Foundations of the Behavioral Approach in Political Science


We asserted earlier that political behavior shifted emphasis from institutions to individuals and groups. It also changed approach and method from descriptivism to empiricism. These two are done under certain principles and foundations which a leading American behaviouralist has described as the eight intellectual foundation stones of behaviouralism. These foundations stones are what we shall, here in this article, examine in details.


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As a student of political science, not only are you expected to understand the foundations upon which behaviouralism stands, you also need to be able to discuss them in logical and sequential details.

Specifically, the knowledge of this article will enable you:

(a) Identify, describe and distinguish among the key principles or assumptions of the behavioral revolution in politics

(b) Gain a deeper understanding of the nature of the behavioral revolution in politics.


The key Principles or Assumptions of the Behavioral Revolution in Politics

a) Regularity
b) Verification
c) Technique 
d) Verification

(a) Regularities

Behaviouralists argued that the political behavior of individuals is governed by certain general underlying assumptions and conditions which can be discovered through systematic study. In other words, the political behavior of individuals is not arbitrary is governed by certain discoverable factors.

For example, if a group of individuals may continue to vote for the same party over a long period of time. Through behavioral research we may be able to show, that the behavior of these individuals is related to such factors as their socio-economic status, ethnic identity or ideological orientation. On the basis of this knowledge, the behaviouralist will not only be able to explain but also predict the political behavior of these individuals and others.

In short, therefore, behaviouralists argued that there are discoverable uniformities or regularities in political behavior and that these can be expressed in systematic generalizations or theories with explanatory and predictive values.

(b) Verification

The behaviouralists emphasized the need to make the study of politics as factual, empirical and scientific as possible. They argued that just as the natural and physical sciences are based on actual and observable events, political science most also be based on factual or empirical processes. They, therefore, contended that all statements, generalizations or theories about political behaviour must be based on factual observation and must be testable or verifiable by reference to actual political conduct. This process of empirical verification is the most important criterion for assessing the validity, acceptability or utility of any generalizations or statements about political behaviour.

(c) Techniques The observation of political behaviour and the verification of statements and generalizations arising from the observation must be based on the use of reliable and sophisticated scientific techniques, including well-structured interviews, sample surveys, statistical measurements and mathematical models. In short, the behaviouralists argued that reliable and effective means must be developed for observing, recording and analyzing political behaviour.

(d) Quantification

The use of statistical and mathematical measurements can help to achieve adequate precision or accuracy in observing, recording and analyzing political behavior. There must, therefore, be a shift in methods from the qualitative judgments that dominated the Normative-Philosophical Approach, to the quantitative measurements that are usually associated with the natural and physical sciences. Behaviouralists however, resolved that quantitative methods must be used not for their own sake, but only where possible, relevant and meaningful in the light of other objectives. This is why David Truman asserted that the political scientist should perform his research in 'quantitative terms if he can, and in qualitative terms, if he must'.

Read On: Definitions, Origin and Main Thrusts of Political Behavior


The Nature of the Behavioral Revolution in Politics

a) Value Freeness
b) Systematization
c) Pure Science and Integration

(a) Values Freeness

Values or ethical evaluations are a feature of the Normative-Philosophical approach to the study of politics and must be deemphasized in the scientific behavioral approach. The behavioral approach is not guided by ethical evaluations. Rather, it is based on empirical and scientific explanation. While the student of political behavior may sometimes make ethical judgments or evaluations, he should for the sake of clarity not confuse them with empirical observations or generalizations. In other words, empirical political research must be kept analytically distinct from ethical or moral philosophy.

(b) Systematization

Any piece of empirical political research, or any attempt at the observation of political data, must not be seen as an end in itself but as a means to the development of a systematic theory or generalization. In other words, empirical research should be 'theory-oriented and theory-directed'. Indeed research and theory should be 'developed as mutually indispensable parts of the scientific study of political behavior.

As David Easton put it, 'research untutored by theory may prove trivial, and theory unsupported by data, futile'.

It is important to note that a theory is an empirically testable statement that is designed to explain certain events or facts. It is an important element of any scientific enterprise or endeavor. At the most basic level, a theory can take the form of such testable generalizations as: 'Issues do not have a significant influence on the party preferences of the electorate ethnic affiliation is the most important determinant of voting behavior’. ‘An electoral system based on proportional representation encourages a multi-party system’. These are hypothetical mainly, but they are also theoretical too.

In essence, systematization means that any research on political behavior must be pursued not as an end in itself but as a means to prove or disprove the kind of generalizations indicated above.

(c) Pure Science

Applied research, or the application of scientific knowledge to the solution of social problems, is as much a part of the scientific enterprise as is theoretical understanding or explanation. However, the scientific explanation of political behavior logically precedes and provides the basis for any efforts to utilize political knowledge to the solution of urgent socio-political problems. To the behaviouralists, this implies that greater importance should be attached to pure research or scientific explanation than applied research, policy formulation or 'political engineering'. Indeed the behaviouralists argued that a political scientist should be contented with understanding and explaining political behavior even if the resultant knowledge cannot be applied to solve specific socio-political problems.

(d) Integration

Finally, the behavioral approach seeks to promote the unity of the social sciences, namely political science, economics, sociology, psychology and geography. It expresses the hope that someday the walls which separate political sciences from the other social sciences will crumble. Behaviouralists argued that because the social sciences deal with the totality of social existence, political research can ignore the findings of other social science disciplines only at the risk of undermining the validity and relevance of its own results or generalizations. Assess the individual principles of behaviouralism and justify their necessity in advancing the course of political studies.


Conclusion on Foundations of the Behavioral Approach in Political Science

The principles upon which the behavioral school stands can be summed up in eight places. As formulated by David Easton who refers to them as the foundation stones of behaviouralist, they include regularities, verification, techniques, quantification, values, systematization, pure science and integration. The essence of standing on all these is to achieve objectivity and strong generalization in the study of politics in such a way that will make political science more modern and interactive towards other disciplines

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