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Political theory is, in short, the study of the theoretical underpinnings of politics. Political theorists attempt to devise theories to explain how political systems actually work. It is distinguished, among political scientists, from the more quantitative side of the discipline, one which focuses on using polls and data to understand political behavior.

Political theory involves the work of philosophers and historians as well as political scientists. This is because a major concern of philosophers over time, from Plato to Confucius to Karl Marx, has been the characteristics of an ideal society. Thomas More, for example, was a philosopher who was also a political theorist, because he sought, in his work Utopia, to lay out a picture of what an ideal society would actually look like. Machiavelli was a political theorist who dispensed with notions of an ideal society and claimed that political decisions should be made based on a realistic appraisal of human nature. Occasionally politicians themselves have been political theorists. For example, James Madison, considered the "father" of the United States Constitution, was instrumental in developing a theory of republican government even as he helped put it into practice.

Modern political theorists study such topics as liberalism and radicalism, comparative government, the relationship between individuals and the state, and the effects of technology on politics.

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Political theory is a subset of political science. Political science studies all areas of politics systematically.

Political theory focuses on the theoretical aspects of philosophy, rather than studying the empirical facts of philosophy. Political theory might therefore explain what a specific form or method of government should be, in a pure or abstract form. You would define what democracy is in theory, what a monarchy is in theory, and so on.

Political theory can also have a normative element: it can explain what a democracy should be, or how citizens should behave in a democracy. It could tell you how a leader should act, or what ethics support a specific political system.

At its most subtle, political theory involves things like how societies form shared knowledge, or how beliefs circulate through a population, and therefore intersects with epistemology.

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