Nature and Status of Political Science


Nature and Status of Political Science

In spite of many decades of the study of political science, especially the development of the behavioral approach to the discipline, the debate has not subsided on the correct status of the discipline. Notwithstanding its well-developed scientific methodology, there are those who still hold to the view that it is premature to describe political science as a science discipline since several aspects of its teachings, especially its practice, qualifies it as an art. This unit, in its different sections, without attempting to finally resolve the age-long controversy, only seeks to explore further the debate in order to state what appears to be the most plausible or popular view among scholars.

The subject matter of science

First, we need to know the subject matter of science, or to put it differently what is science? Science is a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws. Science therefore collects or gathers facts and links them together in their causal sequence with the objective of drawing valid inferences. A scientific knowledge is therefore based on reason and evidence, as well as conclusions that are verifiable, communicable and can be replicated across national frontiers.

Any scientific discipline must therefore possess the following characteristics:

• The possibility of a consistent, concise and connected formulation.

• The capacity to generalize and make predictions.

• The possibility of verification of the data as well as the generalizations.

• An agreement on methods, and

• The adequate training of those who are engaged in scientific work (Mbah, 2007:17).

Comparative Politics, one of the major branches of Political Science is a field of study where the five listed above characteristics of a science discipline best apply; the other three branches are Political Theory, Public administration and International Relations. For example, in Comparative Politics there is what is called some minimal scientific requirements for any comparative analysis. They include definition of terms and accurate description of the subject matter of study, formulation of hypothesis in form of a causal relationship (if A, then B), acceptance, rejection or modification of hypothesis when tested with available data. When an hypothesis is accepted a grand theory of politics may be developed that can be used for either a single country or cross-country study.

The scientific approach in Political Science therefore refers to the methods being employed by the practitioners of the discipline. It should be noted that the methodology which a Political Scientist adopts, and the basic assumptions he makes will, to some extent, influence the image he has of his discipline. This is because “scope” and “method” cannot be completely divorced - they are intertwined. Methodology can and should be studied in its own right but in addition, it ought to be considered as an important influence on the scope of Political Science, especially as methodology indicates, not what the discipline is but, to some extent, what Political Science can and cannot do.

The status of Political Science

Political science is a social science discipline because it deals with human beings. It is different from the natural or physical sciences, which deal with matters, atoms and molecules. Unlike the natural sciences like physics, chemistry and biology where the laws governing them are uniform, exact and certain; this is not so in the social sciences like Politics, Economics, Geography and Sociology whose central theme is human beings. For these reasons the premises or assumptions of Political Science are weak, its conclusions at best, tentative, and at worst, dubious. In spite of these limitations what qualifies Political Science as a Social Science discipline is its reliance on scientific methods of research.

By describing political concepts, testing and using of hypothesis to make forecast or predict future phenomenon, which can be generalized across nations, subject to some environmental variables. Political Science relies on knowledge gained from other disciplines like Economics, Sociology, Geography, History etc. to build hypothesis and formulate theories. History, for example is usually regarded as the laboratory of Political Science. As professor Seeley aptly puts it, “Political Science is the fruit of history and History is the root of Political Science.”A number of assumptions and principles characterize Sciences or scientific methods. First, scientists assume some laws or principles of determinism or law of universal causation. This means that Political Scientist who accepts scientific methods plunges into his work assuming that nothing in politics just happens. The second major characteristic of science is its empirical basis. This implies a number of features, including an observational foundation, inter-subjectivity, and the value free nature of science. The objectives of science are summarized in its characteristics of being systematic in nature, its empirical generalizations, development of systematic theory and finally explanations and predictions.

However, the arguments against the possibility of a science of politics invariably attempts to demonstrate that Political Science does not/or cannot have one or more of these characteristics. The controversy generated by this latter view (which we shall return to and examine in detail in the next section) is that political science by its nature does not possess the character of a science discipline. Those who hold this position have gone to the extent of advising behaviorally oriented political scientists to abandon all pretences, put the brakes on their fantasies, admit the futility of their efforts, and return to the traditional ways of doing things. The table below draws comparisms and contrasts between the Social and Natural Sciences.

                 Social Sciences

                          Natural Sciences




Economics, Politics,

Sociology, etc.


Mathematics, etc.,




Studies Man as Social Beings in a given

Studies nature through Matter,

Atoms and Molecules




Uses scientific methods as tools of analysis

Uses scientific methods as tools of analysis




No certainty or universal validity of results or

There is universal validity of results and prediction




No precise definition of concepts, it is subject to some endogenous variables,

Concepts are uniform and standard irrespective of the environments, e.g. Law of Gravity, Pythagoras Theorem and Formulae




Uses the field as laboratory without special tools or instruments for the

Laboratories are in a controlled room with specialized tools and chemicals




No agreement on methodology of research

There is agreement on methodology of research and level of training




Research work are affected by

sentiments, habits, moods

Research work are not

affected by sociological, political or any sentiment

The Science or Art debate or controversy on the status of Political Science

From what we have discussed above, it is obvious that any scientific discipline is concerned with rational and systematic organization of ideas. You need to understand that to the extent that politics remains the study of human activities and interactions as it relates to the struggle to seek and retain power through legitimate means, we can say it qualifies to be described as a science discipline. In addition, as far as the political behaviour of some practitioners resonate a pattern, which is consistent and easily predictable, we can also say that the tenets or requirements of science have been met. From the array of studies that are carried out by Political Scientists, it is possible to discern a pattern, or develop a theory from which assumptions, deductions or inferences as well as generalizations and conclusions can be drawn. We can also develop models or ideal-constructs, which can be verified or replicated in other societies with little or no modifications. To this extent, we are right to conceive politics as a science discipline.

The interdisciplinary approach also states that there is an inescapable, yet beneficial relationships among the major social science disciplines, be it Economics, Psychology, Sociology or Anthropology. This will be taken on more rigorously in the next section. In spite of this symmetry or linkage among the various disciplines, however, the central issues in the study of Political Science can still be identified. They include power, how it is acquired and used; authority and legitimacy, how it is secured and maintained. Nation-state and supra-national organizations, how they can be made to survive and, Governmental institutions, how they are structured, organized and interrelated.

But, before we jump into the conclusion about the status of political science as a scientific discipline, we must recognise the complexity of political phenomena and what is called “human indeterminacy”. First, a major point that has been raised against the science of politics is that it is difficult to discover regularities about political phenomena and this is in addition to a variety of meanings or usages usually ascribed to political concepts, which often makes their meaning unclear or less precise. Second, Russel Kirk is a foremost critic of the science of politics, when he argued: “Human beings are the least controllable, verifiable, law obeying and predictable of subjects”. Kirk’s argument strikes at the presence of freedom in politics, which makes it possible for individuals to be free to choose their course of action at any given point in the political process. For this reason, it will therefore be difficult for such behaviour to be classified making generations and formulations of theories on such behavior difficult.

In spite of the above, we can still make a proposition on this art or science controversy thus: if the study of Political Science is systematic, the practice of politics appears to have the characteristics of an art in the developed climes, and close to an organized chaos in the developing world. Most rulers in Africa for example, often conceive politics from the perspective of Isaac Disrael who defines politics as the “art of governing mankind by deceiving them” (Crick, 1962:16) or Harold Lasswell who took a trip from his popular and apt definition of politics, and described a politician as “a person with private motives, translated into public objects and rationalized as being in the public interest”.

Politics thus becomes the rationalization human interests, as embodied in institutional relationships, which are presented to be for the promotion of public good. Indeed, what politics and leadership has been turned into in developing societies are clearly very different from the Aristotle’s view of politics as an ennobling and elevating human activity, or that of Jeremy Bentham who conceived politics as “a means of achieving the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Even in the advanced democracies, political dishonesty especially during elections, has reached such a height of sophistication that it is possible for political leadership to deceive their people. The manipulation is done by appealing to different primordial sentiments to persuade the populace to become uncritical supporters of the government of the day, no matter how narrow, self-centered or ruinous its policies might be. However, when the trend of deceit becomes persistent, citizens begin to view the government with disdain and may even encourage them to resort to disloyalty. It would be interesting to know why citizens may resort to anarchism. Government is created to strive for the wellbeing of the people in the polity apart from maintaining peace and orderliness in the society. However, when government becomes an impediment to the fulfillment of human potentials, the alternative is to either eliminate the government in parts or abolish it completely. It is also important to note that the institutions and apparatus of the state as well as their operators do not operate in a value free setting, and if they are not properly structured to reflect the common will they may be hijacked by a cabal for selfish ends rather than the interest of the generality of the people. There must be goals, which every society must set for itself that include order, justice and progress. We may want to know who sets the goals for a society and what criteria are used to determine the set goals? It is here that subjectivism, which violates the objective approach of a normal scientific inquiry is introduced. In practical terms, what is accorded primacy will depend on the level already attained by the people of a given society, although no country can endure for too long if any of these goals is consistently sacrificed for another. Therefore, only a carefully scientifically moderated and less mechanical approach to political science can make the discipline become relevant to the specific needs of every society.

It is possible that the undiscerning and less elevated scholar or student will consider the issue of ethics to be outside the purview of political science or even outside the realms of science generally. This is not true in reality. For instance, in spite of the Machiavellian popular phrase that “the end justifies the means”, there is also the equally plausible proposition that “what is morally wrong cannot be politically right”. Indeed, we cannot separate ethics from politics because the foundation of effective human authority over fellow human beings has both moral and ethical content. Where morality is impaired, authority is ineffective. In any case, the goal of justice cannot be attained if the leadership is not attuned to the acceptable moral and ethical norms of the society. We will explore this further when we discuss the relationships between Political Science and other disciplines in the section that follows.

Political Science and other disciplines

1. Political Science and History

E. H. Carr defined history as “the unending dialogue between the present and the past.” Professor Renier laid stress on the social role of history and so defined the discipline as “the memories of societies” (Rao, 2004:1-2). While making comparism between the two disciplines Professor Seely J. R. stated that Political Science is the fruit of history and history is the root of Political Science. For this reason, Political Scientists rely on historical facts to make predictions, and to carry out the whole gamut of the challenges posed in comparative political analysis. Professor R. G. Collingwood conceives the explorative role of history thus: “Science is finding things out: and in that sense history is science”. In this vein since political Science also seeks to find things out, we can say the two disciplines do make relentless search for truth.

In his own comparism of Political Science and History, Sidgwick wrote: “The primary interest of history is the presentation of facts; the primary interest of politics is abstract, the formulation of general law and principle.” Harold Laski once remarked in his treatise on human rights that “it is a lesson of history that people who are denied a share in political power are also denied a share in the benefit of power.” Therefore, history constitutes a consistent and fertile source of political analysis and predictions.

 2.  Political Science and Ethics

Ethics is a branch of study that investigates the laws of morality and formulates the rule of conduct, that is what is right and wrong, the dos and don’ts. The utilitarian doctrine of Jeremy Bentham who prescribes “the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers” as the purpose of government better illustrates the union of ethics and politics. Moreover, when Harold Laski stated that rebellion is a contingent obligation of citizenship, he was only recommending this extreme option to a government that violates the social contract. Indeed, from Socrates to St. Thomas Aquino, the defining characteristic of political thinking was the presumed unity of ethics and politics. However, the general thrust of modern political thought from Machiavelli until date has been to call into question that presumption.

While Socrates said, there is such a thing as moral excellence that will produce, not simply limited happiness, but complete happiness, Aristotle believed that the state ought to possess an ethical character. Indeed, Aristotle believed that while the state comes into existence for the sake of life, it continues to exist for the sake of good life. Ideology, which is a political weapon, therefore seeks to reaffirm the unity of ethics and politics.

On the other hand, in advising that the Prince should eschew ethical standards, Machiavelli believes in the actions of men, and especially princes, from where there is no appeal, the end justifies the means. It was in a reaction to Machiavelli’s a-moral and desperate bid to deny humanity’s essential ethical capacity that led to the development of ideologies. A former United States Secretary of State, James Baker (1995) shared this view of the unity of politics and ethics when he stated, “it is only through politics that we can transform philosophy into policy.”

3.  Political Science and Economics

Briefly defined, Economics is the science of wealth; it is concerned with the allocation and use of limited resources among the various groups in a society. Thus, while money is the currency of economics, power is the currency of politics and both are scarce in relation to the desire for them.

The acquisition of both necessarily engenders competition, and setting of the rules to prevent conflict in order to achieve economic prosperity or political stability. Economics and politics intersect at many points because the political leadership takes vital economic decisions in a country, even in a capitalist system.

The enduring lesson of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the global economic meltdown of 2007/8 is that it is dangerous for any government to allow a free reign of market forces, there is the need for some forms of regulation or intervention by the state to maintain the equilibrium. Not a few hold the view that American economic prosperity can only be better explained on the account of her stable political system. It is also believed that the more well-to-do a nation is, the greater her chances of political stability, all things being equal. In the immediate post-independence era in Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah was of the opinion that political freedom did not automatically deliver better life to his people, he qualified his often-quoted statement: “seek you first the political kingdom and every other thing shall be added unto it” with “political independence is meaningless without economic self-determination.”

Using democracy as a variable, Nkrumah further explained the link between politics and economics thus: “economic growth is a condition for the growth of democracy, not for its establishment.” It is therefore safe to conclude that Politics and Economics are like Siemens twins in that there could hardly be political stability without economic prosperity and the economy can hardly grow without political stability, both must co-operate in order to produce a good result.

4.  Political Science and Law

Political Science as a discipline can also be meaningful within the context of law, or what is known as constitutional order. It is well known that no society can be governed without the constitution either written or unwritten being the legal basis of authority in a society. The legislative processes in the parliament, the enforcement or implementation of law by the executive, as well as the business of interpretation of the constitution by the judiciary are major areas where political science and law intersects.

 5.  Political Science and Geography

Since Alfred Thayer and Sir Halford Mackinder coined the term geo-politics to explain the interaction of politics and human geography, the relationships between the two disciplines has not been in doubt, and has become widely accepted. Both scholars have particularly stressed the deterministic relationship between a country’s geographical endowments and its foreign policy reflexes. It is a fact today that the wealth and power of a nation is a function, among other factors, of its location. Resources are located within the territorial confines of a state, and territory is an attribute of a state within which its citizens live, over which its government rules and exercises sovereignty.

6.  Political Science and Sociology

Just as political science borrowed concepts such as centripetal and centrifugal forces from physics, or system analysis from biology, it has taken from sociology a popular conceptual framework known as structural functionalism that is particularly relevant in comparative political analysis. Indeed, the idea of socialization of societal norms and values, a major area of study in sociology is of relevance to political science, without which no society will achieve congruence or balance. Political Scientists have also adopted Max Weber’s typologies of authority in their common endeavor with sociologists to distinguish  between power and authority, the former being a central concept in political science.

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


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