In its most basic form, political science can be defined as the study of both the institutions that form states and governments, and the political processes that animate them. The project of systematically examining both normative and positive theories of government and social relationships is an ancient one, dating back at least 3,000 years. Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, and Machiavelli are all claimed as foundation figures within the discipline of political science. Early political thinkers both inquired as to what ideal political relationships should be (Plato), and sought to describe these relationships as they actually existed (Thucydides and Machiavelli). Both of these lines of questioning can still be found in the discipline today.
While the roots of political inquiry may be old, the modern field is much more recent. Political science as a distinct area of study is only known from the end of the 19th century onwards. Before that the examination of politics was often folded into history. Historian Herbert Baxter Adams (1850-1901) is credited with coining the phrase “political science” in 1880. Adams later founded the Johns Hopkins Studies in Historical and Political Science series. However, it was John William Burgess (1844-1931) who was responsible for founding the first school and graduate faculty of political science at Columbia University, also in 1880. Columbia would dominate this field of study throughout the remainder of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Structure of the Discipline
In the current era the discipline of political science is divided into a number of loosely defined, often over-lapping, subfields based primarily on area of inquiry. The most common of these in American departments are: political theory, comparative politics, international politics and American politics. In the last decade many departments have also added “methodologists” who are tasked with developing formal tools that can be used in any of the areas of the discipline. Departments outside of the United States often substitute the study of their own national politics for the “American” field, (which is then often seen as a highly developed branch of comparative politics). Public policy and public administration are often viewed as applied areas of the discipline.
Of the four main fields, American, comparative, and international relations generally adopt a relatively empirical view of the world, and often seek to construct theories based on the logic of scientific inquiry. Americanists tend to be interested in how a certain set of institutions and social processes (democracy) affect political outcomes in the American context. While this is in some senses the most bounded field in the discipline, it is probably also the most richly developed. Comparativists seek to examine different institutional and social structures and ask how those specific differences condition outcomes. Practitioners of international relations are primarily concerned with the principles that order both political and economic affairs between states and other actors in the international system.
Political theory, in contrast, seeks to construct and interrogate a historical canon of political thought and to more closely investigate ethical and moral questions involving politics, governance, and power. As such, political theory firmly anchors the normative aspect of the discipline. It is also responsible for providing many of the foundational ideas and concepts that are used in other areas’ fields.
Methods and Content
One of the most pressing problems facing political scientists is how to circumscribe, or provide some sense of attachment to, their research when the political process is by definition closely connected to so many other social spheres. Several basic approaches to this problem have arisen, all of which are currently seen in the field. The first of these is to start by examining the basic institutions and structures that control governance and ask how these sets of shared rules impact outcomes.
This was the first systematic approach adopted in the field when the German school of Staatslehre was imported to the United States by Burgess in the late 19th century. Staatslehre was dedicated to studying the differences between state institutions and often adopted a highly legalistic framework for analyzing their impact. However, the institutional criteria for defining the bounds of the field ultimately proved unsuccessful as so much of what goes on in politics is not institutionalized in a way that it is readily accessible to legal theory. As early as 1885 Woodrow Wilson (also a political scientist), in his seminal work Congressional Government, argued that in order to understand how real legislative power is wielded we must leave behind “literary” theories of the constitution and instead focus on the emergence of the committee system and how power is actually wielded in the course of the decision-making process.
This then led to the emergence of new ways of conceptualizing the field based on functions, rather than structures. Thus politics were regarded as not so much a set of deterministic legal institutions as an activity in which individuals engaged. In essence, politics became a set of functioning relationships characterized by an exchange of power to allocate both policy and scarce resources. This move allows for a substantial broadening of the field as basic functional mechanisms, rather than narrowly defined institutional arenas, emerge as key elements of how research areas are selected. The degree of this broadening varies by subfield, but the discipline as a whole has moved well beyond a simple investigation of the structures of states and governments.
Following the ultimate decline of the legalism movement and the trend away from Staatslehre, the field moved into an era that is often described as “realism.” As Wilson, a proponent of the movement, demonstrated, its main concern was with more accurately capturing the processes by which real political outcomes were achieved. This necessitated a change in methodologies as it was realized that important nonstate groups were having a substantial impact on the political process, groups which had previously been overlooked. As new and important social groups were described, specialized areas within the field were created to deal with them.
This paved the way for the behavioral revolution, which affected many fields in the 1950s and 1960s including political science. Increasingly, political scientists decided that it was necessary to describe the behaviors that led to group formation in the first place. This required focusing more attention on individuals to understand the ultimate economic, social, and psychological motivations that contributed to their behavior. Methodological innovation, including an increased formalism, both in terms of an acceptance of the scientific method as a guide for inquiry, and the reliance on formal empirical techniques, characterized much of the work completed in this movement.
Behavioralism became increasingly vocal and skeptical in its criticisms of the older descriptive research tools. Several specific research areas within the discipline (especially American politics and some areas of international relations) have continued to develop this more formalized and empirical approach. Political theory and comparative politics, while still profoundly impacted by the behavioralist revolution, were not as fully penetrated.
This new approach was scrutinized in the early 1970s as a number of criticisms were launched. The most widely debated of these was a movement to bring the state, as a distinct actor with unique interests, back into the investigation of the political process. Second, while behavioralism offered a number of systematic accounts for how a certain set of values or attributes would impact outcomes, it was never concerned with the more basic issue of how those values were generated in the first place. Last, despite its formal rigor, the research program failed to generate any substantial new, non-trivial, findings that could lead to reliably predictive results.
More recently, rational choice theory has sought to reintroduce formal theory to political science by drawing on insights from microeconomics and game theory. Rational choice theory as a research program is also methodologically individualistic and concentrates on how actors choose between alternative options. While certain scholars working within this tradition attempt to account for issues like cultural change, systemic behavior, and value formation, opinion in the field has been mixed as to their success.
While rational choice theory continues to expand in certain areas of the discipline, it too has come under concerted criticism from the more historical, theoretical, and qualitatively minded branches of the field. Again these scholars point to the lack of new insights or predictive hypotheses as evidence of the bankruptcy of the research program. Further, its formal and mathematic nature makes its arguments relatively opaque to those who are not trained in its traditions. A more recent round of challenges has been posed by a diverse group of scholars grounded in critical theory, constructivism, and to a lesser extent postmodern theory. This debate will likely continue.
Political Science and Anthropology
The last 4 decades have seen increased interest in politics among anthropologists, both as their subjects were increasingly impacted by the turbulent events of the 20th century, and as they have concluded that politics, too, can only be understood in terms of symbols and processes embedded in unique social and cultural frameworks. Introductory textbooks on political anthropology appear with some regularity, and the American Anthropological Association has a section dedicated to the subject. Like political science, political anthropology is interested in the structure and functioning of political systems, but is more likely to see the process as being driven by social and cultural factors. The two fields share a related interest in many of the same research questions, including nationalism, development, establishing of social norms, identity politics, fundamentalism, and political violence.
Of course a pervasive interest in many of these same questions predates the 1960s and is deeply rooted in ethnographic, and particularly British, social anthropological analysis of non-Western societies. An early landmark work that reviews how social anthropologists perceived politics prior to World War II is M. Fortes and E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s African Political Systems (see especially the introductory essays). Social, economic, and political analysis have been firmly welded together in works such as E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s The Nuer, E.R. Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma, Fredrik Barth’s Political Leadership among Swat Pathans, or Max Gluckman’s seminal essay “Peace in the Feud.” For the field of political science in general, and international relations in particular, an important insight to emerge from many of these works is the detailed study of the emergence of a clear order in social systems that might be characterized as anarchic or acephalous.
While acknowledging the essential insight of political anthropology that politics is also a cultural system, political scientists can still make substantial contributions to these research efforts, both in terms of basic theorizing about nature and effects of power exchanges, and by laying out a more global overview of large-scale events and trends in which individual, intensive, studies can be placed and contextualized. Much room exists for interdisciplinary cooperation in each of the topics outlined above, and it is clear that both political science and political anthropology could benefit from increased dialogue and collaboration.
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