Definition, Scope, Nature, Importance and Status of Political Science

Definition, Scope, Nature, Importance and Status of Political Science


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.

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 centers 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.

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 behavior 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.

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 interest, oligarchy - the rule of one group in their own interest are 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.


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.

Importance of Political science

The study of political science is very important or significant in this socio-economic-political society. By studying it people can know how and why the state is organized and why its constitution is justified.

It makes people more conscious about their rights and duties. Those who know political science, always take useful part in social and political affairs.

Robert Dahl rightly said that “A citizen encounters politics in the government of a country, town, school, church, business firm, trade union, club, political party, civic association and a host of organizations. Politics is one of the unavoidable facts of human existence. Everyone is involved in some fashion at some time in some kind of political system.”

After knowing about the meaning nature and scope of political science, you have realized some basic points which tell you why to study political Science: 

1. Understand Citizenship: It enables you to understand the relationship between individual or citizen and state. Citizen participates in the decision-making process of governance in the name of election and forms a government under which they are governed.

2. Know Political Thoughts and Ideas of the Eminent Political Thinkers:  We are influenced by the ideas of political thinkers like Plato, ARISTOTLE, Hobbes, Karl Marx, etc. and it helps us to understand the present political problem and allow us to find out solution of those problems.

3. Make Citizen Conscious of Their Rights and Duties: I have already said that it allows us to understand our rights and duties in the society we live. Rights are the most important aspects of any individual. Rights are the one which helps individual to grow in terms of their talent. Besides this it also tells citizens about their duties to society.

4. Understands Recent Trends in the World: It also allows us to understand the current trends in the world. By the study of political science we can search what is happening around us. This is the era of globalization. And globalization affects our daily life but how? To solve this question we have to study it.

5. Understand the Role of Government, Political Party and Pressure Groups: What should be the role of a political party and how pressure groups affect the decision making process of the government? 

It gives you the clear ideas of these questions that help you to understand how the government is formed, what’s your role in the decision-making process of the government etc. So it can be said that a modern man cannot be perfect without knowing facts about political science. In simple importance of it is precious. It improves our life standard.

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.”


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 pretenses, 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 comprises and contrasts between the Social and Natural Sciences.


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

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.


Political Science and other disciplines

1. 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.

2. 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”. 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.

3.  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.

4.  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.

5. 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.”

6.  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.


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