Political science

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A world map distinguishing countries of the world as federations (green) from unitary states (blue), a work of political science Map of unitary and federal states.svg
A world map distinguishing countries of the world as federations (green) from unitary states (blue), a work of political science

Political science is the scientific study of politics. It is a social science dealing with systems of governance and power, and the analysis of political activities, political thought, political behavior, and associated constitutions and laws. [1]


Modern political science can generally be divided into the three subdisciplines of comparative politics, international relations, and political theory. [2] Other notable subdisciplines are public policy and administration, domestic politics and government, political economy, and political methodology. [3] Furthermore, political science is related to, and draws upon, the fields of economics, law, sociology, history, philosophy, human geography, political anthropology, and psychology.

Political science is methodologically diverse and appropriates many methods originating in psychology, social research, and political philosophy. Approaches include positivism, interpretivism, rational choice theory, behaviouralism, structuralism, post-structuralism, realism, institutionalism, and pluralism. Political science, as one of the social sciences, uses methods and techniques that relate to the kinds of inquires sought: primary sources, such as historical documents and official records, secondary sources, such as scholarly journal articles, survey research, statistical analysis, case studies, experimental research, and model building.



As a social political science, contemporary political science started to take shape in the latter half of the 19th century and began to separate itself from political philosophy and history. [4] Into the late 19th century, it was still uncommon that political science was considered a distinct field from history. [4] The term "political science" was not always distinguished from political philosophy, and the modern discipline has a clear set of antecedents including also moral philosophy, political economy, political theology, history, and other fields concerned with normative determinations of what ought to be and with deducing the characteristics and functions of the ideal state.

The advent of political science as a university discipline was marked by the creation of university departments and chairs with the title of political science arising in the late 19th century. The designation "political scientist" is commonly used to denote someone with a doctorate or master's degree in the field. [5] Integrating political studies of the past into a unified discipline is ongoing, and the history of political science has provided a rich field for the growth of both normative and positive political science, with each part of the discipline sharing some historical predecessors. The American Political Science Association and the American Political Science Review were founded in 1903 and 1906, respectively, in an effort to distinguish the study of politics from economics and other social phenomena. APSA membership rose from 204 in 1904 to 1,462 in 1915. [4] APSA members played a key role in setting up political science departments that were distinct from history, philosophy, law, sociology, and economics. [4]

The journal Political Science Quarterly was established in 1886 by the Academy of Political Science. In the inaugural issue of Political Science Quarterly, Munroe Smith defined political science as "the science of the state. Taken in this sense, it includes the organization and functions of the state, and the relation of states one to another." [6]

As part of a UNESCO initiative to promote political science in the late 1940s, the International Political Science Association was founded in 1949, as well as national associations in France in 1949, Britain in 1950, and West Germany in 1951. [4]

Behavioural revolution and new institutionalism

In the 1950s and the 1960s, a behavioral revolution stressing the systematic and rigorously scientific study of individual and group behavior swept the discipline. A focus on studying political behavior, rather than institutions or interpretation of legal texts, characterized early behavioral political science, including work by Robert Dahl, Philip Converse, and in the collaboration between sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld and public opinion scholar Bernard Berelson.

The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed a takeoff in the use of deductive, game-theoretic formal modelling techniques aimed at generating a more analytical corpus of knowledge in the discipline. This period saw a surge of research that borrowed theory and methods from economics to study political institutions, such as the United States Congress, as well as political behavior, such as voting. William H. Riker and his colleagues and students at the University of Rochester were the main proponents of this shift.

Despite considerable research progress in the discipline based on all the kinds of scholarship discussed above, it has been observed that progress toward systematic theory has been modest and uneven. [7]

21st century

In 2000, the Perestroika Movement in political science was introduced as a reaction against what supporters of the movement called the mathematicization of political science. Those who identified with the movement argued for a plurality of methodologies and approaches in political science and for more relevance of the discipline to those outside of it. [8]

Some evolutionary psychology theories argue that humans have evolved a highly developed set of psychological mechanisms for dealing with politics. However, these mechanisms evolved for dealing with the small group politics that characterized the ancestral environment and not the much larger political structures in today's world. This is argued to explain many important features and systematic cognitive biases of current politics. [9]


Political science is a social study concerning the allocation and transfer of power in decision making, the roles and systems of governance including governments and international organizations, political behaviour, and public policies. It measures the success of governance and specific policies by examining many factors, including stability, justice, material wealth, peace, and public health. Some political scientists seek to advance positive theses (which attempt to describe how things are, as opposed to how they should be) by analysing politics; others advance normative theses, such as by making specific policy recommendations. The study of politics and policies can be closely connected—for example, in comparative analyses of which types of political institutions tend to produce certain types of policies. [10] Political science provides analysis and predictions about political and governmental issues. [11] Political scientists examine the processes, systems and political dynamics of countries and regions of the world, often to raise public awareness or to influence specific governments. [11]

Political scientists may provide the frameworks from which journalists, special interest groups, politicians, and the electorate analyze issues. According to Chaturvedy,

Political scientists may serve as advisers to specific politicians, or even run for office as politicians themselves. Political scientists can be found working in governments, in political parties, or as civil servants. They may be involved with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or political movements. In a variety of capacities, people educated and trained in political science can add value and expertise to corporations. Private enterprises such as think tanks, research institutes, polling and public relations firms often employ political scientists. [12]

Country-specific studies

Political scientists may study political phenomena within one specific country; for example, they may study just the politics of the United States [13] or just the politics of China. [14]

Political scientists look at a variety of data, including constitutions, elections, public opinion, and public policy, foreign policy, legislatures, and judiciaries. Political scientists will often focus on the politics of their own country; for example, a political scientist from Indonesia may become an expert in the politics of Indonesia. [15]

Anticipating crises

The theory of political transitions, [16] and the methods of analyzing and anticipating [17] crises, [18] form an important part of political science. Several general indicators of crises and methods were proposed for anticipating critical transitions. [19] Among them, one statistical indicator of crisis, a simultaneous increase of variance and correlations in large groups, was proposed for crisis anticipation and may be successfully used in various areas. [20] Its applicability for early diagnosis of political crises was demonstrated by the analysis of the prolonged stress period preceding the 2014 Ukrainian economic and political crisis. There was a simultaneous increase in the total correlation between the 19 major public fears in the Ukrainian society (by about 64%) and in their statistical dispersion (by 29%) during the pre-crisis years. [21] A feature shared by certain major revolutions is that they were not predicted. The theory of apparent inevitability of crises and revolutions was also developed. [22]

The study of major crises, both political crises and external crises that can affect politics, is not limited to attempts to predict regime transitions or major changes in political institutions. Political scientists also study how governments handle unexpected disasters, and how voters in democracies react to their governments' preparations for and responses to crises. [23]

Cognate fields

Most political scientists work broadly in one or more of the following five areas:

Program evaluation is a systematic method for collecting, analyzing, and using information to answer questions about projects, policies, and programs, [24] particularly about their effectiveness and efficiency. In both the public and private sectors, stakeholders often want to know whether the programs they are funding, implementing, voting for, receiving, or objecting to are producing the intended effect. While program evaluation first focuses on this definition, important considerations often include how much the program costs per participant, how the program could be improved, whether the program is worthwhile, whether there are better alternatives, whether there are unintended outcomes, and whether the program goals are appropriate and useful. [25]

Policy analysis is a technique used in public administration to enable civil servants, activists, and others to examine and evaluate the available options to implement the goals of laws and elected officials.


Many political scientists conduct research in one of four areas, described below: [26]

Some political science departments also classify methodology as well as scholarship on the domestic politics of a particular country as distinct fields. In the United States, American politics is often treated as a separate subfield. In contrast to this traditional classification, some academic departments organize scholarship into thematic categories, including political philosophy, political behaviour (including public opinion, collective action, and identity), and political institutions (including legislatures and international organizations). Political science conferences and journals often emphasize scholarship in more specific categories. The American Political Science Association, for example, has 42 organized sections that address various methods and topics of political inquiry. [27]

Research methods

Political science is methodologically diverse; political scientists approach the study of politics from a host of different ontological orientations and with a variety of different tools. Because political science is essentially a study of human behaviour, in all aspects of politics, observations in controlled environments are often challenging to reproduce or duplicate, though experimental methods are increasingly common (see experimental political science). [28] Citing this difficulty, former American Political Science Association President Lawrence Lowell once said "We are limited by the impossibility of experiment. Politics is an observational, not an experimental science." [17] Because of this, political scientists have historically observed political elites, institutions, and individual or group behaviour in order to identify patterns, draw generalizations, and build theories of politics.

Like all social sciences, political science faces the difficulty of observing human actors that can only be partially observed and who have the capacity for making conscious choices, unlike other subjects such as non-human organisms in biology or inanimate objects as in physics. Despite the complexities, contemporary political science has progressed by adopting a variety of methods and theoretical approaches to understanding politics, and methodological pluralism is a defining feature of contemporary political science.

Empirical political science methods include the use of field experiments, [29] surveys and survey experiments, [30] case studies, [31] process tracing, [32] [33] historical and institutional analysis, [34] ethnography, [35] participant observation, [36] and interview research. [37]

Political scientists also use and develop theoretical tools like game theory and agent-based models to study a host of political systems and situations. [38]

Political theorists approach theories of political phenomena with a similar diversity of positions and tools, including feminist political theory, historical analysis associated with the Cambridge school, and Straussian approaches.

Political science may overlap with topics of study that are the traditional focuses of other social sciences—for example, when sociological norms or psychological biases are connected to political phenomena. In these cases, political science may either inherit their methods of study or develop a contrasting approach. [39] For example, Lisa Wedeen has argued that political science's approach to the idea of culture, originating with Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba and exemplified by authors like Samuel P. Huntington, could benefit from aligning more closely with the study of culture in anthropology. [39] In turn, methodologies that are developed within political science may influence how researchers in other fields, like public health, conceive of and approach political processes and policies. [40]


Political science, possibly like the social sciences as a whole, can be described "as a discipline which lives on the fault line between the 'two cultures' in the academy, the sciences and the humanities." [41] Thus, in most American colleges, especially liberal arts colleges it would be located within the school or college of arts and sciences, if no separate college of arts and sciences exist or if the college or university prefers that it be in a separate constituent college or academic department, political science may be a separate department housed as part of a division or school of humanities or liberal arts [42] while at some universities, especially research universities and in particular those that have a strong cooperation between research, undergraduate, and graduate faculty with a stronger more applied emphasis in public administration, political science would be taught by the university's public policy school. Whereas classical political philosophy is primarily defined by a concern for Hellenic and Enlightenment thought, political scientists are also marked by a great concern for "modernity" and the contemporary nation state, along with the study of classical thought, and as such share more terminology with sociologists (e.g., structure and agency).

Most United States colleges and universities offer BA programs in political science. MA or MAT and PhD or EdD programs are common at larger universities. The term political science is more popular in North America than elsewhere; other institutions, especially those outside the United States, see political science as part of a broader discipline of political studies,politics, or government. While political science implies the use of the scientific method, political studies implies a broader approach, although the naming of degree courses does not necessarily reflect their content.[ citation needed ] Separate programs (often professional degrees) in international relations, public policy, and public administration, are not uncommon at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, although most but not all undergraduate level education in these sub-fields are generally found in academic concentration within a political science academic major. Master's-level programs in public administration are professional degrees covering public policy along with other applied subjects; they are often seen as more linked to politics than any other discipline, which may be reflected by being housed in that department. [43]

The national honor society for college and university students of government and politics in the United States is Pi Sigma Alpha.


There are different genres of writings in political sciences; including but not limited to: [44]

The most common piece of writing in political sciences are research papers, which investigate an original research question. [45]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Interdisciplinarity</span> Combination of two or more academic disciplines into one activity

Interdisciplinarity or interdisciplinary studies involves the combination of two or more academic disciplines into one activity. It draws knowledge from several other fields like sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, etc. It is about creating something by thinking across boundaries. It is related to an interdiscipline or an interdisciplinary field, which is an organizational unit that crosses traditional boundaries between academic disciplines or schools of thought, as new needs and professions emerge. Large engineering teams are usually interdisciplinary, as a power station or mobile phone or other project requires the melding of several specialties. However, the term "interdisciplinary" is sometimes confined to academic settings.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Science</span> Systematic endeavor for gaining knowledge

Science is a systematic endeavor that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Social science</span> Academic disciplines concerned with society and the relationships between individuals in society

Social science is one of the branches of science, devoted to the study of societies and the relationships among individuals within those societies. The term was formerly used to refer to the field of sociology, the original "science of society", established in the 19th century. In addition to sociology, it now encompasses a wide array of academic disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, economics, human geography, linguistics, management science, communication science and political science

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Harold Lasswell</span> American political scientist

Harold Dwight Lasswell was an American political scientist and communications theorist. He earned his bachelor's degree in philosophy and economics and was a PhD student at the University of Chicago. He was a professor of law at Yale University. He studied at the Universities of London, Geneva, Paris, and Berlin in the 1920s. He served as president of the American Political Science Association (APSA), of the American Society of International Law and of the World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Social research</span> Research conducted by social scientists following a systematic plan

Social research is a research conducted by social scientists following a systematic plan. Social research methodologies can be classified as quantitative and qualitative.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Public administration</span> Implementation of government policy

Public Administration is the implementation of public policy, administration of government establishment, management of non-profit establishment, and also an academic discipline - a subfield of political science taught in public policy schools known as Public Policy and Administration that studies this implementation and prepares civil servants specially for administrative purpose for working in the government and non profit sector. As a "field of inquiry with a diverse scope" whose fundamental goal is to "advance management and policies so that government can function." Some of the various definitions which have been offered for the term are: "the management of public programs"; the "translation of politics into the reality that citizens see every day"; and "the study of government decision making, the analysis of the policies themselves, the various inputs that have produced them, and the inputs necessary to produce alternative policies." The word public administration is the combination of two words—public and administration. In every sphere of social, economic and political life there is administration which means that for the proper functioning of the organization or institution it must be properly ruled or managed and from this concept emerges the idea of administration.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Methodology</span> Study of research methods

In its most common sense, methodology is the study of research methods. However, the term can also refer to the methods themselves or to the philosophical discussion of associated background assumptions. A method is a structured procedure for bringing about a certain goal. In the context of research, this goal is usually to discover new knowledge or to verify pre-existing knowledge claims. This normally involves various steps, like choosing a sample, collecting data from this sample, and interpreting this data. The study of methods involves a detailed description and analysis of these processes. It includes evaluative aspects by comparing different methods to assess their advantages and disadvantages relative to different research goals and situations. This way, a methodology can help make the research process efficient and reliable by guiding researchers on which method to employ at each step. These descriptions and evaluations of methods often depend on philosophical background assumptions. The assumptions are about issues like how the studied phenomena are to be conceptualized, what constitutes evidence for or against them, and what the general goal of research is. When understood in the widest sense, methodology also includes the discussion of these more abstract issues.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">American Political Science Association</span> Professional association of political science students and scholars in the United States

The American Political Science Association (APSA) is a professional association of political science students and scholars in the United States. Founded in 1903 in the Tilton Memorial Library of Tulane University in New Orleans, it publishes four academic journals: American Political Science Review, Perspectives on Politics, Journal of Political Science Education, and PS: Political Science & Politics. APSA Organized Sections publish or are associated with 15 additional journals.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Comparative politics</span> Field in political science

Comparative politics is a field in political science characterized either by the use of the comparative method or other empirical methods to explore politics both within and between countries. Substantively, this can include questions relating to political institutions, political behavior, conflict, and the causes and consequences of economic development. When applied to specific fields of study, comparative politics may be referred to by other names, such as comparative government.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Barrington Moore Jr.</span> American sociologist (1913–2005)

Barrington Moore Jr. was an American political sociologist, and the son of forester Barrington Moore.

The philosophy of social science is the study of the logic, methods, and foundations of social sciences. Philosophers of social science are concerned with the differences and similarities between the social and the natural sciences, causal relationships between social phenomena, the possible existence of social laws, and the ontological significance of structure and agency.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Giovanni Sartori</span> Italian academic and political scientist (1924–2017)

Giovanni Sartori was an Italian political scientist who specialized in the study of democracy, political parties and comparative politics.

The European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) is a scholarly association that supports and encourages the training, research and cross-national cooperation of many thousands of academics and graduate students specialising in political science and all its sub-disciplines. ECPR membership is institutional rather than individual and, at its inception in 1970, comprised eight members. Membership has now grown to encompass more than 350 institutions throughout Europe, with associate members spread around the world.

Adam Przeworski is a Polish-American professor of political science specializing in comparative politics. He is Carroll and Milton Professor Emeritus in the Department of Politics of New York University. He is a scholar of democratic societies, theory of democracy, social democracy and political economy, as well as an early proponent of rational choice theory in political science.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gabriel Almond</span> American political scientist

Gabriel Abraham Almond was an American political scientist best known for his pioneering work on comparative politics, political development, and political culture.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sociology</span> Social science that studies human society and its development

Sociology is a social science that focuses on society, human social behavior, patterns of social relationships, social interaction, and aspects of culture associated with everyday life. It uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about social order and social change. While some sociologists conduct research that may be applied directly to social policy and welfare, others focus primarily on refining the theoretical understanding of social processes and phenomenological method. Subject matter can range from micro-level analyses of society to macro-level analyses.

David Collier is an American political scientist specializing in comparative politics. He is Chancellor's Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. He works in the fields of comparative politics, Latin American politics, and methodology. His father was the anthropologist Donald Collier.

Causal inference is the process of determining the independent, actual effect of a particular phenomenon that is a component of a larger system. The main difference between causal inference and inference of association is that causal inference analyzes the response of an effect variable when a cause of the effect variable is changed. The science of why things occur is called etiology. Causal inference is said to provide the evidence of causality theorized by causal reasoning.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Brooke Ackerly</span> American political scientist

Brooke A. Ackerly is an American political scientist and Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University with affiliations to the Human and Organizational Development Department, Law School, Philosophy Department, and Women's and Gender Studies Program, noted for her research on grounded normative theory, feminist theory, feminist international relations, and scholar activism.


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