Definitions, Origin and Main Thrusts of Political Behavior


Definitions, Origin and Main Thrusts of Political Behavior

We will examine the various scholarly definitions of political behavior, how political behavior originated in the discipline of political science, as well as the main thrusts that it has.

The article exposes you to intellectual developments since the behavioral revolution till present. Note that the terms political behavior, behaviorism, behavioral approach and behavioral revolution may be interchangeably used in this article.


Table of Content 

After going through this post, you should be able to:

(a) Define political behavior from various perspectives

(b) Historicize the development of political behavior in the discipline of political science

(c) Know the main thrusts of political behavior


Definitions of Political Behavior

According to Eldersveld and Katz in 1961, political behavior or behavioral approach to the study of politics “identifies the behavior of individuals or group of individuals as the primary unit of analysis”. It “seeks to examine the behavior, actions and acts of individuals, rather than characteristics of institutions such as legislature, executive and judiciary”. Traditionally, the study of politics was legalistic, normative and based on institutions, and this certainly made it challenging for the discipline to fully explain and understand the behavior of people within their political environments.

It was the need to overcome this shortcoming and achieve a better understanding of politics that gave birth to the “behavioral revolution”. This was a banner under which sociologists, survey researchers and other empiricists gathered in the 1950s to distinguish themselves from those who studied constitutions, philosophy, or history, and prominent scholars who championed the revolution are Robert Dahl (1961), and David Easton (1961).

The main aim of political behavior is to “explain behavior with an unbiased, neutral point of view, using methods such as sampling, scaling statistical analysis and interviewing among others. The most practical way to do it is to focus on individuals and groups who are the actors in politics.

However, subsequent scholarly definitions of political behavior seem to have expanded beyond the issue of method and approach. The current state of political behavior, as some scholars now claim, is typically concerned with individual behavior in the society. One of such scholars is Richard Rose who, in her 2007 work claims that political behavior is the study of the behavior of political actors such as voters, lobbyists, and politicians.

Thus, currently, discourses in political behavior are devoted to provide a sound understanding of the relationship between the political actions of citizens and the political process in a democracy, and this is why the subject now covers issues such as political attitudes, extra electoral forms political participation such a protest, resistance, social movement, apathy, and extremism, as well as consequences for political representation and political systems.

From whichever angle it is defined, what you need to really grasp is that political behavior studies the behavior of individuals and groups towards politics and political institutions in their environment, and it attempts to use scientific methods to study them.


The Study of Politics before Behavioral Revolution

Before the era of political behavior, specifically up to the period of 1900, the study of politics was dominated by two main methodological approaches:

The Normative - Philosophical Approach

The Descriptive -Institutional Approach

In what follows we explain these two approaches in details.


(a) The Normative - Philosophical Approach

This was based on reflections on and interrogations of early philosophers towards political events and values across the globe. Socio political events such as justice, polity, legitimacy state, and power and wealth distributions were the main subjects of interrogation and investigation because early philosophers regarded them as most essential to the understanding of politics and the peaceful co- existence of people and nations.

Most questions the philosophers asked revolved around what justice is, how it is achieved and what importance it should be accorded it in human polity; what action or practice is legitimate, what the ideal role of the state is, and how power, wealth and other values are equitably distributed in the society to guarantee egalitarianism. Philosophers who engaged in these questioning include Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.


(b) The Descriptive - Institutional Approach

This approach basically described structures and institutions of politics and government. It originally focused on the discussion of the evolution and operation of legislatures, executives and judiciaries which are respectively the institutions for making, carrying out and interpreting the law. This later came to include bureaucracies, political parties, pressure groups, interest groups, constitutions, and other frameworks that are constantly interacted with in politics. Unlike the foregoing approach, the Descriptive -Institutional Approach is more interested in facts than values, seeking to provide fact based information on structures and institutions such as constitution and its forms, parliament and its parliamentary supremacy, law making procedures, supremacy of the law, elections and other means of choosing and changing representatives.

Before the era of political behavior, these two approaches dominated the study of politics. Socio political values were studied based on individual’s subjectivity and perspectives, and then institutions of politics were described from historical antecedents and values emanating from philosophers’ thoughts. In these two approaches however stands a gap: the individual or group that is the operators of political institutions and interpreters of political values are amiss! What about them? How do we understand the output of institutions and values without first understanding the people who man them, their values, attitudes, orientations, socializations and other things? All these determine, to a great extent, what they do in their political environments. The point at which political scientists began to ask these questions was the outset of the behavioral approach.

Remi Anifowose summarized the issues that provoked these questions as “low level of generalization or finding, untenable assumptions and premises that influenced and sometimes distorted findings, mere value laden findings and assumptions, emphasis on the study of institutions to exclude political process, neglect of the findings of other social science disciplines, as well as accumulation of irrelevant facts”.

Read On: What is Political Participation? - Definition, Forms & Examples in Nigeria

The Behavioral Revolution

The beginning of the behavioral revolution in political science may be traced to the publication in 1908 of Human Nature in Politics by Graham Wallas, and The Process of Government by Arthur Bentley. As earlier pointed out, the behavioral revolution in politics came as oppositional response to the normative –philosophical and descriptive- institutional orientations that were used for the study of politics in earlier periods.

Proponents of the behavioral revolution not only emphasized facts over values, as stated above, they also argued that it is the behavior of individuals in political institutions, rather than the institutions themselves, that is the essence of politics. They proposed the use of rigorous scientific and empirical methods in political research, in a bid to make the discipline of political science as advanced and as generalizing as conventional sciences such as Chemistry and Physics.

Behaviouralists also called for greater integration of political science with other social sciences such as Psychology, Sociology and economics.

Using psychological and sociological approaches to analyze the role of individuals and groups in day to day political conduct in the state, Wallas and Bentley in their respective books earlier mentioned focused on the behavioral and informal processes of political activities, rather than philosophical postulations, armchair theorizing, structures and institutions of government. This is a radical departure from the past.

By the 1920s, the behavioral revolution had got to its peak through the efforts of two major intellectual giants: Charles Merriam and his student, Harold Lasswell who both introduced to the study of politics, such new and scientifically systematic concepts as power and political elites.

The revolution progressed enormously, up to the period from 1925 up to the end of the Second World War (1937-45). It witnessed a tremendous revival and dominated the study of politics throughout the fifties. This was made possible through the relentless intellectual efforts of key behaviouralists such as David Easton, Robert Dahl, Karl Deutsch, Gabriel Almond, David Truman and others who later came to dominate the discipline.

By the late sixties however, some behaviouralists began to agitate for the revision of the behavioral approach to accommodate new developments in political phenomenon. Spearheaded by David Easton, this revisionist movement is known as post-behavioral movement and, will be discussed in another unit of this material.


Conclusion on Definitions, Origin and Main Thrusts of Political Behavior

In conclusion we have discussed the definitions of political behavior, the state of the discipline of political science before it, and the emergence of the behavioral revolution. We revealed that there were two major traditional approaches to the study of politics, namely the Normative - Philosophical and Descriptive - Institutional approaches. The study of political behavior arose from the behavioral revolution in political science which developed in opposition to those older Normative-Philosophical and Descriptive-Institutional approaches.

While the Normative - Philosophical Approach emphasized the discussion of universal political values, the Descriptive - Institutional Approach focused on the evolution and operation of important governmental institutions.

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