By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Define political science.
- Describe the scientific study of politics.
The systematic study of the process of who gets what, when, and how—political science—investigates the reasons behind the decisions governments make. For example, political scientists investigate the degree of control governments choose to exercise over various forms of communication, like your smartphone. Political scientists examine both the ways individuals and groups seek to influence governmental action and the ways governmental decisions in turn affect individuals and groups.
Political scientists may not have lab coats or electron microscopes, but like other types of scientists, they use theory, logic, and evidence in an attempt to answer questions, to make predictions, or to arrive at conclusions. Some political scientists strive to understand the fundamental laws of politics in much the same way theoretical physicists seek to comprehend the cosmos for pure knowledge. These political scientists try to uncover the universal principles of how humans and their institutions aim to prevail in political conflicts. But most political scientists accept that human behavior is not entirely deterministic (that is, perfectly predictable), so they instead look for patterns that may enable them to predict in general how humans and their institutions interact.
What Logic Brings Palestinian and Israeli Women Together to March for Peace?
When women on both sides of the conflict in Israel grew weary of its human consequences, they decided to take matters into their own hands in 2017. In human societies, there are many sources of and paths to political conflict and its resolution.
Other political scientists are more like chemists, who may use their knowledge to develop and improve medicines or create more deadly toxins. These political scientists aspire to improve the institutions or processes of government.
Some uses of political science are not so benign. Motivated actors can and have used political science knowledge to manipulate voters and suppress vulnerable populations. When people understand how political science works, they are less susceptible to such manipulation and suppression.
So what is scientific about politics?
One way to think about whether politics is “scientific” is to focus on the content of politics. Does political behavior follow general laws—that is, does it align with universal statements about nature, based on empirical observations? Does politics have the equivalent of Isaac Newton’s laws of motion (for example, Newton’s second law is “force is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration,” and his third law is “to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”)? Not precisely, although political scientists have at times claimed that such laws exist.
The sticking point is the word “universal.” Force always equals mass multiplied by acceleration. To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction. In politics, it seems, virtually nothing is always the case. If one defines science as a body of universal laws about an unchanging universe, then politics is not and cannot be a science. Politics is not the same as physics. Empirical political science seeks to identify regularities—what is likely to happen given certain conditions.
Political science is probabilistic rather than deterministic. An event is deterministic if it is possible to say, “If this happens, that will happen.” Events are probabilistic if one can say only, “If this happens, that is likely to happen.” The sun coming up in the east? Deterministic. Will it rain in the morning? Probabilistic. Will incumbents win their next bid for reelection? Political science gives us the ability to estimate the probability that they will win (again, given the rules, the reality, and the choices those incumbents make).
So science does not require universal laws that explain an unchanging universe. What science does require is a way to learn about the world around us: this way is the scientific method. The scientific method seeks to understand the world by testing hypotheses (for example “The world is round”) by systematically collecting data sufficient to test that hypothesis and by making these hypotheses and data available to others so that your work can be challenged or verified. Political science uses the scientific method to understand the political world; political science carefully and methodically uses logic and evidence to find the answers to political questions.
A hypothesis is a tentative statement about reality that can be tested to determine whether it is true or false—or, in practice, supported or unsupported based on the evidence. “A candidate’s ethnicity influences the likelihood that they will be elected” is an example of a hypothesis: ethnicity either does or does not influence election outcomes. An important task of the political scientist is to determine whether the evidence supports the hypothesis that they test.
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In this video clip, astrophysicist and author Neil Degrasse Tyson relates a humorous anecdote about an everyday experience in a coffee shop that illustrates the basic principles of the scientific method.
The answers scientists find are always tentative, or uncertain. A hypothesis is supported rather than true or unsupported rather than false. Additional research may yield different answers as theories or methods improve or better data emerges, but also because political behavior itself can change in response to what people learn about it. The knowledge, for example, that politicians are likely to act in a certain way given certain circumstances might lead politicians to change their behavior if they believe that doing so will gain them an advantage. The specific knowledge (“politicians in this situation will behave in that way”) may become obsolete even if a broader general principle (“politicians will act strategically to advance their goals”) still appears to be true.
There are two main, interrelated types of political science: normative political science (also called political philosophy or political theory) and empirical political science.