed in the mid-1920s and thereafter. The leading figure in this movement was Charles E. Merriam, whose New Aspects of Politics (1925) argued for a reconstruction of method in political analysis, urged the greater use of statistics in the aid of empirical observation and measurement, and postulated that “intelligent social control”—a concept reminiscent of the old Comtean positivism—might emerge from the converging interests of politics, medicine, psychiatry, and psychology. Because Merriam’s basic political datum at this stage was “attitude,” he relied largely on the insights of psychology for a better understanding of politics. An important empirical work of the Chicago school was Merriam and Harold F. Gosnell’s Non-voting, Causes and Methods of Control (1924), which used sampling methods and survey data and is illustrative of the type of research that came to dominate political science after World War II. Merriam’s approach was not entirely new; in 1908 the British political scientist Graham Wallas (1858–1932) had argued in Human Nature in Politics that a new political science should favour the quantification of psychological elements (human nature), including nonrational and subconscious inferences, a view similarly expressed in Public Opinion (1922) by the American journalist and political scientist Walter Lippmann (1889–1974).

Harold Lasswell (1902–78), a member of the Chicago group, carried the psychological approach to Yale University, where he had a commanding influence. His Psychopathology and Politics (1930) and Power and Personality (1948) fused categories of Freudian psychology with considerations of power. Many political scientists attempted to use Freudian psychology to analyze politics, but none succeeded in establishing it as a firm basis of political science, because it depended too much on subjective insights and often could not be verified empirically. Lasswell, for example, viewed politicians as unbalanced people with an inordinate need for power, whereas “normal” people had no compulsion for political office. Although intuitively insightful, this notion is difficult—if not impossible—to prove scientifically.

Merriam’s Political Power (1934) and Lasswell’s classic Politics: Who Gets What, When, How (1936)—the title of which articulated the basic definition of politics—gave a central place to the phenomenon of power in the empirical study of politics. Merriam discussed how power comes into being, how it becomes “authority” (which he equated with power), the techniques of power holders, the defenses of those over whom power is wielded, and the dissipation of power. Lasswell focused on “influence and the influential,” laying the basis for subsequent “elite” theories of politics. Although the various members of the Chicago school ostensibly sought to develop political science as a value-free discipline, it had two central predilections: it accepted democratic values, and it attempted to improve the operation of democratic systems. Power approaches also became central in the burgeoning field of international relations, particularly after World War II. Hans Morgenthau (1904–80), a German refugee and analyst of world politics, argued succinctly in Politics Among Nations (1948) that “all politics is a struggle for power.”

The totalitarian dictatorships that developed in Europe and Asia in the 1920s and ’30s and the onset of World War II turned political science, particularly in the United States, away from its focus on institutions, law, and procedures. The constitution of Germany’s post-World War I Weimar Republic had been an excellent model, but it failed in practice because too few Germans were then committed supporters of democracy. Likewise, the Soviet Union’s 1936 constitution appeared democratic but in reality was merely an attempt to mask the brutal dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. Works of this period focused on the role of elites, political parties, and interest groups, on legislative and bureaucratic processes, and especially on how voters in democracies make their electoral choices. This new interest in actual political behaviour became known as “behavioralism,” a term borrowed from psychology’s behaviourism. Whereas most earlier thinkers had focused on the “top” of the political system—its institutions—behavioralists instead explored the “bottom,” especially that which could be quantified. The result was that much of political science became political sociology.

Developments outside the United States

Since the time of Marx and Engels, political scientists have continued to debate the relative importance of culture and economic structures in determining human behaviour and the organization of society. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Italian economists Gaetano Mosca (1858–1941) and Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923) echoed Marx’s analysis that society was ruled by elites, but they considered this both permanent and natural. They were joined by the German-born Italian political sociologist and economist Robert Michels (1876–1936), whose “iron law of oligarchy” declared rule by the few to be inevitable. Mosca, Pareto, and Michels all agreed that the overthrow of the existing “political class” would simply result in its replacement by another, a view that was supported in the mid-20th century by Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas (1911–95) in his The New Class (1957). Pareto also contributed the idea (which he borrowed from economics) that society is a system tending toward equilibrium: like an economic system, a society that becomes out of balance will tend to correct itself by developing new institutions and laws or by redistributing power. This approach was adopted by much of academic political science after World War II and was later developed by “systems” theory.

In the early 20th century, the Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén (1864–1922) treated the state as a fusion of organic and cultural elements determined by geography. Kjellén is credited with coining the term geopolitics (geopolitik), which acquired a sinister connotation in the years after World War I, when German expansionists appealed to geopolitical arguments in support of the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler. Although geopolitics still exerts a considerable influence on political science, particularly in the areas of international relations and foreign policy, the discipline of political geography developed into a distinct subfield of geography rather than of political science.

The German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), who rejected Marx and embraced Tocqueville’s emphasis on culture and values, was perhaps the most influential figure in political science in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Marx had proposed that capitalism gave rise to Protestantism: the merchants and princes of northern Europe developed commerce to such an extent that Roman Catholic restrictions had to be discarded. Weber rejected this idea, claiming that Protestantism triggered capitalism: the Calvinist idea of predestination led individuals to try to prove, by amassing capital, that they were predestined for heaven (see Calvinism). Weber’s theory of the Protestant ethic is still disputed, but not the fact that religion and culture powerfully influence economic and political development.

Weber understood that the social sciences could not simply mimic the natural sciences, because humans attach widely varying meanings and loyalties to their leaders and institutions. It is not simply facts that matter but how people perceive, interpret, and react to these facts; this makes causality in the social sciences far more complex than in the natural sciences. To be objective, therefore, the social scientist must take into account human subjectivity.

Weber discerned three types of authority: traditional (as in monarchies), charismatic (a concept he developed to refer to the personal drawing power of revolutionary leaders), and rational-legal (characteristic of modern societies). Weber coined the term bureaucracy, and he was the first to study bureaucracies systematically. His theories, which focused on culture as a chief source of economic growth and democracy, still find support among contemporary political scientists, and he must be ranked equally as one of the founders of both modern sociology and modern political science.

Other scholars also contributed to the growth of political science in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In The English Constitution (1867), the English economist and political analyst Walter Bagehot (1826–77), who was also an editor of The Economist, famously distinguished between Britain’s “dignified” offices (e.g., the monarch) and its “efficient” offices (e.g., the prime minister). James Bryce (1838–1922), who taught civil law at the University of Oxford, produced one of the earliest and most influential studies of the U.S. political system in The American Commonwealth (1888). The Belorussian political scientist Moisey Ostrogorsky (1854–1919), who was educated at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques in Paris, pioneered the study of parties, elections, and public opinion in Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties (originally written in French; 1902), which focused on the United States and Britain. In Paris, André Siegfried, teaching at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques and the Collège de France, introduced the use of maps to demonstrate the influence of geography on politics. At first few Britons turned to behavioralism and quantification, instead continuing in their inclination toward political philosophy. In contrast, the Swedish scholar Herbert Tingsten (1896–1973), in his seminal Political Behaviour: Studies in Election Statistics (1937), developed the connections between social groups and their voting tendencies. Before World War II the large areas of the world that were colonies or dictatorships made few important contributions to the growth of political science.

Post-World War II trends and debates

Perhaps the most important irreversible change in political science after World War II was that the scope of the discipline was expanded to include the study of politics in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—areas that had been largely ignored in favour of Europe and North America. This trend was encouraged by the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for influence over the political development of newly independent countries. The scholarship produced in these countries, however, remained largely derivative of developments in Europe and the United States. Researchers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, often in partnership with European and American colleagues, produced significant studies on decolonization, ideology, federalism, corruption, and political instability. In Latin America a Marxist-oriented view called dependency theory was popular from the 1960s to the ’80s. Greatly influencing the study of international relations in the United States and Europe as well as in developing countries, dependency theorists argued that Latin America’s problems were rooted in its subservient economic and political relationship to the United States and western Europe. More recently, Latin American political scientists, influenced by methods developed in American universities, undertook empirical studies of the sources of democracy and instability, such as Arturo Valenzuela’s The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes (1978). African, Asian, and Latin American political scientists also made important contributions as teachers on the faculties of American and European universities.

Outside the United States, where political science initially was less quantitative, there were several outstanding works. Like Lasswell, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903–69) and others adopted Freudian insights in their pioneering study The Authoritarian Personality (1950), which used a 29-item questionnaire to detect the susceptibility of individuals to fascist beliefs. The French political scientist Maurice Duverger’s Political Parties (1951) is still highly regarded, not only for its classification of parties but also for its linking of party systems with electoral systems. Duverger argued that single-member-district electoral systems that require only a plurality to win election tend to produce two-party systems, whereas proportional-representation systems tend to produce multiparty systems; this generalization was later called “Duverger’s law.” The French sociologist Michel Crozier’s The Bureaucratic Phenomenon (1964) found that Weber’s idealized bureaucracy is quite messy, political, and varied. Each bureaucracy is a political subculture; what is rational and routine in one bureau may be quite different in another. Crozier thus influenced the subsequent “bureaucratic politics” approach of the 1970s.


Behavioralism, which was one of the dominant approaches in the 1950s and ’60s, is the view that the subject matter of political science should be limited to phenomena that are independently observable and quantifiable. It assumes that political institutions largely reflect underlying social forces and that the study of politics should begin with society, culture, and public opinion. To this end, behavioralists utilize the methodology of the social sciences—primarily psychology—to establish statistical relationships between independent variables (presumed causes) and dependent variables (presumed effects). For example, a behavioralist might use detailed election data to argue that voters in rural areas tend to vote for candidates who are more conservative, while voters in cities generally favour candidates who are more liberal. The prominence of behavioralists in the post-World War II period helped to lead political science in a much more scientific direction. For many behavioralists, only such quantified studies can be considered political science in the strict sense; they often contrasted their studies with those of the so-called traditionalists, who attempted to explain politics by using unquantified descriptions, anecdotes, historical analogies, ideologies, and philosophy. Like behaviourism in psychology, behavioralism in political science attempted to discard intuition, or at least to support it with empirical observation. A traditionalist, in contrast, might attempt to support intuition with reason alone.

Perhaps the most important behavioral contributions to political science were election studies. In 1955 American political scientist V.O. Key, Jr. (1908–63), identified as “critical,” or “realigning,” several elections in which American voters shifted their long-term party affiliation massively from one political party to another, giving rise to the dominance of the Republican Party from 1860 to 1932 and of the Democratic Party after 1932. Pioneering statistical electoral analyses were conducted by the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center (SRC), which was developed in the 1940s. In The American Voter (1960), Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, William Miller, and Donald Stokes used the results of studies by the SRC to develop the concept of party identification—the long-term psychological attachment of a voter to a political party. The long-recognized influences of religion, social class, region, and ethnicity, they argued, contribute to voting behaviour only insofar as the voter has been socialized, primarily by his parents, to adopt a particular party identification.

Behavioral approaches were soon adopted outside the United States, often by scholars with connections to American universities. The University of Oxford initiated election studies in the 1960s, and David Butler and Donald Stokes—one of the authors of The American Voter—adapted much of the American study in Political Change in Britain: Forces Shaping Electoral Choice (1969). They found that political generation (the era in which one was born) and “duration of partisanship” also predict party identification—that is, the length of time one has been a partisan heavily predicts one’s vote. They also found that party identification, initially transmitted by one’s parents, may change under the impact of historic events. The influential Norwegian scholar Stein Rokkan pioneered the use of cross-national quantitative data to examine the interaction of party systems and social divisions based on class, religion, and region, which in combination explain much voting behaviour. Rokkan identified the importance of “centre-periphery” tensions, finding that outlying regions of a country tend to vote differently from the area where political and economic activities are centred. The extensive Eurobarometer series—public-opinion surveys carried out in European Union countries since 1973 on behalf of the European Commission—have given European behavioralists a solid statistical base on a range of political, social, economic, and cultural issues; the surveys have provided valuable data for examining trends over time, and they have shown, among other things, that modern European ideological opinion clusters around the political centre, suggesting that stable democratic systems have taken root. More recently, Transparency International, founded in 1993 in Berlin, has conducted worldwide surveys that attempt to quantify corruption. In Latin America, Guillermo O’Donnell and Arturo Valenzuela used public-opinion surveys and voting, economic, and demographic data to examine the forces that have destabilized democracy there.

The behavioral approach was also central to the work of the American sociologist and political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset, whose influential Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics (1960) used statistical and historical data to demonstrate that social class is one of the chief determinants of political behaviour. Lipset infuriated Marxists by portraying elections as “the democratic class struggle” in which the working class finds its true voice in moderate leftist parties. Lipset also contributed to modernization theory by identifying factors that explain why countries adopt either authoritarian or democratic political systems. Specifically, Lipset found a strong relationship between level of affluence and type of political system, demonstrating that less-affluent countries seldom establish democratic structures.

Behavioralism also influenced international relations, though it did not achieve the same dominance in this area that it enjoyed in domestic and comparative politics. The Correlates of War Project, founded at the University of Michigan in 1963, gathered much quantitative data and became one of the leading sources for scholars studying the causes and effects of war and international tension. Behavioralism also established itself in studies of judicial and bureaucratic systems.

By the 1960s behavioralism was in full bloom, forcing the traditionalists into retreat in much of the discipline. By the late 1960s, however, criticism of behavioralism had begun to grow. One charge leveled against it was that the statistical correlations uncovered by behavioral studies did not always establish which variable, if any, was the cause and which the effect. The fact that two variables change together does not in itself show which causes which; indeed, the changes exhibited by both variables may be the effects of an underlying third variable. In order to make sense of the actual relationship between the variables, the researcher must often use intuition—a tool that behavioralists expressly sought to avoid. A study of white blue-collar Roman Catholics in Detroit, Michigan, for example, might find that during a certain period they were more likely to vote Republican as they became more affluent and suburbanized. However, whether the change in their voting patterns was due to their race, their religion, their increased affluence, or their suburban lifestyle—or whether they simply responded to the message or personality of particular Republican Party candidates—may be unclear.

In addition, though behavioral research yielded important insights into the political behaviour of individuals, it often explained little about actual governance. Voting studies, for example, rarely provided an understanding of public policy. Because behavioral research tended to be limited to topics that were amenable to quantitative study, it was often dismissed as narrow and irrelevant to major political issues. Indeed, intense methodological debates among behavioralists (and within the discipline more broadly) often seemed arcane, filled with esoteric jargon and addressed to issues of little concern to most citizens. Because behavioralists needed quantitative survey and electoral data, which were often unavailable in dictatorships or less-affluent countries, their approach was useless in many parts of the world. In addition, the reliability of behavioral research was called into question by its dependence in large part on verbal responses to questionnaires. Analyses of survey results have shown that respondents often give socially desirable answers and are likely to conceal their true feelings on controversial topics; moreover, the wording of questions, as well as the ordering of possible answers, can affect the results, making concrete conclusions difficult. Finally, many behavioral findings revealed nothing new but simply restated well-established or obvious conclusions, such as the observation that wealthy people tend to vote conservative and poor and working-class people tend to vote liberal or left-of-centre. For all of these reasons, behavioralism did not become the sole methodology in political science, and many behavioralists eventually acknowledged the need for the unquantified insights of traditionalists; by the late 1960s political scientists called this the “postbehavioral synthesis.”


Political culture

Political culture may be defined as the political psychology of a country or nation (or subgroup thereof). Political culture studies attempt to uncover deep-seated, long-held values characteristic of a society or group rather than ephemeral attitudes toward specific issues that might be gathered through public-opinion surveys. Several major studies using a political culture approach appeared simultaneously with the behavioral studies of the late 1950s, adding psychological and anthropological insights to statistical covariance. The study of political culture was hardly new; since at least the time of Plato, virtually all political thinkers have acknowledged the importance of what Tocqueville called “habits of the heart” in making the political system work as it does. Modern political culture approaches were motivated in part by a desire to understand the rise of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century in Russia, Germany, and Italy, and many early studies (e.g., The Authoritarian Personality) focused on Nazi Germany; one early political culture study, Edward Banfield’s The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958), argued that poverty in southern Italy grew out of a psychological inability to trust or to form associations beyond the immediate family, a finding that was long controversial but is now accepted by many.

Perhaps the most important work of political culture was Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba’s The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations (1963), which surveyed 1,000-person samples in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Mexico. Almond and Verba identified three types of political culture: (1) participant, in which citizens understand and take part in politics and voluntary associations, (2) subject, in which citizens largely obey but participate little, and (3) parochial, in which citizens have neither knowledge of nor interest in politics. The authors found that democratic stability arises from a balance or mixture of these cultures, a conclusion similar to that drawn by Aristotle. In Almond and Verba’s edited volume The Civic Culture Revisited (1980), several authors demonstrated that political culture in each of their subject countries was undergoing major change, little of which was predictable from the original study, suggesting that political culture, while more durable than mere public opinion, is never static. Critics of The Civic Culture also pointed out that political structures can affect culture. The effective governance and economic policies of West Germany’s government made that country’s citizens embrace democracy, whereas Britain’s economic decline made Britons more cynical about politics. The problem, again, is determining causality.

Over the decades Lipset, who served as president of both the American Sociological Association and the American Political Science Association, turned from explanations of political values based on social class to those based on history and culture, which, he argued, displayed consistency throughout history. American political scientist Robert Putnam followed in this Tocquevillian tradition in Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (1993), which demonstrated that the historical cultures of Italy’s regions explain their current political situations. In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), Putnam claimed that the American tendency to form citizen groups, a characteristic that Tocqueville praised, was weakening. Americans were less often joining groups and participating in politics, Putnam argued, leading to a loss of “social capital” (the collective value of social networks) and potentially undermining democracy, a worry shared by other political observers in the United States.

Adopting what became known as the “path-dependent development” approach, advocates of the historical-cultural school maintained that contemporary society is a reflection of society in ages past. The political culture approach declined in the 1970s but was later revived as political scientists incorporated it into explanations of why some countries experienced economic growth and established democratic political systems while others did not. Some suggested that the rapid economic growth and democratization that took place in some East Asian countries in the second half of the 20th century was facilitated by a political culture based on Confucianism. In Africa and Latin America, they argued, the absence of a culture that valued hard work and capital accumulation led to the stagnation of much of those regions. This viewpoint was captured by the title of Lawrence E. Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington’s edited volume Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (2000).

Systems analysis

Systems analysis, which was influenced by the Austrian Canadian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy and the American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902–79), is a broad descriptive theory of how the various parts and levels of a political system interact with each other. The central idea of systems analysis is based on an analogy with biology: just as the heart, lungs, and blood function as a whole, so do the components of social and political systems. When one component changes or comes under stress, the other components will adjust to compensate.

Systems analysis studies first appeared alongside behavioral and political culture studies in the 1950s. A groundbreaking work employing the approach, David Easton’s The Political System (1953), conceived the political system as integrating all activities through which social policy is formulated and executed—that is, the political system is the policy-making process. Easton defined political behaviour as the “authoritative allocation of values,” or the distribution of rewards in wealth, power, and status that the system may provide. In doing so, he distinguished his sense of the subject matter of political science from that of Lasswell, who had argued that political science is concerned with the distribution and content of patterns of value throughout society. Easton’s conception of system emphasizes linkages between the system and its environment. Inputs (demands) flow into the system and are converted into outputs (decisions and actions) that constitute the authoritative allocation of values. Drawing on cybernetics, the Czech-born American political scientist Karl Deutsch used a systems perspective to view the political system as a communications network. Following Deutsch, some political scientists tried briefly to establish communications as the basis of politics.

Systems analysis was applied to international relations to explain how the forces of the international system affect the behaviour of states. The American political scientist Morton Kaplan delineated types of international systems and their logical consequences in System and Process in International Politics (1957). According to Kaplan, for example, the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union brought about a bipolar international system that governed much of the two countries’ foreign and security policies. Locked in a zero-sum game (when one country wins, the other loses), the two superpowers watched each other vigilantly, eager for gains but also wary of the threat of nuclear war.

In Man, the State, and War (1959), the American international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz applied systems theory to the study of international conflict to develop a view known as structural realism. Waltz argued that the underlying cause of war is an anarchic international system in which there is no recognized authority for resolving conflicts between sovereign states. According to Waltz,

with many sovereign states, with no system of law enforceable among them, with each state judging its grievances and ambitions according to the dictates of its own reason or desire—conflict, sometimes leading to war, is bound to occur.

By the 1970s, systems approaches to domestic politics were criticized and generally abandoned as unverifiable abstractions of little explanatory or predictive power. (In international politics, however, systems approaches remained important.) On closer examination, the “conversion process” of systems theory—i.e., the transformation of inputs into outputs—struck many as simply plain old “politics.” Another problem was that much of systems theory took as its norm and model an idealized version of American politics that did not apply universally to the domestic politics of all societies. Systems analysis also was unable to explain certain policy decisions that were made despite the absence of predominating favourable inputs, such as the decision by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson to deepen U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam. Finally, systems theorists unrealistically reified the systems of the countries they studied, portraying them as durable and stable because they were supposed to correct and reform themselves. They were thus unable to explain defective systems or systemic upheavals, such as the collapse of communist regimes in eastern and central Europe in 1989–91.

Other approaches employing systems analysis flourished briefly in the late 20th century. Decision-making theory is based on systems theory but also borrows from game theory, which was devised by mathematicians during World War II. Decision-making theory supposes that actors behave rationally to achieve goals by selecting the course of action that will maximize benefits and minimize costs. This assumption has been contradicted by some studies, such as Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision (1971), which found that the decision-making process of the administration of U.S. President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis could not be adequately explained in terms of a strict rational calculation of costs and benefits; instead, decisions often depended on the standard operating procedures of organizational actors and the information that subordinates fed to their superiors, which itself was skewed by “bureaucratic politics.” Allison argued that one key determinant of Kennedy’s decision to impose a naval blockade on Cuba rather than to invade the island was the delayed flight of a spy plane, which resulted from a quarrel between the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Air Force over who was to pilot the plane. (Allison’s view was refuted by subsequent studies that showed that Kennedy had decided in advance not to bomb or invade Cuba.) Bureaucratic-process models, which maintain that policy decisions are influenced by the priorities of bureaucrats who compete with each other to protect their programs, budgets, and procedures, became prominent during the 1970s, but research failed to identify a consistent pattern of influence resulting from bureaucratic infighting.

There was no consensus among political scientists concerning the system that developed after the end of the Cold War. Some scholars believed that there was a return to a 19th-century balance-of-power system, in which multiple states make and remake alliances. Others argued for the existence of a multipolar system consisting of trade blocs that were neither mutually hostile nor totally cooperative with each other. Some argued that the international system became unipolar, the United States being the single dominant world power. Huntington, in a controversial article published in 1993 and a book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, published in 1996, used cultural theory to propose that the emerging international system constituted a “clash of civilizations.” Several civilizations, each based mostly on religion, variously clashed and cooperated. The worst clashes, he argued, took place between Islamic and other civilizations. Many scholars rejected Huntington’s analysis as simplistic and ill-informed, but others found it persuasive, especially after the September 11 attacks of 2001 and the U.S. military attacks on Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003).

Theory of rational choice

The dominant school of thought in political science in the late 20th century was rational choice theory. For rational choice theorists, history and culture are irrelevant to understanding political behaviour; instead, it is sufficient to know the actors’ interests and to assume that they pursue them rationally. Whereas the earlier decision-making approach sought to explain the decisions of elite groups (mostly in matters of foreign policy), rational choice theorists attempted to apply their far more formal theory (which sometimes involved the use of mathematical notation) to all facets of political life. Many believed they had found the key that would at last make political science truly scientific. In An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957), an early work in rational choice theory, Anthony Downs claimed that significant elements of political life could be explained in terms of voter self-interest. Downs showed that in democracies the aggregate distribution of political opinion forms a bell-shaped curve, with most voters possessing moderate opinions; he argued that this fact forces political parties in democracies to adopt centrist positions. The founder of rational choice theory was William Riker, who applied economic and game-theoretic approaches to develop increasingly complex mathematical models of politics. In The Theory of Political Coalitions (1962), Riker demonstrated by mathematical reasoning why and how politicians form alliances. Riker and his followers applied this version of rational choice theory—which they variously called rational choice, public choice, social choice, formal modeling, or positive political theory—to explain almost everything, including voting, legislation, wars, and bureaucracy. Some researchers used games to reproduce key decisions in small-group experiments.

Rational choice theory identified—or rediscovered—at least two major explanatory factors that some political scientists had neglected: (1) that politicians are endlessly opportunistic and (2) that all decisions take place in some type of institutional setting. Rational choice theorists argued that political institutions structure the opportunities available to politicians and thus help to explain their actions.

By the early 21st century, rational choice theory was being stiffly challenged. Critics alleged that it simply mathematized the obvious and, in searching for universal patterns, ignored important cultural contexts, which thus rendered it unable to predict much of importance; another charge was that the choices the theory sought to explain appeared “rational” only in retrospect. Reacting to such criticisms, some rational choice theorists began calling themselves “new institutionalists” or “structuralists” to emphasize their view that all political choices take place within specific institutional structures. U.S. congressmen, for example, typically calculate how their votes on bills will help or hurt their chances for reelection. In this way, rational choice theory led political science back to its traditional concern with political institutions, such as parliaments and laws. In more recent years, increasing numbers of rational choice theorists have backed away from claims that their approach is capable of explaining every political phenomenon.


Democratic theory

Late in the 20th century, some political scientists rediscovered their Aristotelian roots by returning to the question of how to achieve the good, just, and stable polity—that is, by returning to the study of democracy. Although the approaches taken were highly diverse, most researchers attempted to identify the factors by which democracies are established and sustained. Democratic theory was revived in earnest in the late 1980s, when communist regimes were collapsing throughout eastern Europe, and was accompanied by the founding of the influential Journal of Democracy in 1990.

The American political theorist Robert Dahl, who had long been a scholar of the topic, viewed democracy as the pluralist interplay of groups in what he called a “polyarchy.” Historical-cultural thinkers such as Lipset traced the origins of democracy to the values that democratic societies developed long ago. Samuel Huntington, perhaps the most influential post-World War II American political scientist, worried about a “democratic distemper” in which citizens demand more than the system can deliver. Huntington also viewed democracy as coming in waves—the most recent having started in 1974 in Greece and Portugal and having subsequently washed over Spain and Latin America—but warned of a potential reverse wave toward authoritarianism. The Spanish American political scientist Juan Linz explored how democracies can decline, and the Dutch-born American scholar Arend Lijphart considered the institutional arrangements (political parties and electoral systems, executives and parliaments) that were most likely to produce stable political systems.

Modernization theorists noted the connection between democracy and economic development but were unable to determine whether economic development typically precedes democracy or vice versa. Few of them regarded democracy as inevitable, and many noted its philosophical, psychological, and social prerequisites, suggesting that democracy may be a largely Western phenomenon that is not easily transplanted to non-Western cultures. Others, however, argued that democracy is a universal value that transcends culture. Some worried that the legitimacy of established democracies was eroding in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as citizens became disenchanted with the political process and many moved away from political participation in favour of private pursuits. Voter turnout fell in most countries, in part because citizens saw little difference between the major political parties, believing them to be essentially power-seeking and self-serving. Some attributed this trend to a supposed abandonment of ideology as most parties hewed to centrist positions in order to capture the large moderate vote. Still others argued that party systems, ossified for at least a generation and based on social and political conflicts that had long been resolved, failed to address in a coherent fashion new social issues (e.g., feminism, environmentalism, civil rights) that concerned many citizens. Some blamed the media for focusing on political scandals instead of issues of substance, and some cited the inability of governments to fully address society’s ills (e.g., crime, drug abuse, unemployment). Nevertheless, not all scholars viewed this change with alarm. Some argued that citizens were generally better-educated and more critical than they were given credit for, that they were simply demanding better, cleaner government, and that these demands would eventually lead to long-term democratic renewal.

Enduring debates in political science

Political scientists, like other social and natural scientists, gather data and formulate theories. The two tasks are often out of balance, however, leading either to the collection of irrelevant facts or to the construction of misleading theories. Throughout the post-World War II era, political scientists developed and discarded numerous theories, and there was considerable (and unresolved) debate as to whether it is more important to develop theories and then collect data to confirm or reject them or to collect and analyze data from which theories would flow.

Perhaps the oldest philosophical dispute has to do with the relative importance of subjectivity and objectivity. Many political scientists have attempted to develop approaches that are value-free and wholly objective. In modern political science, much of this debate takes place between structuralists and cultural theorists. Structuralists claim that the way in which the world is organized (or structured) determines politics and that the proper objects of study for political science are power, interests, and institutions, which they construe as objective features of political life. In contrast, cultural theorists, who study values, opinions, and psychology, argue that subjective perceptions of reality are more important than objective reality itself. However, most scholars now believe that the two realms feed into one another and cannot be totally separated. To explain the apparent inertia of Japan’s political system, for example, a structuralist would cite the country’s electoral laws and powerful ministries, whereas a cultural theorist would look to deeply rooted Japanese values such as obedience and stability. Few in one camp, however, would totally dismiss the arguments of the other.

Likewise, although some political scientists continue to insist that only quantified data are legitimate, some topics are not amenable to study in these terms. The decisions of top officials, for example, are often made in small groups and behind closed doors, and so understanding them requires subjective descriptive material based on interviews and observations—essentially the techniques of good journalists. If done well, these subjective studies may be more valid and longer-lived than quantitative studies.

Prior to the development of reliable survey research, most political analyses focused on elites. Once a sizable amount of research had become available, there was a considerable debate about whether rulers are guided by citizen preferences, expressed through interest groups and elections, or whether elites pursue their own goals and manipulate public opinion to achieve their ends. Despite numerous studies of public opinion, voting behaviour, and interest groups, the issue has not been resolved and, indeed, is perhaps unresolvable. Analyses can establish statistical relationships, but it has been difficult to demonstrate causality with any certainty. This debate is complicated by two factors. First, although there is a considerable body of survey and electoral data, most people ignore politics most of the time, a factor that must be considered in attempting to understand which part of the “public” policy makers listen to—all citizens, all voters, or only those expressing an intense view on a particular matter. Political analyses based on elites are hindered by a dearth of reliable elite-level data, as researchers are rarely invited into the deliberations of rulers. Accordingly, much is known about the social bases of politics but little of how and why decisions are made. Even when decision makers grant interviews or write their memoirs, firm conclusions remain elusive, because officials often provide accounts that are self-serving or misleading.

Political science has had difficulty handling rapid change; it prefers the static (stable political systems) to the dynamic. If historians are stuck in the past, political scientists are often captives of the present. For some the collapse of the Soviet Union showed that the theories and methods of political science are of only limited utility. Despite decades of gathering data and theorizing, political science was unable to anticipate the defining event of the post-World War II era. Critics charged that political science could describe what is but could never discern what was likely to be. Others, however, maintained that this criticism was unfair, arguing that such upheavals can be predicted, given sufficient data. Still, the demise of the Soviet Union spurred some political scientists to develop theories to explain political changes and transformations. Examining the collapse of authoritarian regimes and their replacement with democratic governments in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Latin America, eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union during the last three decades of the 20th century, they sought to develop a theory of transitions to democracy. Others argued that no such universal theory is possible and that all democratic transitions are unique.

At the beginning of the 21st century, political science was faced with a stark dilemma: the more scientific it tried to be, the more removed it found itself from the burning issues of the day. Although some research in political science would continue to be arcane and unintelligible to the layperson and even to other scholars, many political scientists attempted to steer a middle course, one that maintained a rigorous scientific approach but also addressed questions that are important to academics, citizens, and decision makers alike. Indeed, some political scientists, recognizing that many “scientific” approaches had lost their utility after a decade or two, suggested that the discipline should cease its attempts to imitate the natural sciences and return to the classic concerns of analyzing and promoting the political good.

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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