DEFINITION AND SCOPE OF POLITICAL SCIENCE

 

DEFINITION AND SCOPE OF POLITICAL SCIENCE

Introduction

We will attempt to offer different definitions of Political Science as an academic discipline. The unit also delineates the scope of Political Science to enable you understand and capture the essence and the major areas of concern to you as students of Political Science. The Unit also examines a set of assumptions that are germane and relevant to the understanding of the course. It further discusses the two sub-division of the discipline, which represents a modest attempt to relate the theory, or prescriptions (normative approach) with the practical (empirical approach) to the study of Political Science.

The whole essence of the first unit is to attempt to seriously examine and explain the component parts of Political Science. In other words, this unit is an attempt to identify what is studied in the discipline or its “content” and its “structure” or how the content is studied. The first thing to know is the concept of “politics” or the “political”, while the second the suffix, “science”, which will form the subject matter of the next unit. When Political Scientists examine the meanings attached to these concepts, they in effect seek to conceptualize, or understand the discipline and also delineate the boundaries of Political Science.

In the course of the development of the discipline, a number of political philosophers and political scientists has advanced a number of definitions. Most of the definitions can be classified as being of two types. Some scholars associate “politics” with “government”, “legal government”, or the “state”, while others discuss it within the precinct of “power”, “authority” and/or “conflict”. We shall consider a few of these definitions, offer a critique of them, or their limitations, and leave you to determine which of them have more contemporary relevance to the understanding of Political Science.

 

Different definitions of Political Science

A good starting point is to ask the question: what is politics? Every citizen appears to have a commonsense notion of what politics is. However, some Political Scientists are unsatisfied with the common sense meaning of politics as they believe that in order to really gain knowledge of politics one should formulate a more explicit definition of politics as failure to do so, in their view, restrict the growth of Political Science. Their position is that Political Science should be contextually examined. This suggests that the outer limits of Political Science can be determined by listing all the topics, which interest scholars in the field at a given time (Bello-Imam, 2007).

One view is Politics as Government: To an average citizen, politics and government are synonymous. In Alfred de Grazia’s view “politics” or the “political” includes the events that happened around the decision – making centres of government. Charles Hyneman also said that most Political Scientists have assumed that legal government is the subject matter of their discipline. However, if Political Scientists equate “politics” with “government” or “legal government”, we need to know what we mean by government. Government in this context refers to the legally based institutions of a society, which may make legally binding decisions. This merely shows that Hyneman’s definition is more specific than that of de Grazia. Whichever definition a Political Scientist may eventually decide to adopt, what is obvious is that this definition focuses more on formal institutions than any other thing else.

We must however caution that a definition that equates politics with government has a commonsensical basis, which has serious limitations. This is because it is inadequate and restrictive in scope. For instance, if a Political Scientist elects to study the politics of the pre-colonial African society, he would be examining ethnic societies with no governmental institutions. Yet, the traditional rulers and elders within such societies would be seen to be making political decisions for the community but not within identifiable and elaborate political and legal institutions, such as parliament, congress and courts. Since such actions are taken out of government or state, are they to be classified as non-political? This obviously makes the definition narrow and hence dangerous for you. In an attempt to escape this weakness, there is a need to look beyond governmental institutions for the elements that make or qualify an activity as political. This takes us to David Easton’s definition, which emphasizes the kind of activity that expresses itself through a variety of institutions (Oyediran, 2003).

 

David Easton’s view of politics

The crux of the definition advocated by the Eastonian school is the equation of politics with “power,” “authority” or “conflict.” Foremost in this school is William Bluhm, a Political Scientist, who defined politics “as a social process characterized by activity involving rivalry and co-operation in the exercise of power, culminating in the making of decision for a group.” The appeal of this definition is its apparent flexibility or wider scope. It sees politics wherever power relationships or conflicts situation exist. This means that the Political Scientists can legitimately study the politics of a labour or students union, corporations or Africa tribe/or ethnic group as well as what goes on in the legislature arm, or administrative agency. Here, emphasis is placed on activity or behaviour rather than a particular kind of institution.

A step further from the restrictive “government” definition and the “power” variety takes us to David Easton’s definition, which sees politics as the “authoritative allocation of values for a society” within the political system. This definition restricts the Political Scientist to only those decisions, which are authoritative for the society. According to Easton, “a policy is authoritative if when the person to whom it is intended to apply, or who are affected by it considers that they must or ought to obey it” ( ). In other words, such a policy must be considered binding. However, not every authoritative decision is made within the political system. Following from Easton’s definition, it means that the Political Scientist is only interested in the authoritative decisions which apply to all members of the society, although only a few might be affected (Dahl 1984).

 

Harold Laswell view of politics

Politics, in one of its lucid definitions by Harold Lasswell (1936) is ‘the study of who gets what, when, and how”? The unfolding picture is that there is no major difference between Easton’s definition and the one based on power. Both of them assume a political world of scarce values and insatiable appetites. The basic question of politics then becomes: “How are values distributed?” or in Harold Laswell’s classic phraseology, “who gets what, when, and how?” The difference is mainly one of emphasis. Whereas, the power theorists such as Lasswell emphasise the role of power in the distribution process, the Eastonian variant or typology examines the relationship between what goes into a system “demand” and what comes out as “decision”, or “output”. Thus, Easton while focuses his attention on the entire political system; Laswell on the other hand concentrates on individuals who have the greatest impact in the distribution process, namely those with power. The over-riding argument for an Eastonian type definition of politics is based on the desirability of a compromise position, which is not too restrictive or overly broad. This does not mean that the Estonian definition is free from criticism. Its critics have asked what is meant by decision “for society”, and how this differs from one which is not made for society. To many Political Scientists, any elaborate attempt to answer these questions is a mere academic exercise or even superfluous.

 

Aristotle’s view of Politics

Politics arises, according to Aristotle, in organized states, which recognize themselves to be an aggregate of many members, not a single tribe, religion, interest, or tradition. Politics arises from accepting the fact of the simultaneous existence of different traditions, within a territorial unit under a common rule. According to Aristotle, politics is a plausible response to the problem of governing, or maintaining order, in a complex society. However, the establishing of order is not just any order at all; politics if properly played marks the end of tyranny and recognition of freedom. To him politics represents as least some tolerance of opposing views and, indeed best conducted, where open canvassing of rival interests is allowed and possible (Crick, 1982:18).

Politics, as Aristotle pointed out, is only one possible solution to the problem of order. Tyranny - the rule of one strong man in his own alternatives, which he did not approve of. The method of rule of a tyrant and oligarchy is to coerce all or most of these other groups for their own personal benefit. The political method of rule is to listen to these other groups to conciliate, or reconcile them as far as possible, and to give them a legal position, a sense of security, some clear and reasonable safe means of articulation. More importantly, Aristotle view politics as the “master science.” Politics is the master science not in the sense that it includes or explains all other sciences, but in that, it gives them some priority. The way of establishing these priorities is by allowing the right institutions to develop by which the various “science” can demonstrate their actual importance in the common task of survival (Crick 1982:23).


Basic Assumptions in Political Science

There are some assumptions, if properly noted that will help you in the understanding of political science both as an academic discipline and as a practical endeavor. The first assumption is that all human societies are faced with the problem of scarce resources. Whether the primary resource is wealth, status or power, demand always exceeds supply. The second assumption is that in order to prevent conflict resulting from distribution of scarce resources from destroying the fabric of society, the dominant groups in all societies evolves a mechanism, generally referred to as governments to sort this out. This mechanism, otherwise known as government may range from the massive governments apparatus of modern industrialized states such as United States, Britain, or Japan, or through the simple headship of a simple, undifferentiated ethnic group in Africa.

The third assumption is that government allocates resources to some individuals while depriving others. Accordingly, policies pursued by governments are inherently unequal. This is true in both authoritarian and democratic states. It is equally true of socialist and capitalist societies. The fourth assumption is that constant pressure exists for the re-allocation of scarce resources. Whether it takes the form of civil war, riot, voting, or diffused grumbling, pressure by the ‘have-not’ for the reallocation of resource is pervasive in all societies. The fifth assumption is that because of the pervasive pressure by the ‘have-not’ for the allocations of resources, those individuals who benefit from the existing distribution of resources in the society, the ‘haves’, actively engage in pervasive efforts to maintain the status quo while the “have-nots” seek to overthrow the system.

The sixth assumption is that the more the rulers of a society can persuade the masses that the established system of government is legitimate, just and really serves the best interest of the masses, the more secured the position of the ruler otherwise and the halves will be in a pervasive struggle with the ‘have-nots The rulers of all societies thus attempt to secure their privileged positions by justifying their right to rule in terms of a grand religious or national myth, usually developed as a rallying point (Mbah, 2007).

Taken collectively, the above assumptions stress the dynamics nature of the political process. Politics is therefore the constant interplay between the rulers (elite) and the ruled (masses). Politics is also pervasive conflict among competing institutions such as parliaments, political parties; courts etc that are the institutionalized focal points of this struggle. For the elite, formal institution, are the means of controlling the masses and of securing their position against the competing elites. For the masses, formal institutions symbolize the status quo and are primary target of change. Also because formal political institutions are the focal point of political conflict, they too are in a constant pressure to adapt to change, and such changes may be peaceful, as in the evolution of American and Britain political institutions, or abrupt and violent, as in the case of many third world countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and may even include the implosion of the political institutions and structures as was witnessed in the former Soviet Union in 1991.

Underlining the assumptions above is the unstated but vital role of human activity, or what is technically called political behaviour in the completely political process. The conflict over scarce resources that lies at the heart of the political process is a conflict between or among human beings. It is human beings (as elites) who utilize control and manipulate the formal political institutions of society and it is human beings (as masses) who are both the object of elite control and the pervasive threat to its existence. The removal of the human element from the political equation would render any political analysis a sterile exercise or endeavor.


Sub-divisions of Political Science

Political Science can be broadly grouped into two divisions: political theory and political organization. The concern of political theory, otherwise known as the normative aspect is to provide answers to question like: what are the purposes of political organizations? What are the best means of realizing them? What is the nature of the authority of the state? Has the state unlimited power? How do we reconcile the authority of the state with the liberty of the citizens? The answers to these different posers constitute the pre-occupation of political philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, J. J Rousseau etc. In short, these scholars were concerned with the formulation of the ends and limits of authority (Appadiorai, 1981:3-12).

The second division of Political Science- political organization - otherwise known as empirical studies focuses on the organization of government. Government is the instrument by which the purpose of the state is realized. The form and workings of government differ from one country to the other. Over the years, forms of government have ranged from monarchy, aristocracy, through oligarchy to democracy. A country like Britain for example practices constitutional monarchy and yet, to all intents and purposes, qualifies to be described as democratic government. The United States, on the other hand, operates a republican democracy having no room for a king. Before the break-up of the Soviet Union, her form of government was essentially an oligarchy of a select few, who constituted the top hierarchy of the Communist party (Almond et al, 2005: 40-43).

In all forms of government what is common to them is power: how power is acquired, retained, consolidated or lost. While the retention of power is the preoccupation of the rulers, what is of more relevance to the ruled is the use or abuse/misuse of power. History tells us, and as confirmed by Lord Action, that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Therefore, to guard against abuse of power, most societies provide institutional and constitutional safeguards, to check the possible excesses of government. In America, for example, the constitution enshrined the systems of separation of powers and checks and balances while the British unwritten constitution recognizes conventions including parliamentary enactments, meant to secure the liberty of the citizens. Without these forms of restraints on the authority of government as well as the rights of the citizens, the society will degenerate either into rule of men, rather than law, or into the other extreme of anarchy, which Thomas Hobbes described as a “state of nature.”

Also read on: <<Is political science a science?>>


Post a Comment

0 Comments