Various approaches to the study of Political Science

Meaning of Approach:

From the days of ancient Greek political thought scholars, philosophers and political scientists have analysed, investigated various types of political issues and incidents from the standpoint of their own perspective and on the basis of the study they have arrived at conclusions and prescribed recommendations.

This has inevitably led to the emergence of a number of approaches to the study of political science. Now we shall first of all try to analyse various aspects of each approach but before that we shall define approach. We have already noted Van Dyke’s points on another issue. According to Van Dyke the word “approach is defined to denote the criteria employed in selecting the questions to ask and the data to consider in political inquiry”.

In the opinion of Van Dyke, approach means criteria. A criterion is used to explain or analyse the political questions and data. Since the questions and data are very great in number and varied in nature each political scientist or philosopher analyses them in his own way by applying his own standpoint and method.

In physical or chemical science there exists an agreed method and more or less all researchers and scientists apply those agreed methods. But there is hardly any place of broad based agreement in political science as to the method and approach.

Another aspect of approach is methods employed by political science for its study cannot be distinguished from the methods used by other branches of social science. So also the approaches of political science are not different from other approaches.

However, this general observation is not hundred percent correct. Sometimes the approaches employed by political scientists differ in content from the approaches used by other social scientists. Thus variety of approaches for the study of political science is a central aspect of the subject.

Again from the past history of political science we gather the idea that at different periods different approaches have gained importance. In other words, the rise and fall in the importance of approaches is a noticeable characteristic.

Approach, we can say, is a scientific way of studying a subject. The students will have to analyse and categorize data, facts, events, problems etc. The point to note is that they cannot do it unscientifically or proceed haphazardly. To be precise, for a balanced and effective analysis and promising investigation analysts must proceed in a systematic way and for that purpose the students or analysts must apply a method or criterion and we call it approach.

Therefore, approach is a way to analyse a subject or what may suitably be called a discipline. It is believed by many that the application of an approach considerably enhances the importance and credibility of the analysis as well as discipline. So without an approach the analysis of the subject may not be in a position to receive wide support from the readers and also their credence.

Classification of Approaches:

The approaches employed by political scientists for the study of politics have been classified by Wasby in the following way: one classification may be based on fact-value problem. This leads to the division of classification into normative approach and empirical approach.

The other classification is based on the objective of study of political science. That is, in this approach the political scientists want to stress the specific purposes of studying and investigating politics. This broad group can again be subdivided into philosophical, ideological, institutional and structural approaches.

Some scholars are of opinion that Wasby-proposed classification of approaches is generally traditional in nature. Modern political scientists have made a broad classification of the approaches. On the one hand there is normative approach which to some extent liberal bias and on the other hand Marxist approach.

In the second half of the last century a large number of political scientists of America and later on other countries began to analyse political issues, incidents and behaviour from the standpoint of behaviour (particularly the political behaviour) of the individuals. David Easton championed this approach.

In formal language it is called behaviouralism or political behaviour and after very few years this behaviouralism landed on post- behaviouralism. Recently some scholars have attempted to analyse political science in a feminist way and it is called feminist approach.

Normative Approach:

The Meaning and Origin of Normativeness:

The term normative is derived from the Latin word norma, meaning precept rule, carpenter’s square. The word norm means usual, typical or standard thing. Normative relates to norm or standard. The central idea of normative approach is—the subject is viewed and analysed normatively that is there are certain standards, rules and precepts which must find their application in political science.

Again, political science means in its operative aspects. When the state starts its operation its primary objective would be to achieve the above-noted norms, standards and precepts. The success and failure will determine the nature, credibility, acceptability of the state or government.

Hence norms are several principles which an authority cannot deny. The accountability of the authority is also based on these norms and principles. Norm or normativeness is explained in terms of “should” and “ought”. It means that the authority should do it or adopt such and such policy or decision. Or it ought to do it.

Therefore, normativeness talks about preference. The word preference is not different from should and ought. To sum up, the objectives and functions of state are judged in the background of preference, should and ought.

Origin of the Approach:

Normative approach to the study of politics owes its origin to the political philosophy of Greek philosopher Plato. The thought of a good society or an ideal state and the entire structure of such a state are built upon the concepts like ‘should’, ‘ought’, ‘preference’ etc. He said that any state or society ought to be or should be ideal or good and he has elaborated the criteria of good or ideal in his The Republic.

The picture of state that prevailed in Plato’s time was very far from of what ought to be or should be. In most of the city-states in Plato’s time there was no place and recognition of morality, virtue, ideals and ethics. But he firmly believed that a state ought to have these eternal values and he also said that in order to be an ideal state all individuals must be ideal that is they must possess virtues such as morality and various ethical qualities.

His great disciple Aristotle followed the footsteps of Plato and elaborated the ideal state. In latter periods we come across a number of philosophers who emphasised the normative approach of politics and the great contractualist Rousseau is a prominent figure.

The normative approach stressed by Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau etc has assumed the form and colour of Utopia. Utopia means something which has no practical foundations and it is not supported by reasons. Large number of philosophers began to scan the existing systems by Utopian criteria. Again with the help of this standard existing situations are to be judged.

Thomas More (1478-1535) imagined of a Utopia or an imaginary state. His famous book Utopia was published in 1516 and here he depicted the picture of an ought to be state. He disapproved the drawbacks that characterised the prevailing state of his time and that led him to think of an ought to be state.

Central Idea of Normative Approach:

The central idea of the normative approach to the study of politics is politics or analysis of state or the functions of state are to be viewed in the light of what ought to be rather that what they are. The normativeness wants to give preference to should and ought to be. It wants the realisations of certain universal values, norms or principles through, the machinery of state. “Instead of asking how social policy decisions have come to be made, it asks instead about how they ought to be made. In such studies the aim is to examine a set of political principles, detail their logical characteristics and explore their implications for social policy, at least in broad institutional terms”.

It is assumed by some that since normative principles relates to what should be or ought to be these principles can easily be ignored. But the great adherents of the approach declare unambiguously that norms, or principles are not to be ignored but they are to be implemented. “Normative theory should be a reflection on practice, not a means of ignoring it”.

Thus we can say that values, principles or eternal ideas relating to politics or function of state constituted the central idea of normative approach to the study of politics. In other words, this approach says that norms or principles are to be followed in practice and the aim of such norms is to make the political organisation acceptable to all or majority people.

Components of the Normative Approach:

In the normative approach there is an emphasis on what is good and what is not good. It says that when a policy-maker proceeds to formulate policy or adopt a decision he must see that to what extent the policy or decision will produce desired results. The concept of goodness is linked with expectation.

The members of political organisation want to fulfill their manifold desires and they expect that the authority shall act accordingly. It may be that the expectations do not always tally the real results. But that does not matter. The expectations fall in the category of “ought to be”. Good also relates to the attainment of welfare objectives of the state. The term good starts to scan the policy, decision and function of authority.

The normative approach establishes the concept of responsibility. If certain norms and principles are put forward and if they are made binding on the authority, people can judge the success or failure of the authority. In other words, norms are easy of locating the responsibility.

Normative approach stipulates that norms or principles are of immense value and importance so far as the determination of policy and decision and their implementation are concerned. ‘Is’ or ‘what’ is happening, are important no doubt but every authority must follow these norms and ideals.

Normative approach envisages of striking a balance or equilibrium between what is or what happens and ought to be or should be. Any biasness will invariably plague the proper functioning of state as well as decision making process.

An authority aiming at the attainment of general welfare objectives cannot take the risk of neglecting either ought to be or what is. The balancing process is not a stable one. It is always in an unstable condition. It moves from one stage to another.

Normative approach never thinks of anything settled. Though it is generally argued that norms, values, principles are of eternal in nature but scholars are of opinion that the word ‘eternal’ need not be taken seriously.

Values, norms etc. are always subject to change and a responsible authority must take this change into account and also will act accordingly. That is normative approach though pays heavy emphasis on norms it proceeds with the change. In every age certain norms, values and principles are given more importance and they are given priority.

Importance of Normative Approach:

It is now evident that in normative approach there is lot of importance of norms, values, ideals, ideas. It further believes that they have got relevance in the study of politics. It is a fact that all these cannot be translated into reality. But on this ground the norms, values, etc. cannot be thrown into the wind. They have importance and a large number of political scientists and statesmen still believe that the norms have immense importance.

The normative approach criticises the functions, principles and policies of the existing states as did Plato in his The Republic. Even today the same approach is followed. The criticism by the supporters of the normative approach has not always succeeded in changing the prevailing course of action of the state or the un-normative principles of the authority.

But it has been able to aware the public about the state of activities of political organisation. This approach suggests that what is going on should be changed for the better. It is still believed that the normative approach can be helpful for the day to day activities of state.

It is alleged that normative approach to the study of politics is a smack of norms, ideals, values and principles which have not full relevance to the reality of social and political situation. But this criticism is not tenable. As every individual should decide certain principles which he wants, to follow, a state should also decide or set up certain ideals, norms and principles which it should apply while deciding policies and taking decisions.

All these are declared in various forms such as constitution, laws and general policy decisions. After deciding the principles or general objectives the state proceeds to implement them. This can be illustrated by the Constitution of India. The Preamble to our Constitution contains several lofty ideals and many of them are yet to be achieved. But this non-implementation does not invalidate the ideals.

The rise of welfare state and its increasing popularity have added new feathers to this approach. The concept of welfare state declares that the function of the state does not exhaust in maintaining law and order alone, it must perform many other functions which will bring about general welfare to the society. The welfare objectives on the one hand and ideals, norms, principles on the other hand are always at par. The welfare objectives pay more importance upon the ought to be or should be.

The function of the state is not a static one. In a dynamic society it should also be dynamic. It means that the state should make continuous efforts for the improvement of its functions and this again means that there should be certain ideals, principles and norms before it. Otherwise it will have to sail in an uncharted sea. But a pragmatic theory of state does not suggest that the state should sail in an uncharted sea. The fact is that the state should decide certain ideals and then it will begin its journey.

It is apprehended that there may arise conflict between practice and ideals or between “is” and “ought to be” and this conflict may dwarf the activities of the state. There is also a possibility that the norms could not be fulfilled. But the non-fulfilment does not call for its rejection. Norms are always norms and they always act as guiding stars.

Plato’s ideal state, philosopher king, Aristotle’s polity, Marx’s classless state or society, his communism, Rousseau’s moral state etc still haunt us. We all know that all these can never be achieved but we still hope that we must try to achieve them because they are our ideals.

It is not surprising that in the writings and thought systems of every philosopher there is an important place of ideals and principles and this place is very much important. Take the case of utilitarianism. Its great pro pounders proposed that the state authority must follow the principle of pleasure and pain or in general the policy of utility while making policy or taking decisions. The utilitarianism has not been strictly followed or it is ignored, but it still holds good as a policy of liberalism.

The supporters of the normative approach say that this hints at the efficiency of the state. Once the norms and ideals are declared the authority of the state should make arrangement for their implementation any discrepancy between promises and performance will call for a valuation of the activities. If the discrepancy stands at a minimum level that will be an indication of the efficiency of the state.

Some political scientists claim that an adequate and comprehensive political theory must duly take into account of the normative approach to the study of politics. Legal approach and empirical approach have importance no doubt. But normative approach has importance.

Historical Approach:

Meaning and Nature of Historical Approach:

The historical approach to the study of politics is one of the traditional approaches. History means the records of past incidents and facts. These took place at different periods. It also means what people have thought or imagined. “History as a record consists of documentary and other primary evidences” which occurred in the past. So far as historical approach is concerned we shall concentrate our attention on historical events recorded in documentary evidences.

The characteristic feature of historical approach is that history as a written or recorded subject focuses on the past events. From history we come to know how man was in the past and what he is now. History is the store-house of events. From the biographies, autobiographies, descriptions by authors and journalists we come to know what event took place in the past.

It is to be noted here that the events must have political baring or they must be politically significant. These events provide the best materials upon which theory and principles of political science are built. History tells us how government, political parties and many other institutions worked, their successes and failures and from these we receive lessons which guide us in determining the future course of action. Let us take an example.

The American President enjoys enormous powers. But all his powers are not derived from the Constitution. In order to find out a distinction between what powers he enjoyed past and powers now he is exercising, historical analysis is essential. Naturally, history helps us a lot in this regard. Without history we cannot collect any past incidents. The sources of British constitution are historical facts or incidents.

A very small part of British constitution is written. Powers and functions of Prime Minister, Monarchy and different organs of government are derived from history. To support or refute an argument or a conclusion one can cite facts recorded in the pages of history. The principles or conclusions of politics in many cases are based on historical incidents. Briefly stated the historical approach means to study politics with the help of facts derived from history.

History is not simply the record of past events and achievements but the interpretations, comments and explanations made by the historians. They also arrange the events chronologically. All these are regarded as suitable materials for political scientists. We can say the historians have made the task of the political scientists partially easy. The comparisons and conclusions of historians very often throw ample light on principles of politics.

Two great personalities of political philosophy depended upon history in a remarkable way. They are Marx and Hegel. In fact, Marx’s theory of class struggle and increasing impoverishment of the working class are buttressed by historical data. Hegel drew inspiration in formulating a philosophical theory of civilisation and its manifestation in national state from the study of history. Dyke says that Marx has reified and personified history.

Michael Oakshott unequivocally lays emphasis on the historical approach of the study of politics. He offers us the following observation: “Politics as the activity of attending to the general arrangements of a collection of people who ……. compose a single community.” Here his main emphasis is on the tradition and practice of political community.

He also distrusts rationalism. In his judgment, inhabitants of a state are “hereditary cooperative groups.” Oakshott’s final observation demands our special attention. He says “what we are learning to understand is a political tradition, a concrete manner of behaviour. And for this reason it is proper that at the academic level the study of politics should be an historical study.”

Not only Oakshott but many other modern political’ scientist have supported the historical approach to the study of political science. 

Evaluation of Historical Approach:

The historical approach to the study of politics has faced a few challenges from several quarters. One of the main fulcrums of the challenges is history has two faces— one is documentation of facts which is quite naive and the other is interpretation of facts and phenomena. Again, the accumulation of evidences is to be judged from a proper perspective.

The implication is adequate care should be taken while evaluating evidence and facts and it is not surprising that such a caution is not always strictly followed and, as a result the historical facts do not serve the proper purpose of those who use it. This is the main objection against the historical approach to the study of politics. We can in this connection remember the opinion of a critic.

He says: “History in the light of the best modern practice is to be sharply distinguished from the antiquarianism or the collection of facts for their own sake and should be defined rather as the study of problems or causes, the interpretation of phenomena”.

Of course, how much caution the historian will take cannot be said before-hand. It depends upon the person and the facts. Caution is, however, essential. The adoption of caution is mandatory because history records fabricated data. Facts and incidents are not always correctly recorded. This is not an imaginary allegation.

Alan Ball has drawn our attention to another dark side of the historical approach. He says “past evidence does leavealarming gaps, and political history is often simply a record of great men and great events, rather than a comprehensive account of total political activity.” Very few historians interpret historical events and evidences broadly and liberally.

Narrowness in outlook prevails upon them leading to the biased interpretation of facts. This cannot provide a better and reliable basis for political science. The historian must be sincere in collecting facts and impartial in interpreting them. Such an approach only can be helpful for the study of politics.

Sir Ivor Jenning’s is a great authority on British constitution and his analysis about various aspects of British Constitution is still regarded as authentic. His treatment of history is really unique. The depth of analysis, broadness of outlook and impartiality of treatment has elevated his research and students of politics still remember him. From the records of history Jennings has formulated a comprehensive account of the British Prime Minister, Parliament and other departments of Government.

Robert Mackenzie studied the party system and Mackintosh investigated the working of cabinet system of England. Their method is historical, but they have interpreted the documents liberally. The writings of these authors are encouraging and have created precedents. Many other thinkers have depended upon historical facts for the analysis of politics. Many of them have been successful, but not all.

Philosophical Approach:

Meaning and Nature of Philosophical Approach:

Philosophical approach is another traditional or classical approach of studying politics. There are many definitions of philosophy and one such definition is, philosophy “is the study or science of truths or principles underlying all knowledge and being.” It means that philosophy or philosophical approach attempts to find the truth of political incidents or events. It explores the objective of political writings or the purpose of political writer.

The purpose of philosophical approach is to analyse the consequences of incidents in a logical and scientific manner. According to Van Dyke “philosophy denotes thought about thought. Somewhat more broadly it denotes general conceptions of ends and means, purposes and methods.” The purpose of philosophical approach is to clarify the words and terms used by the political philosophers. The enquiry started by the philosophical approach removes confusion about the assumptions.

The important plus point of philosophical approach is it enters into the depth of every aspect of political phenomena and scans them without any partiality Its interpretation of political activities evokes interest in the minds of students of politics Words and phrases used by philosophers throw light on the subject. Philosophical approach, it is claimed, enhances linguistic clarity. That is why it is said that this approach aims at thought about thought.

The method applied by philosophical approach is logical analysis. It uses reason to find out the truth. The truth which this approach establishes or finds out may be of various kinds-normative, descriptive or prescriptive. But the philosophical approach is indifferent to the nature or category of truth.

It also tries to establish standards of good, right and just. It has been observed by a critic that the objective of this approach is to determine what is in the interest of the public and he identifies interest more with ends that with means.

In the vast range of political science there are a number of great or remarkable books Philosophical approach wants to explore the meaning and central theme of these books as well as the exact purpose of the authors. In the contemporary Greek city-states of Plato morality, moral values and idealism degraded to such an extent that he received a great shock and seriously thought to revive these and this urge prompted him to write The Republic.

He wanted to establish that politics and morality are not antithetic concepts. Rather, an ideal and moral body politic can be made a real one through the selfless administration by a philosopher-king. John Locke wrote his Second Treatise to justify the interests and objectives of the new middle class and he struggle of people for liberty.

Machiavelli and Hobbes wrote to support royal absolutism. We may not agree with the views of these philosophers or the arguments of these books, but it must not be forgotten that the books were written at particular and critical moment of history.

Philosophical approach helps us to understand the contemporary history and the nature of politics suggested by philosophers. To put it in other words, the philosophical approach helps us to the acquainted with the political ideologies of past centuries. In this sense, the philosophical approach is highly important.

Criticism of the Philosophical Approach:

In spite of the immense importance of the philosophical approach to the study of politics critics have raised several questions about its worthiness. One of the central ideas of political philosophy is idealism and it is prominent in Plato’s The Republic Critics say that idealism itself is quite good but when its practical application arises it appears to be a myth.

Idealism was a favourite theory of Plato, but it had not practical importance and be fully realised that idealism would never be translated into reality. It is a subject of sheer imagination. Machiavelli and Hobbes wrote with the sole purpose of supporting the status quo. We cannot forgive Hobbes for his authoritarian view and anti-individualist stand.

The philosophical thinkers of the earlier epochs were impractical thinkers. They had no intention to propagate ideas which can change society. They were indifferent to people s liking and disliking, their love for liberty, their sorrows and sufferings and they failed to provide prophylactic devices. As an academic discipline philosophical approach is all right, but as, practical guide for action it has hardly any importance.


Plato and Hegel were impractical philosophers no doubt. Their philosophy may impress us but does not guide us. There are other philosophers who do not fall in this category. For example philosophies of Marx, Engels, Lenin guide us and in the purpose was to change the society. These philosophers took a realistic view of society. They interpreted history from materialistic point of view. The idealism and philosophy of Marx, Engels and some others had a relation to material world.

The idealist philosophers of earlier periods had strongly advocated certain moral, ethical and ideal values. It is true that these values will never be realised in reality. But ideal is ideal, it guides us. The eternal value of Plato’s idealistic philosophy in politics is not divorced from morality and idealism.

The philosophical ideas of particular philosophers are to be judged in the background of contemporary social, economic and political situations. Machiavelli supported royal absolutism for the unification of Italy. Hobbes wanted to save England from disorder and anarchy which engulfed the British Society of his time.

All of them were great patriots. Ruosseau could not tolerate the alienation of man from society and the loss of liberty with the progress of civilisation, arts and literature. To him the state was a public moral person whose chief duty was to ensure liberty and morality as well as to reform the people. The philosophical approach to the study of politics throws light on these aspects of politics.

Degradation of moral values and rampant corruption are the distinguishing features of the society which is at the threshold of the 21st century. If we want to free politics from these, we must try to revive moral values and idealism about which Plato spoke long ago. We are not thinking about a philosopher-king, but we must think about an honest, able, moral and ideal ruler who may be a prime minister or president.

Plato’s main concern was justice and ideal state. Marx spoke of emancipation of the toiling mass. All these constitute the elements of idealism and we cannot treat them insignificant. In the Preamble of the Constitution of India there is a word ‘justice’.

The purpose of the welfare state is to ensure emancipation. Locke’s liberalism appears and reappears. His constitutionalism has an important place in British and Indian systems. In our analysis of the philosophical approach to the study of politics we must remember these points.

Other Approaches:

Economic Approach:

Economics and politics are two important disciplines of social science and in several respects they are intimately related. In the curriculum of universities of India and many other countries a few decades ago economics and political science constituted a single subject which implies the close relationship between the two. This denotes that in the study of politics the help of economics is essential.

The policy formulations -of economic nature and determination of the principles of planning which has recently become a part of the governmental activity are done by the government. In most of the countries of the world public issues are economic issues and here the main—, and sometimes the only—actors are the personnel of the government such as the prime minister, president and other ministers. This obvious relationship between the two subjects has placed the economic approach in a convenient position.

Fiscal policies of all types, industrial policy, agricultural policy, labour policy are all economic issues, but the chief actors are the members of the government. The executive branch takes the final decision. There are many specialists and advisers. Since the question of implementation is to be looked up by the government, the final say comes from the government side.

Policy regarding production and distribution, though within the jurisdiction of economics, is always taken up by the government. It is to be pointed out here that the impact of success and failure of the economic policies fall upon the government. So we cannot discuss politics without discussing economics.

The greatest attribution of the economic approach to the study of politics comes from the pen of Marx and Engels. The doctrine of class struggle, increasing impoverishment and capitalism’s exploitation are based on economic factors. Marx and Engels have emphasised the heterogeneity of interests between the classes. Classes are formed on the basis of economic interests. Capitalist’s profit making motive leads to exploitation of workers. To emancipate from exploitation the workers are forced to take the path of struggle.

The idea of emancipation is associated with economic terms. According to Marx, politics is controlled by the persons who own sources of production and manage the process of distribution. Outside economic influence, politics has no independent authority.

Marx’s theory of base and super­structure is a matter of relationship between economics and politics. Perhaps Marx is the only philosopher who has forcefully argued (of course with reason and data collected from history) the relationship between the two important subjects of social science.

The interest group approach to the study of politics is popular in some liberal democratic countries and this conception is associated with economic approach. Interest groups or pressure groups create pressure to achieve economic objectives. Hence, interest group politics and economic approach are mutually dependent.

Sociological Approach:

Political science and sociology both are social sciences and in several places they overlap. The areas of sociological studies are human behaviour including the political behaviour, group behaviour and attitude of group, culture, society. Needless to say that all these fall within the study area of political science. “Culture refers to the totality of what is learned by individuals as members of society, it is a way of life a mode of thinking, acting and feeling.” Culture in various ways influences the political behaviour of individuals which is again studied by political scientists.

Readers of politics are quite well-known with political culture which is composed of the attitudes beliefs emotions and values of society that relate to the political system and its political issues. We, therefore, find that so far as culture is concerned, it is the subject matter of both sociology and political science.

Society is another important topic of sociology and the sociologists devote a considerable part of their analysies to the exploration of various aspects of society Students of politics also treat society with considerable emphasis. Society is composed of human beings who form intimate relationship among themselves.

The relationship is characterised by both conflict and cooperation and these in turn give rise to politics Individuals form institutions which are also parts of society. These institutions play important role in moulding the character, attitudes and behaviour of individuals. Thus, both sociology and politics deal with society in its broadest perspective. Any sociological analysis of society without its political orientation is bound to be incomplete.

Human beings form not only society but also group based on a network of social relationships. There are numerous sociological studies about these social relationships. Politics also studies these relationships. Politics, of course, studies only the political aspects. There are various associations or groups within every society and they are normally formed on the basis of profession.

For example, teachers of political science have formed political sciences association. Similarly, there are doctors’ club, trade unions, student’s organisations, women’s forums. Not all these associations and groups are directly related to the political authority, but they are not outside the jurisdiction of state and an interaction between groups or associations and state is never a rare occasion.

The researchers of politics study the behavioour of various groups and how they discharge their functions in similar and different environment. Political scientists are concerned only with the impact of the behaviour and function upon politics.

On the other hand, sociologists analyse them in a broader perspective. The sociologist investigates the relationship between behaviour pattern and social conditions. The studies of sociologists and political scientists are interdependent. A recent analyst has observed:

“Political behaviour, political relationships and political institutions are within the realm of sociology along with other kinds of behaviour, relationships and institutions. Political science thus overlaps with sociology just as it overlaps with history and economics. Those who take a sociological approach to the study of politics give attention to the kinds of questions and the kinds of data….political movements of all sorts can be studied on the basis of a sociological approach to politics”.

Policy formulations and legislations to a large extent depend upon the sociological studies. Studies by sociologists on crime, divorce, juvenile delinquency, conditions of slum and urbanisation guide the government and legislators. Modern states are no doubt welfare states and the authorities of such states can neglect the sociological studies on the above issues only on their own peril.

Psychological Approach:

Politics and psychology have close relation. Psychologists normally study the political behaviour of individuals and factors leading to such behaviour. They also study why certain individuals behave in a certain way. Recently, a new subject has gained popularity—it is psychology.

This studies the behaviour, attitude etc. of the voter and the researchers after studying various aspects draw conclusions which very often serve the purpose of political leaders. It is not an exaggeration to hold that the foundation of behaviouralism is psychology of the individuals. Political scientists of today’s world are extremely curious to know how motives and emotions work in the field of political activity. Sometimes the psychologists focus their attention upon the group behaviour.

We can collect dozens of instances from the pages of the history of political thought as to how psychology and politics are related. According to Aristotle, man is by nature a social animal and his sociability is the prime reason of the emergence of political organisation which is called state. Psychology of man is that man wants to live with others.

Hobbes has said that every individuals wants security and for that he desires to accumulate power. Because he thinks that power only can provide security. Hobbes’ political philosophy is based, to a considerable extent, upon psychological factors. He has depicted the nature of men who lived in the state of nature. Men of the state of nature were power hungry, quarrelsome and envied each other.

Only death could draw a curtain upon this ceaseless struggle. Locke’s people strongly desired to have freedom and right and to that end they build up a civil society. Utilitarian philosopher Bentham studied well the psychology of the middle class people who sought to maximise their happiness. Bentham projected their psychology through the tendency of avoiding pain and welcoming pleasure. Marx’s theory of class struggle is also based on psychology.

The proletarians desire to end the exploitation let loose by the capitalists. Individuals in any society pursue conflicting desires and this is the path-finder of politics. There are motives, likes and dislikes behind every type of political activity. So politics cannot be alienated from psychology.

Even in international politics the influence of psychology is discernible. The big or super-powers are involved in power politics to establish their domination and enhance their image in international society. This is absolutely a psychological issue.

The idea to launch a war emanates from the mind and for that reason it has been suggested that attempts are to be made to remove that pernicious idea from the mind. Statesmen of international repute are of opinion that for peace and security it is essential that all sorts of fear are to be removed from the mind.

Institutional Approach:

Institutional approach to the study of politics is very common today and according to Wasby it is important. Readers, scholars, researchers and even ordinary people are accustomed to view politics in term of the institutions. The institutional approach is also called structural approach. According to Maclver institutions are established forms of procedure.

Institution relates the structure and machinery through which human society organises, directs and executes multifarious activates required to satisfy human needs. According to this definition family, government and state and all types of organisations which have flourished within the states are institutions. Institutions are, therefore, created to meet human requirements. Political parties, pressure and interest groups, legislature all are institutions.

The traditional political thinkers were primarily concerned with the activities and role of the different types of institutions and they viewed politics in terms of the institutions. Dyke’s cogent remark is-the study of politics is the study of the state or of government and related institutions.

This is also the definition of politics. Politics thus, cannot be separated from state or government i.e. institutions. Wasby’s definition is little bit elaborate. He says, “The emphasis of the institutional or structural approach is almost exclusively on the formal aspects of government and politics. Since various institutions constitute the structure of society it is also called structural approach”.

The emphasis of institutional or structural approach is that the institutions their rules and procedures are important for the analysis of political phenomena and not the individuals constituting the institutions. The advocates of institutional approach do not even consider the impact of institutions or rules upon the individuals. They are inclined to say that the institutions in political analysis are of prime importance.

Political science, for long periods of time, was studied in the light or perspective of the function and behaviour of institutions. The British and American political scientists up to the Second World War concentrated their attention on legislature, party system and pressure group activities. They did not think it proper to throw light on the other factors of politics. In a word, politics to a group of thinkers was institution- concept and nothing else.

The institutional approach has been vehemently criticised. Chief objection against this approach is institutions are, no doubt, important for politics, but they cannot form the entire structure of politics. The institutionalists have been charged of being biased, because they have neglected the individuals who form the institutions.

Without individuals the institutions have no practical importance and it is unfortunate they have not paid proper attention to them. The supporters of this approach have interpreted politics narrowly.

Criticisms of the Traditional Approach:

The traditional approach to the study of politics has been under attack from several corners and the main points of attack are noted below:

The traditional approaches have dismally failed to recognise the role of the individuals who play very important roles in moulding and remoulding the shape and nature of politics. In fact, individuals are important actors of both national and international politics. The focus is directed to the institutions.

It is surprising that behind all the institutions there are individuals who control the structure, functions and other aspects. Singling out institutions and neglecting individuals cannot be pronounced as proper methods of studying politics. The definition politics as the study of institution’ is nothing but an exaggeration or it may be called a travesty of truth.

Traditional approach is mainly descriptive. Politics does not rule out description, but it is also analytical. Mere description of facts does not necessarily constitute the subject matter of political science. Its purpose is to go to the depth of every incident. Researchers want to know not only what is happening, but also why a particular incident occurs at a particular time.

The view-point of the traditionalists is, limited within the institutions. Political scientists of today’s world are not inclined to limit their analysis of politics within the four walls of institutions. They have investigated the role of environment into which is included international politics multinational corporations, non-governmental organi­sations or trans-national bodies.

The decision-making process of the nation state is influenced by international events and the political activity of other nation states. When the traditionalists were writing the nature of politics, the interdependence of national and international politics was not unknown to them and it is their failure not to recognise if. Viewed in this light we can say that traditional approach is biased and incomplete. It has not the ability to meet the needs which are rising in the present age.

Attention is to be paid to another shortcoming. The traditional approach as a method of analysing politics is deficient for the analysis of political institutions of the Third World countries, particularly the countries which do not follow the Western political system in to. In these countries, if we try to find out Western system or institutions that will be an utter failure.

It is, therefore, alleged that traditional analysis is unsuitable for all types of political systems—both Western and non-Western. To compensate this deficiency the political scientists of the post-Second World War period have devised a general system approach which is quite comprehensive.

Before drawing a curtain upon this part of analysis we like to quote liberally the observation of Stephen Wasby. He says, “Just as a dissatisfaction with an over-concentration on the philosophical approach to the study of politics had brought a shift towards the study of institutions and formal structures, with an accompanying move from normative to empirical outlooks, so there was increasing realisation that institutional approach did not encompass all the world of politics.

Scholars began to recognise problems in the use of the “State” concept. Other basic emphases were also questioned. Because not all rules and structures have been reduced to law, the legal approach to politics and the institutional approach had never completely coalesced. Political scientists of an institutional bent, freed from the European location of political science within faculties of law, recognised that there is much material within political science not subject to legal examinations.”

Students and researchers of politics began to extend their outlook and interest to the other areas and these required new approaches. The scholars also devoted their energy to the comparative analysis of various political systems. We shall now turn our attention to other approaches such as comparative approach, power approach and interest group approach.

Comparative Approach:

What is Comparative Approach?

The comparative approach to the study of politics has been termed by Alan Ball a “link between the traditional approaches to political science and the more recent developments in the discipline.” We have already noted that the traditional approaches were mainly concerned with the institutions such as legislatures, parties and pressure groups. Comparative approach takes the cognizance of the fact that all the institutions or structures are vital to politics and its analysis. But here the matter does not end.

These institutions are to be compared, which means that the institutions of one political system are to be compared with those of another system and in doing this we can expect to have the best results. A proper and methodical comparison will reveal the exact nature of different political system and this helps the student to acquire ideas.

What are to be Compared?

Wasby’s suggestion is “one only compares those things which one conceives to be comparable”. Un-comparable elements or features can never be compared. For a proper and effective comparison it has been suggested that the similarities and the dissimilarities are to be put in different groups.

This is the most suitable way of comparison. Comparison may be macro or micro. When only selected or particular aspects of various political systems are compared we call it micro-comparison. But when entire systems are compared it comes to be called macro. In the comparative analysis both methods are adopted.

Central Idea of Comparative Approach:

Originally the comparative approach to study politics was confined to the developed and matured political systems. But today the horizons of comparison have expanded to the boundaries of the less developed countries and tribal areas of the various countries of the globe. The almost universalisation of the comparative approach has radically changed the traditional outlook about it.

New terms and conceptions have been introduced into it, because the old comparative approach was insufficient “to cover the phenomena of Western European politics in the course of the last fifty years” (Politics of the Developing Areas—Almond and Coleman). As a result of the expansion of the periphery of the comparative approach the political institutions, structures, cultures and other facts have been included into the comparative study.

The analysts and the researchers of the present epoch are investigating the functions of different institutions of Western political system and those of the less- developed countries and are also making comparisons. The Westminster type of parliamentary system has been imposed on many ex-colonies. The students of political science are studying and comparing. This is a useful way of arriving at conclusions. The success and failure of Western institutions, when introduced in other countries, can easily be conceived.

A comparative approach needs to be as broad as possible. The advocates of comparative approach suggest that for better results and unambiguous conclusions it is necessary that whole systems of two or more countries shall be compared. Extracting one particular institution and comparing it with that of another state will lead to almost nothing or a cumbersome conclusion and such attempt should be eschewed.

Every institution of a political system is organically connected with the rest of the system. Naturally, comparison on selective basis will be misleading. In spite of this problem we generally insist upon comparison selecting particular institutions of various political systems.

While comparing the different political systems the researchers or students making comparison must be well versed with the several aspects of the political system. Without this the comparison will be incomplete.

It is not always true that the institutions are compared. Sometimes, by what processes the values are authoritatively allocated in different systems, are compared. For example, how American and Chinese systems authoritatively allocate values. Again, the decision making processes of the two countries are compared. We also compare the accountability processes of different countries.

The federal system provides a fertile field of comparative approach. In federal system there are number of units in it and all of them enjoy certain amount of autonomy. Each unit of federation pursues its policies to some extent independently. This makes the scope of comparison wide. The Panchayati Raj of West Bengal may be compared with that of Tamil Nadu or Karnataka.

The judicial systems of American states may also be compared. In the USA, the constituent states enjoy large amount of autonomy and because of this they have independent approaches to political issues and matters. This is a fit case for better comparison. In India the states do not enjoy such sort of autonomy and in spite of this comparative method is suitable.

Assessment of Comparative Approach:

The comparative approach to the study of politics is very interesting, informative and also acts as a guidance. The success of a particular process or institution emulates others to follow or adopt it. The Panchayat system and Land Reform of West Bengal have been highly praised by several Indian states and they have expressed their desire to take lessons.

The functioning of opposition in British House of Commons is unique and it is regarded as ideal. In the opinion of Ball the comparative method is not a disinterested subject, its results are rewarding. Many useful information’s are furnished by the comparison.

The comparison induces an authority to accept or reject a particular policy or decision. In a democratic system a comparative approach has special importance on the eve of election. Every party announces its own policy or programme and generally this based on the success or failure of a policy or programme derived from comparison.

Power Approach:

Central Idea of Power Approach:

Earlier, while defining politics we noted power and its relation to politics. Now we shall see how politics is analysed and political incidents are investigated in terms of power. The concept of power in politics has a past. Both Machiavelli and Hobbes viewed politics in the light of power. Even the students of the history of political thought call Machiavelli the father of power politics.

But the widespread influence of power over politics is comparatively modern. To all modern students of politics power is an important characteristic of politics and political activity. Some even go further when they say that power is the chief motivating force of political activity. To view politics or political phenomena or political activity exclusively in terms of power might appear as an exaggeration. The basic fact, in spite of this, is that power approach to the study of politics is, today, universally recognised.

While analysing the relationship between power and politics Frederick Watkings writes, “The proper scope of political science is not the study of the state or of any other specific institutional complex, but the investigation of all associations in so far as they can be shown to exemplify the problem of power.”

William Robson, another political thinker observes: “It is with power in society that political science is primarily concerned—its nature, basis, processes, scope and results…… The focus of interest of the political scientist is clear and unambiguous; it centres on the struggle to gain or retain power, to exercise power or influence over others or to resist that exercise”.

So far as various political concepts are concerned there are innumerable differences between Marxist and liberal thinkers. But both groups agree that politics and power are inseparable concepts. The Marxists have held that in any bourgeois society there are mainly two classes and they are involved in continuous struggle to capture power. The struggle ends in the capture of power by the proletarians.

The liberals are of opinion that in every society (of course pluralist society) there are several centres of power and the holders or directors of these centres fight against each other The liberal thinkers assure us that the purpose of this struggle is not to seize state power or administration, but to exert influence upon the administration. The liberals call it conflict and it is reconcilable. Whatever may be the differences, both have viewed politics in the background of power and power is in the centre of politics.

The type of power which is treated as an approach to the study of politics is political power.

Ball’s definition of this kind runs as follows:

“Political power may be broadly defined as the capacity to affect another’s behaviour by some form of sanction. Sanctions may take the form of coercion or inducement: power may be backed by carrot or the stick and it may be exercised in a positive or negative fashion”.

There are several methods or techniques at the disposal of the holders of political power and they use it sometimes with caution, sometimes indiscriminately, to acquire obligation or compliance. They promise to give wealth, honour and position or they threaten to punish. What exact method is to be applied depends upon the situation and the attitude of the persons exercising power.

In national politics, political power is a very common phenomenon. The elites or interest groups are the chief actors in this field. Economically dominant class political party and even bureaucracy and military are actors and they exercise power which is at their disposal.

There are many interest groups or groups of elites who are engaged in the management of political affairs. Insufficiency of resources and inequality of power between different groups lead them to the point of dissatisfaction and this creates a situation of conflict. There are political parties who are striving to be at the helm of power or administration.

The multiplicity of parties is the root cause of power politics. Even the two party system is not free from power politics. It is an obvious wrong assumption that only the liberal political system is cursed or characterised by power politics. In socialist system there is also a struggle for power. The struggle for power among the top party leaders of U.S.S.R after the death of Lenin may be cited as an example.

The concept of power is also more prominent in international politics. One German writer wrote several years ago “Power, military power, is as important in world history as it has ever been, and it has not been and it will not be abolished by pious of opinions, by sermons and resolutions”.

In international society power normally assumes military character, but not always. When the states are the direct participants in power struggle they employ various techniques according to their own convenience. Display or use of military power is a very common characteristic of international politics, but not the only feature. “International society is a society without a central authority to perceive law and order and without an official agency to protect its members in the enjoyment of their rights. The result is that the individual states must make the preservation and improvement of their power position a primary objective of their foreign policy”. (Nicholas Spykman quoted by Catlin in The Nature of Political Thought).

Morgenthau, an eminent scholar of international politics, has said “International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power. Whatever the ultimate aims of international politics, power is always the immediate aim”. Morgenthau has further observed that it will be a futile effort to try to eliminate the power politics from social life, because it is beyond the ability of any authority. It is better to check the destructiveness of power politics.


According to Van Dyke:

“The principal weakness of the power approach is its lack of precision.” On earlier occasions we have defined power. But one drawback of this definition is it does not contain all the meanings of the term ‘power’. Different authors have defined it in their own ways. The manifestations of power are many. Different holders use it for various purposes and the techniques are not uniform. It is very difficult to measure power as well as its impact. If power cannot be quantitatively measured how can we make estimate about its impact?

The political actors do not always struggle for power alone, they pursue their interests. The states, main actors of power politics, try to enhance their image. There is also ideological struggle. The advocates of the power approach fail to convince us about the exact amount of power a state requires and this drawback has blunted the sharpness of the power approach.

There is no end of power, but there is an end of struggle. Power approach to the study of politics is biased. Various actors struggle for power, but they also cooperate among themselves to reach an amicable settlement.

Power approach is also an incomplete notion. We are talking about political power. In liberal system, corporate bodies or business organisations are engaged in power struggle and that very often influences political authority. But it is beyond the consideration of power approach.

Interest Group Approach:


At the beginning of twentieth century it was felt in America, the most mature and powerful capitalist system, of the world that certain reforms, mainly political in nature, need to be introduced in order to save the system from recurrent crises. The academics of political science thought that they had some responsibility in the determination of reforms and in offering guidelines in their implementation.

But before doing that the subject is to be lifted from the present obscure and unattended position and a fresh dose of blood is to be injected. In other words, attempts should be made in conceptualising it in the light of practical political activity. The efforts to pragmatise politics started at the beginning of the twentieth century.

One critic observes, “American political scientists and scholars of the state increasingly began to turn to scientific disciplines studying real social structures and processes.” The political scientists of America took a leading part to make the subject a real or pragmatic science and since then scholars of other continents have followed them. James Bryce, Walter Bagehot and George Wallace—all of British origin—adopted serious attitude to the subject.

Arthour Bentley (1870-1957) and David Truman are still treated as pioneers in this field. Both of them have viewed politics in the light of interest group activity. In USA, interest groups are so active and powerful that any realistic analysis without them is impossible.

Interest Group Defined and Its Role Explained:

The interest group has been defined by Bentley in his The Process of Government in the following words:

“It means a certain portion of men of a society, taken, however, not as a physical mass cut off from other masses of men, but as a mass activity, which does not preclude the men who participate in if from participating likewise in many other group activities.” Group activity is the vital point of any political society. Political affairs of a society will come to a halt if there are no groups.

Bentley’s emphasis is that people’s approach to the state administration is always preconditioned by their ardent desire to secure those interests through manipulation and exerting pressure upon the authority. But Bentley says that outside the group, or without the existence of group, individuals have hardly any importance.

Their convictions, ideas and ideology, personality and behaviour everything has a meaning only in the context of a group to which an individual belongs. To put it in other words, groups mould the behaviour, ideas and attitudes. Needless to say that all these have their meaningful reference in politics.

Politics of every society is conditioned and determined by the group activity. Individuals alone cannot change the nature and movement of politics without group interference. Analysis of group activity reveals that groups generally do not always act without having an idea about the fulfillment of interests. This nature of groups actively associates them with the political matters of the state and this heralds group approach to politics.

Bentley does not believe in groups without their interests. Hence interest, group activity and politics are inextricably related with each other and they constituted the vital aspects of politics. The existence and popularity of any interest group depend upon its alertness and activity in realisation of objectives.

The rhetoric and programmes are not sufficient for any interest group. In his own words: “All phenomena of government are phenomena of groups pressing one another, forming one another, and pushing out new groups and group representatives to mediate the adjustment. It is only as we isolate these group activities, determine their representative values, and get the whole process stated in terms of them, that we approach to a satisfactory knowledge of government”.

Not only government, most of the institutions and institutional activities within the state are moulded by the group activities to a large extent. The outlook, ideas and attitude of the groups are reflected upon the institutions. Bentley has further maintained that even the constitution, the congress, the president and the judiciary represent the official interest groups.

We say that the powerful interest groups, through their widely ramified agencies, control even the election of the presidents and appointment of judges. To sum up, all the interest groups and pressure groups of liberal political system are its integral parts and they influence the activities, of the political system.

David Truman is another great personality who strongly advocated the group approach to politics in the post-war period. Truman’s The Government Process was published in 1951, 43 years after Bentley’s book was published.

He focuses attention upon the interest group attitude to politics. In defining interest group Truman says it is a collection of individuals which “on the basis of one or more shared attitudes, makes certain claims upon other groups in the society for the establishment maintenance and enhancement of forms of behaviour that are implied in the shared attitudes. The shared attitudes constitute the interests.”

Truman underlines the important part played by the various interest groups in the formulation and implementation of various policies of the state. The policies are initiated by the government and are implemented by various agencies. The approach of the group is so decisive that it is impossible for any branch of government to ignore. It is the group which is responsible for the stability of American political system.

The groups always maintain the equilibrium among themselves, and also check the disruptive forces. The interest groups always activate the governmental functions and also compel the government to change its politics which are detrimental to the objectives of the interest groups. According to Truman, groups lie at the heart of the governmental process.

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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