united nations , america , politics, symbol, flags Political science is the systematic study of how different forms of government lead to different political outcomes. It is thus concerned with the theory and practice of politics and the description and analysis of political systems and political behaviour. It considers the study of the state, nation, government, politics and policies of government, dealing extensively with the theory and practice of politics, and the analysis of political systems, political behaviour, institutions and culture. In fact, political science has several subfields, including:

  • Political theory;
  • Public policy;
  • National politics;
  • International relations; and
  • Comparative politics.

Across this plethora of topics, it is assumed that the way contemporary political science functions is that both political institutions and the behaviour of politicians interact to produce various political outcomes. For example, in the majority of Western countries, one finds an attitude towards both democracy (political behaviour) and to having a democratic government (political institutions). Thus, support and an attitude towards democracy on a behavioural and institutional level yields stable democratic governments and values within societies (outcome).

Our overview of political science is split into the following 3 areas:

For as long as humans have formed communities, people have debated and analysed politics. In ancient Greece, Plato’s ‘The Republic’ argues that knowledge and especially knowledge of the ‘common good’ is key to ruling. Plato asserts that this is why philosophers are the ideal rulers; they know what is good and they are not ambitious to rule. Therefore, they would not strive to rule at the expense of human life. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, in the 3rd century BC consideredpolitics as a normative or prescriptive discipline rather than a purely empirical or descriptive inquiry. This distinction marked the philosopher throughout history as the first ‘political scientist’ for having treated politics as a science for it seeks to create, preserve and also reform political systems.

That said political science became established numerically, institutionally, intellectually and scientificallyalong with the majority of the other social sciences, in the last quarter of the 19th and early 20th century – the so called “Golden Age” in the development of the social sciences.Since Aristotle, many others have attempted to understand and explain how groups of people, particularly governments, reach agreements and make decisions that will affect the entire society. Some notable developments to Political science also occurred through religious writers such as St. Augustine who, in City of God, emphasised the centrality of salvation to life, even with regards to politics.St. Thomas Aquinas followed later reintroduced Aristotle to Europe and amalgamated Aristotelian thought with Christian thought.

With the rise of the Renaissance period in the fifteenth century and the so called ‘birth of the individual’, Europe began to change dramatically. This change was reflected most predominantly in the arts. However, changes in scientific, economic, religious, and political views are also evident, though they were not as outright visible as changes in art. Europeans started to break away from tradition and forge new ways of understanding the world. Among the key thinkers of this time were political philosophers, who attempted to establish a systematic understanding of politics.

Niccolo Machiavelli’sThe Prince stands out for its portrayal of politics as a struggle for power, and in it, he urged the prince(s) to whom it was addressed and who are unable to obtain a position of power through a hereditary or religious basis to become experts in the manipulation of their situation and the exercise of power using opportunistic tactics and a combination of fear and populism.

Thomas Hobbes attempted to use the methods of geometry to arrive at an irrefutable science of politics. Hobbes argued for absolute monarchy. He feared anarchy and believed that the sovereign who can alone prevent a reversion of the current state is inevitably owed ‘prudential obedience’. By contrast, John Locke located authority in the people and not in the monarch. He argued that people are sovereign and only limited amounts of power and authority are delegated to government which nonetheless remains subordinate to society. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in contrast to Locke’s representative democratic principles, argued that democracy’s representative nature made the citizens no better than slaves. Rousseau claimed that a representative democracy was a situation where the oppressed chose those who would oppress them. Only direct democracy in which everyone could represent himself provided for a good-enough solution for freedom and an individual confronting the law is ‘forced to be free’ as he would be confronting a law he himself freely made. Rousseau was the instigator of a controversy that is still alive today when in his book The Social Contract (1762), he postulated that, “Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains”, but he offered little if any practical solutions to the way a direct democracy could function. His work was highly-influential during the French revolution and an inspiration to the democratic process in the United States.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century influenced social theorists, spurring them to change their approach to political science. They began relying on statistical data and empirical observation to understand politics; in this way, these thinkers began to emphasise the scientific part of political science. Universities also began creating political science departments, which cemented the status of political science as an academic discipline. Some significant philosophers and thinkers from this period included Karl Marxwho saw the economy as the cornerstone of a society – the basis on which what people need to do to ensure survival is founded. He argued that employers in a capitalist society exploit their workers and that the capitalist classes pass laws to benefit themselves. His books The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital (Capital) spurred the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Sociologist, philosopher, and political economist Max Webercontrasted Marx’s approach and argued that religion, not economics, is the central force in social change. Weber saw the state as that entity which possesses monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force. In his essay entitled ‘Politics as a vocation’, Weber suggested that a politician could not be a man that followed the Christian ethic in its fullest sense, but rather a person bound by the ethic of ultimate ends and responsibility, and who must also possess a passion for such a vocation. He also distinguished three ideal types of political leadership, viz.

  1. charismatic domination (familial and religious);
  2. traditional domination (patriarchs, patrimonialism, feudalism); and
  3. legal domination (modern law and state, bureaucracy).

On the basis of his own reflections, Weber also contended that authority must be structured into a bureaucratic structure in order to avoid rebellion against the ruler as both charisma and tradition wear out. This he saw to be a rational progression and that ultimately a bureaucracy was both desirable as the most efficient way of managing a civil service and also inevitable.

At the turn of the twentieth century like most other social sciences, political science continued to develop extensively. World War II called upon social scientists to contribute by way of their expertise to research a wide range of military and domestic issues. As more research and studies were conducted, a new approach to political science called behavioralism emerged. This approach represents a sharp break from previous approaches primarily due to its emphasis on objectivity and quantification to explain and predict political behaviour. Thus, one may note a shift from the study of the characteristics that make up institutions, to an approach based on the examination of behaviour of groups as it relates to the political system. While behaviouralism has been heavily debated, it remains the predominant paradigm in political science today.

Within the political science sphere there were different contributions by various political scientists who saw that political science required the integration of other disciplines. Gabriel Almond, for example,broadened the field in the 1950s by integrating approaches from sociology, psychology, and anthropology into his work. He transformed an interest in foreign policy into systematic studies of comparative political development and culture. Almond’s research eventually covered many topics, including the politics of developing countries, Communism, and religious fundamentalism.During the same decade, DavidEaston developed a behavioural model of political science by adopting a ‘systems approach’ to the political process. In his work, The Political System: An Inquiry into the State of Political Science (1953), heproposed that a political system has boundaries but is also fluid through a system of steps in its decision making. Easton theorised a 5 step process and hypothesised that if the system functions, a stable political system is the outcome. Conversely, a dysfunctional political system results if the process dysfunctions.

Since Aristotle’s musings and assertions, political science has evolved extensively along the years. The most notable developments occurred at the end of the nineteenth century when the first academic institutions specialising in political science were set up. After World War 2, there was an integration of other social science spheres within political science that gave the subject matter a more integrated and holistic grounding. The topic developed even further in the 1950’s and the 1960’s through the various contributions of several noteworthy political scientists (some mentioned here) who studied the relationship between actors, institutions and political outcomes using a scientific approach which gave greater significance to their theories by testing their assertions through qualitative and quantitative methods, exposing both the strengths and the weaknesses of their theories.

At the IRISS, we conduct political sciences research while trying to espouse the scientistic with the artistic elements of political studies. We believe that unlike in the case of the life sciences, where translational, rotational and time-related invariances shape the environment being studied, social sciences (including political science) are trying to describe systems that go through constant Lamarckian evolution. This evolution happens in spurts and disallows situations from being replicated with the same results through space and time.  We therefore believe that in order to contribute to the political science field we need to look not only at what has been done in the past and to construct on top of that basis, but we also need to look into whether what applied in the past still applies today. It is in this spirit that the IRISS undertakes its research in the field of political science.