Challenges to the Behavioral Approach in Political Science


Challenges to the Behavioral Approach in Political Science

The traditionalists have always picked loopholes in the principles of the behaviouralists, an act which have also led to academic discuss. Therefore, in this article we shall highlight, identify and describe some of their criticisms, especially against those that David Easton described as the eight foundation stones of behaviouralism.

Table of Content 

This article teaches you to:

(a) Understand and appreciate the intellectual tradition of constructive criticism

(b) Identify the traditionalists’ criticisms of the behavioral approach to the study of politics

(c) Asses the relevance or merit of these criticisms

(d) Be familiar with methodological debates in the study of politics.


Challenges to the Behavioral Approach in Political Science 

The following are the challenges of behavioral approach in political science 

1. Complexity of Human Behavior

2. Difficulty in Verification

3. Rigidity of Techniques

4.  Over Glorification of Quantification


(1) Complexity of Human Behavior

Critics of the behavioral approach have questioned the argument that the political behavior of individuals is characterized by certain uniformities and generalities which can be discovered through systematic and scientific study. These critics argue that human behavior is so complex and fluid in nature that it cannot be subjected to rigorous scientific inquiry. They contend that there are so many uncontrollable, inexplicable, unique and changing factors guiding human behavior that any theoretical generalizations are bound to be very weak or trivial. Under these circumstances, the critics or traditionalists argue, descriptive approach may in fact, more rewarding or successful than a so-called scientific approach which merely attempts to impose artificial and neat generalizations on very unique and complex patterns of political behavior.

(2) Difficulty in Verification

The behaviouralists, as we pointed out in the preceding unit, argued that all statements, generalizations or theories about political behaviour must be based on factual observation and must be testable by reference to actual political conduct. The traditionalists, however, maintain that only a small segment of political conduct can actually be observed in behavioral terms. They argue that there are so many institutional, normative and ideological variables that affect human political behaviour which cannot be observed or recorded even when the most sophisticated data gathering techniques in the social sciences are used. Any adequate, study of political life, the traditionalists conclude, must therefore accommodate the many forces and processes that are not directly, observable or empirically verifiable.

(c) Rigidity of Techniques

According to critics, the emphasis of the behaviouralists on the use of sophisticated techniques has led to the glorification of technical methodologies at the expense of real knowledge and understanding. Thus, the traditionalists accuse the behaviouralists of neglecting or ignoring vital areas of political life which are not directly amenable to scientific techniques and focusing, instead, on relatively trivial and narrow issues that are hardly fundamental to politics.

(d) Over glorification of Quantification

While the behaviouralists argued for the use of quantitative measurements and mathematical models in the study of political behavior, the traditionalists argue that political life is essentially unquantifiable. The most important political questions, the critics argue, require description and ethical evaluation, rather than quantification and measurement. The critics contend that much of political life is so imprecise, complex and unpredictable that any attempt at quantification can only produce very limited and trivial results. To sum up, in this section of the discourse we have attempted to describe some of the criticisms of the behavioral approach to the study of politics. Specifically, we have focused on those criticisms relating to regularities, verification, techniques and quantification. Basically the critics or traditionalists contend that political processes are too complex and unpredictable to permit any useful theoretical generalization, empirical verification, application of sophisticated scientific techniques or quantification.

Read On: Foundationsof the Behavioral Approach in Political Science



The Traditionalists’ Criticisms of the Behavioral Approach to the Study of Politics

1. Inevitability of Values

2. Systematization

3. Politics is not and cannot be Science

4. Possible Loss of Identity


(1) Inevitability of Values

Critics of the behavioral approach argue that the contempt of behaviouralists for value judgments is unjustified and misleading. The critics make two main points. In the first place, they argue that the most important political issues today are closely bound up with ethical and moral judgments. For instance, issues like racism, war, peace, justice, democracy, freedom and development, which dominates political debates in the world today, can only be studied and resolved within an ethical framework and not in a moral vacuum.

In the second place, the critics argue that the behaviouralists themselves have hardly been able to escape from making value judgments and preferences. Thus, in selecting a subject for investigation, the behaviouralist is guided by his personal or ideological biases and judgments rather than by any scientific criteria. Some critics have even gone further to argue that, in pretending to avoid value judgments, the behaviouralists have actually become conservative defenders of the status quo, steadfastly opposing any attempt to raise moral and critical questions about existing political arrangements.

(2) Systematization

The behaviouralists, as we pointed out in the last lecture, argued that empirical research should lead systematically to the development of appropriate theories and generalizations about political behavior.

Critics, however, argue that the behaviouralists have not done much to develop systematic theories of political behavior. The behaviouralists, the critics conclude, have hardly been able to move beyond the experimentation with, and proliferation of, basic concepts, hypotheses and techniques which cannot enhance the reliability and integrity of political studies.

(c) Politics is not, and cannot be Pure Science

Critics of the behavioral approach have denounced any attempt to elevate pure science into an end itself. The critics argue that scientific research is useless unless it can be utilized in solving urgent socio-political problems. They accuse the behaviouralists of trying to abandon their social responsibilities as researchers. The critics or traditionalists contend that an adequate approach to the study of politics must recognize the need to use knowledge to increase the general level of welfare in the society.

(d) Possible Loss of Identity

The critics of behaviouralism are not opposed to the suggestion that the study of politics can be enriched or enhanced by closer collaboration with the social sciences. They, however, argue that care must be taken not to jeopardize the identity, integrity and independence of politics as a discipline. Rather, politics, while borrowing from concepts and knowledge developed in the other disciplines, must be allowed to develop as a distinctive and respectable field of study.

Read On: Is Politics a Science? 


Conclusion on Challenges to the Behavioral Approach in Political Science 

Remi Anifowose observes that “there have been disagreements among the behaviouralists on a number of issues. Some of them were satisfied with political science as it had been practised before behavioral revolution and saw no cogent reason for such drastic change proposed by the behaviouralists. Others were less complacent with the state of the discipline”.

In cogent terms the behavioral approach to the study of politics has been subjected to sharp criticisms.

The traditionalists feel that the scientific goals of behaviouralism are premature and counter-productive.

They argue that political life is too complex and unique to permit systematic generalizations, verification, quantification or the use of sophisticated scientific techniques.

They also raise questions about the desirability, validity or feasibility of such principles of behaviouralism as value-neutrality, systematization, pure science and the integration of the social sciences.

For instance, the traditionalists argue that value-neutrality is both undesirable and impossible, that relatively little has been achieved by behaviouralism regarding the development of general theories of political behaviour, that research that cannot be utilized to promote the greater interest of society is useless, and that the integration of political science with other social sciences should be pursued with the greatest caution.

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