What is political science? Simply put, political science is the application of the scientific method for the purpose of describing, explaining, predicting, and acquiring understanding about political behavior. Political Science also assumes a continually changing definition to the political. This introduction will focus primarily on the scientific aspect of contemporary political science. While the above definition may appear simple and even commonsensical at first, it is pregnant with assumptions and implications.
First, notice that the fundamental unit of analysis for political science is political behavior. This means that political scientists spend a large amount of time investigating the political behavior of human beings. Political scientists do consider the behavior of other political actors (e.g., states, political institutions). But there is much controversy among political scientists as to whether or not it is appropriate to consider such political actors as real actors since these are no more than fictional persons at best. Regardless, political science has a broad understanding of political actors and political behavior. Part if not all of the impetus behind the discipline’s fascination with behavior centers around the fact that behavior is observable and, therefore, measurable. While political scientists do focus a great deal of attention on non-observable types of behaviors (e.g., attitudes), these are very difficult to measure – though this has never stopped political scientists from attempting to do so.
Second, the ultimate goal of political science is the acquisition of scientific understanding about political phenomena. Scientific understanding is predicated upon the ability of political science accurately to describe, explain, and predict political phenomena. While description suggests the ability to tell and re-tell how political phenomena appear and interact, explanation requires the ability to tell and re-tell why political phenomena appear, act and interact the way in which they do. If one’s explanations are error-proof, then one can accurately predict (a description and explanation of the future) how these same phenomena will appear, act, and interact in the future. And, ultimately, if one can do all of this with very little to no error, then one has acquired scientific understanding. Consider the following video of why political science is so interesting and needed to fill our understanding gaps.
Third, political science is grounded upon a naturalism that is both ontological and methodological. Naturalism is a philosophical system that holds that all of reality is natural and is contained within nature and, therefore, does not require any supernatural causes or explanations. This ontological naturalism thus denies any relevance to the supernatural. Furthermore, naturalism suggests that the scientific method is the key instrument through which to investigate all aspects of reality and acquire knowledge of this reality. Such methodological naturalism thus rejects the contributions of other non-scientific approaches to the acquisition of knowledge.
It is important at this point to discuss naturalism further and its relationship to political science. The ontological dimension of naturalism presupposes a descriptive universe, a deterministic natural order, and a physicalist understanding of reality. For naturalists, the universe is nothing but a brute fact to be explored and described. This brute fact is meaningless – it does not speak out or suggest any ultimate purpose, sense, or moral for all to consider and follow. Thus, reality merely exists and has no essence. Further, all of reality is the result of natural and necessary causes thus leaving nothing to freedom and liberty. In other words, all that exists is determined. Lastly, reality is physical and there is nothing beyond or that transcends the physical material world. Political science not only accepts these premises but is in many respects founded upon them. Political science presupposes a meaningless world and seeks to conduct itself in a value-free manner. Since the world is descriptive and a mere brute fact, the manner in which it is investigated and explored must also be brute and valueless. Thus, political scientists pride themselves in being value-free since all values are mere human constructs and do not resemble reality. For political scientists, it is the scientific method that can guarantee a value-free investigation of reality and political phenomena and thus the clearest picture of what actually is the case. Political science also presupposes determinism. In order to study political phenomena of which this includes human behavior, then all must be determined and regulated within a natural order of causality. As such, political science rejects the indeterminacy of human beings, the notion that human beings are free creatures. Lastly, political science understands all political phenomena not only to be amoral and determined but also physical or material in nature. If political phenomena were otherwise, then political science could not carry out its enterprise and would have to relinquish its investigations to other disciplines like philosophy or theology. For political scientists as well as for naturalists, all reality is physical and thus there is no ontological distinction to be made between any aspect of reality. All that exists is the same and differs only in terms of levels of complexity. Human beings are no different than rocks with the exception of complexity.
The naturalistic presuppositions of political science obviously raise a number of important questions. Philosophers of science and the social sciences have vigorously pursued a number of these questions with much focus being given to how much of a science political science actually is. Science qua science presupposes a model of nomological deduction and explanation that is foreign to political science as well as to all of the social sciences. Political science aims to arrive at nomological explanations but has never even come close. At best, political science provided probabilistic explanations, explanatory accounts based on ratios, probabilities, and statistics but not on nomological certainties. The inability of political science to provide true scientific explanations has led many to call political science (and the other social sciences) “soft sciences” rather than “hard sciences.” As a rebuttal, political scientists argue that their objects of investigation are much more complex than those of the natural sciences and that the instruments of political science are not as sophisticated as needed. For the political scientist, the ability to provide rigorous nomological explanations are just a matter of time and more sophisticated instruments. As a counter-rebuttal, and one that is very important to consider, philosophers of science and the social science argue that the problem is not complexity or lack of appropriate instruments. Rather, they argue that the problem is a misunderstanding of the nature of human beings and perhaps even reality. Such philosophers argue that human beings are not merely more complex pieces of matter but are fundamentally distinct and different. For these philosophers or anti-naturalists, human beings are indeterminate, they are free and autonomous creatures. If this is so, then political science needs to alter its assumptions and methods of investigation.
While this debate and its core issues are of great importance, political scientists continue to pursue scientific understanding of political behavior with the hopes of one day reaching the types of explanations that will make political science a “hard science.” As to when this will occur, no one, not even the greatest of political scientists knows.
As a discipline, political science is usually composed of a number of disciplinary sub-fields. These include American politics, international relations, comparative politics, political theory, and political methodology. These can be further sub-divided and there are other sub-fields that could be included in the above (e.g., public opinion, political philosophy). All in all, while the above exemplifies the most studied sub-fields, there are still further categories comprising different areas of study within political science. Simply consider the fact that the American Political Science Association lists forty-one (41) different fields of study in the discipline.
It would not be an exaggeration to argue that no area or sub-discipline in political science has ever reached the level of scientific understanding that is the hallmark of a true science. And, it should be added, that no sub-discipline in political science has ever reached the level of prediction that characterizes a rigorous science. Most explanatory accounts in political science are probabilistic in nature and are usually characterized by more error in their statistical models than by explanatory power. Most of political science, then, functions within the most basic level of descriptions and explanations. Political science and all of its sub-fields can excel in its descriptive enterprise and provide very limited and tentative explanations. But it cannot go beyond these without violating basic methodological principles of investigation.
Is there any value, then, in a political science that is only descriptive and modestly explanatory? Should we reject political science simply because it cannot do all that the “hard sciences” can accomplish? An adequate understanding of its limitations frees political science from attempting to accomplish what is beyond its grasp and allows it to focus and excel in the realm of the truly possible – a description of political phenomena and a modest and limited attempt to study causality. To go beyond this would be to fall prey to hubris.