Evolution and Methods of Political Science

 Evolution and Methods of Political Science

Political Science did not start as a full-fledged discipline. Like every other field of study, it began as an adjunct or a branch of a matured, older discipline. But after a deserving period of infancy and tutelage, it was nurtured and developed into maturity, having acquired enrichment both in content and methodology. This Unit examines the history, evolution and methods of political science, with particular reference to the different approaches that have dominated the different phases in the evolution, development and maturity of the discipline.


Evolution of Political Science

The Era of Traditionalism in Political Science

Political science is a branch of social science. It developed from a mere descriptive and prescriptive area of knowledge to a scientific status, with a wide-ranging techniques and methods of understanding, analyzing and predicting political phenomenon. Rodee, et al in their book, Introduction to Political Science noted that the term political science could be traced to Jean Bodin (1530-1596), a French political philosopher and lawyer who termed the study of politics "Science Politique" and gave Political science an abiding concern for the organization of institutions related to law. Another French, Philosopher, Montesquieu (1689 - 1755) argued that all functions of government could be encompassed within the categories of legislation, execution and the adjudication of law.

The term Political Science is one of the oldest in the pedigree of social sciences in particular, and sciences in general (Varma, 1975: 1, Dryzek and Leonard, 1988: 1246). In a more deductive sense, we can say that political science as an academic field of study, originated from the works of the ancient Greek philosophers whose major preoccupation was how to create an ideal state (Varma 1975: 1), or to avoid what was later described by social contract theorists as the state of nature. However, this is not to suggest that the study of politics in the ancient Greek city- states was the study of the "Science" of politics, as it is known in modern times. Rather, the main preoccupation of political thinkers of the time was historical and descriptive understanding of political phenomena.

Thus, in order to understand the different phases in the development of the field of political science Varma (1975:1) has clearly delineated four characteristic features of classical tradition to the understanding of political science - the historical - analytical, legal-institutional, normative -prescriptive, and descriptive taxonomy. Mbah (2007:28-9) also identified five main phases in the development and evolution of the discipline: the philosophical and deductive phase, the historical and comparative phase, juridical and constitutional phase, the observational and measurement phase and the psychological phase. Political science has therefore developed from historical perspective of dealing with the study of past and present political phenomena, and with a view to predicting the future of political processes. The first political scientist known to have analyzed information systematically was the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. He compared the constitutions of Greek city-states during the 4th century B.C. and generalized about the political consequences of the different constitutional systems (Appadorai, 2004).

The study of Political Science also flourished in ancient Greece during the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. in the Roman republic from 509 to 31B.C. in the republic of Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries, amidst the political turmoil of 17th century Britain, and during the French and American Revolutions towards the end of the 18th century. The concern of political scientists then was how to provide useful advice to rulers on how to organize government more effectively. 

However, Political Science as it is studied and taught today was developed more recently. In the 19th century, Germany, academics developed a systematic science called “Staatlehre” to provide useful information to governments. The first Professor of Political Science in the United States was German emigre Francie Lieber, who was appointed Chairman of Political Science at Columbia College (now Columbia University) in New York City, in 1857.

The next generation of Political Scientists sought to establish the discipline's identity and influence in the emerging American university system, rather than through the America government. During 1920s and 1930s, Charles E. Merriam and his colleagues at the University of Chicago in Chicago formed the Chicago School. Merriam's many interests included the history of political thought and education. Most notably Harold Gosnell and Harold Lasswell conducted researches that focused on voting, mass political participation, the psychology of political behavior, leadership and wartime propaganda.


The Era of Behavioral Revolution

The Chicago school was the forerunner of what became known as the behavioral revolution of the 1950s that influenced political science during the last half of the 20th century. Many of the behavioralists served U.S.’s government during World War II (1939 - 1945), and conducted economic and social analysis as part of the war effort. This marked the genesis of the ground-breaking works of behavioral scholars who emphasized the need to introduce new scientific methods and techniques of science. The tradition of scientific methods in political science was also informed by what is considered by the proponents of scientific study of politic as "Behavioral Revolution.

The idea of behaviorism was the development of research in political science using scientific procedure and methods. According to the major founder of the idea of behavioral revolution, David Easton, there are a number of assumptions and objectives upon which the idea of the revolution was built. These are regularities, verification, techniques quantification, values, systematizations, pure science and; integration. Thus, it could be said that while the discipline of political science originated from the works of ancient philosopher such as Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, the credit for its development as a scientific discipline should go to leading English and American writers of 20th century.

Indeed, since 1930s, the Political scientists of the Chicago University, popularly known as the Chicago school, had made a clean break with the study of philosophical, historical and institutional approaches and, instead, began to lay stronger emphasis on the observable behaviour of man as a political creature" (Johari, 1979:79). The result of the works of modern intellectuals in political science led to the development of theories, prominent of which are, general system theories, structural-functional analysis, communication group and cybernetic theories.


The Era of Post-Behaviourism

The post-behavioral period is also referred to as the age of action and relevance of the science of politics. Towards the end of the 1960s Political Scientists in the United States became deeply involved in political, social and economic rethinking, especially about the relevance of using scientific theories and tools of political analysis. The goal was to how to employ these new methods and techniques to confront and solve emerging problems and challenges, to prove the continuing relevance of political science to the analysis and understanding of a changing and more complex society. The result of this reawakening was the challenge posed to the behavioralists, and the response to it was the emergence in political science of a paradigm called “post behaviorism".

Since then the focus has been how political science can serve the rich and advanced nations without losing sight of the myriad of socio-economic problems confronting poor countries of the Third world. The emphasis of post-behaviorism is on values such as democratization and good governance; Human Rights in which the engagements of civil society groups now become more prominent; Global partnership and justice between countries in the North versus those of the South; Change in policy focus and priorities in quest of a new world order, rather than mere formulation of public policies or the development of conceptual frameworks, models and theories, that are value neutral.

In order to realize these noble goals, post-behavioralists argue, "knowledge must be put to work" (Varma 1975: 36). In other words, it is not only what you know but what you do with what you know. To be able to serve this purpose Political Science has now developed into different specialized branches and areas of study which include public administration, political economy, comparative politics, public policy, political sociology, political theory, international relations and development administration.


Approaches to the Study of Political Science

From the different epochs in the evolution and development of political science, separate approaches, which also correspond with the dominant theme of each era, also emerged. We will discuss each of these approaches in turn.

Philosophical/Traditional Approach: Under the traditional approach, certain basic questions dominated the attention of such great traditional political philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacque, Rousseau. They include, what is justice? What makes the exercise of political power legitimate? What should be the proper role of the state in the generation, distribution and regulation of wealth in society? What importance should be given to such political values as justice, natural rights, freedom, obedience and liberty? These questions are understandable since they fall under the normative-philosophical approach, which is the oldest and least scientific approach to the study of politics. The approach is also consistent with the pre-occupation of early scholars with philosophical reflections on those universal political values that were regarded as essential to the just state, and the good citizen. Within the broad traditional school is the other sub-school known as the prescriptive-institutional Approach. It focuses on the discussion of the evolution and operation of legislative, executive and judicial arms, which, respectively, are the institutions for making, executing and interpreting the law. As the approach developed, however, the list of institutions also included political parties, constitutions, bureaucracies, interest groups and other institutions or associations that are more or less permanently engaged in politics. This approach seeks to provide answers to such questions as, what are the historical sources of parliamentary supremacy in Britain. What is the procedure followed before a bill can become law in the United States? By what electoral arrangements are the rulers chosen in a democracy? (Suberu, 1991:4-5) From the study of these institutions, you as a researcher or student can gain valuable knowledge about their organization and operations make proposals or recommendations for their reforms, and arrive at general conclusion. But it later dawned on the traditional scholars that this approach was no longer adequate for a proper understanding of political science. For that reason, the approach was criticized for being too static, relying too much on history, qualitative, or based on value judgment, and therefore suffers from objective criteria, since it cannot be scientifically or empirically validated. This was the background to the development of the scientific or behavioral approach.

The Behavioral Approach: Proponents of this approach not only emphasize facts over values but also argue that it is the behavior of individual operators in the political theatre rather than the institutions within which they operate, which is the essence of politics. The behavioralists also emphasize the use of scientific and empirical methods in political research, and in fact, believe that political science can become as sophisticated and rigorous as the natural and physical sciences. Behavioralists also call for greater integration of political science with other social science disciplines such as psychology, sociology, geography and economics. The interdisciplinary perspective of the behavioral approach to the study of political science may be traced to the publication in 1908 of Human Nature in Politics by Grahan Wallas and The Process of Government by Arthur Bentley. Both books focused on the behavioral and informal processes of political activity, rather than on philosophical approach to highlight the complex role of human nature in political conduct. Bentley used a sociological approach to arrive at the new concept of “groups” in politics. With the end of the First World War in 1918, the behavioral revolution blossomed in the United States, which remained the only country where the behavioral approach is most fully developed. Although a relative decline in the popularity of the behavioral approach was noticed from 1925 up to the end of the Second World War, the approach witnessed a tremendous revival after the war in 1945, and dominated the study of politics through the 1950s.   The major behavioralists in this era included such notable intellectuals as David Easton, Robert Dahl, Karl Deutsch, Gabriel Almond, David Truman and others. The behavioralist approach continued to dominate the study of politics, particularly in the United States until the late sixties when some behavioralists argued that the approach should be revised and refined to accommodate new developments in world politics. This revisionist argument was known as the post behavioral movement and was spear headed by David Easton.

Post-Behavioral Approach: Both the traditionalists and the post behavioralists challenged the major assumptions and premise of the behavioral approach. According to the traditionalist, the assumptions of regularities or uniformities in human behaviour cannot be sustained because human behavior is so complex and fluid in nature that it cannot be subjected to rigorous scientific inquiry. Also due to many forces, including ideology, it is difficult to generalize or make verifications. Rather than offering a mere critique of the behavioral approach, the post-behavioralists sought to remove some of its inadequacies while retaining its more useful assumptions and principles.

 The four pillars of the post-behavioral approach include:

i). The need to give greater primacy to the substance or subject of political investigation than the techniques of research and analysis.

ii). Political science should transcend the social conservatism of the behavioral approach, and instead should concentrate on how to achieve and sustain progressive and constructive change in society.

iii). Contemporary political science cannot afford to ignore the unfortunate realities of political existence, such as North-South poverty gap and digital divide. Instead,it must address the world crises and conflict situations and contribute towards their resolution.

iv). The study of politics must be people-centered and be guided by such positive and progressive values of justice, equality and freedom. The idea of value – neutrality in political is not only a myth, but should be discouraged.

Methods of Political Science

In over a century of the evolution of Political Science as an academic discipline, a number of methods, which may also be called methodology, have been, and are still being used. Without its own method, Political Science will not qualify as a discipline. But over time the methods are changing in order to cope with new challenges, and as John Mason stated “the man who uses yesterday’s method in today’s world won’t be in business tomorrow”. Methods of political science can be seen as the rational working of the mind in the quest for knowledge of political realities. It can also be seen as the technical devices for gathering data. Therefore, the general recognized methods of political science include the following:

 1.        Historical Method

The central idea here is that the historical method seeks an explanation of what the past institutions are, in order to appreciate what they have been so as to know their enduring value, if any. It is also pointed out that with the experience of the past one will be able to avoid repeating the blunders of the past. The human race draws upon the experience of past generations, the social heritage, and history being a great teacher of wisdom and a record of experience is better placed to provide this. The historical method has the additional advantage of enlarging mental horizon; improve the perspective and builds up an attitude towards past events. The importance of this method lies in the fact that it not only explains the past it also enables us to draw dependable conclusions. The historical method also supplies us with basic principles for interpreting the future.

 2.        Observational Method

This method entails a close observation of the political phenomena under study. This is because things are best studied by direct observation, in politics personal conversation or interactions with legislators and administrators may yield many fruitful results. The observational method involves great difficulties because the authentication of facts is far more laborious in political science than in other subjects. This because the process of government presents many perspectives and one may not be able to see all at a time. What appears on the surface may be but a small part of the reality beneath. Also an observer may confuse the personal or accidental causes, or he/she may be lost in a maze of numerous and conflicting facts. He may also introduce value judgment, which may distort observable facts and becloud his capacity for sound judgment.

3.        Experimental Method

It should be admitted at the onset that “scientific” experimentation as it is done in the natural sciences is not possible in political science. But it should be noted that political experiments are being consciously or unconsciously made at all times. By adopting what is known as counter factual which rely on plausible sequence of historical facts, political scientists can arrive conclusions that are close to verifiable scientific findings. The law of parsimony which enables a scholar to say a lot with few words also allow for precision in presentation of and clarity of expression and analysis. August Comte argues that every political change whether conscious or otherwise, is a sort of experiment. Every new policy, every new law passed and every change made in the political structure and organization is experimental in the sense that such a change is merely tentative or provisional. Political science is therefore experimental not in the sense that laboratory controlled experiments is possible but not only in the very limited sense that conscious and unconscious sex perimental data from direct observation can be collected, hypothesis formulated and valid political theories formulated.

 4.        Comparative Method

This method is employed in the study of political phenomena of different countries and environments using similar or dissimilar political concepts. The objective is to note similarities as well as differences that may exist in circumstance and conditions of the states under comparative studying. This method at the beginning relied on single country study when the focus of political science was predominantly countries of similar culture, in Europe and North America. But when in the aftermath of World War II, countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa also became subjects of comparative political analysis the cross-country approach now became a more acceptable way of distilling facts useful for comparative method.

 5.        Philosophical Method

This method is either deductive or inductive. It starts from a premise that it is necessary to construct theories of the state and the purpose of government; while others are inductive method. It thus provides students with the norms or principles based on which political realities can be examined or assessed and suggestions for improvement made. According to Sait, “Philosophical argument develops the intelligence; it impacts resourcefulness and elasticity of mind and it is very doubtful if political science can deal with the multi-various problems confronting it.

6.        Legal Method

This method seeks to benefit from the relationships between politics and the legal process through the institutions created by the constitution and the laws enacted by the legislature for the purposes of maintaining order in the society. Here issues of laws and justice are discussed not as pure affairs of jurisprudence. Rather the state is seen as maintainer of an effective and equitable system of law and order. The notion of the independence of the judiciary, problems of judicial administration and dispensation of justice, though are legal in nature, but they are at the same time of equal concern to political scientists.

This method treats the state not only on its political relevance but also as an organization created equally for the purpose of creating laws and enforcing them. Examples of works based on the legal approach include Jean Bodin and his “Doctrine of Sovereignty, J. Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice,” and J. S. Mill’s “On Liberty.” Like the other methods, the legal approach has not escaped criticisms for its highly narrow orientation. This is because law embraces only a single part of a people’s life and as such, it cannot cover the entire behaviour of man as a political animal (Mbah, 2007: 28-34).


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