Political Science

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What is the nature of political science? 

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Political science has been a field of study going back as far as the 5th Century BCE when Aristotle defined the term as the study of examining the function of the state. Aristotle considered political science to be of utmost importance since it affects nearly every other human endeavor. Much of what we understand as modern political science was first posited during the European Enlightenment by philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, and John Locke. They wanted to know exactly what the relationships and obligations between citizens and governments was and ought to be.

The current study of political science fits under the broader category of social sciences. It is specifically related to the study of laws, government, and politics. Political scientists examine the connections between the functions of the state and the conditions that it creates. They take into account human behavior and political thinking. Political science also must take into consideration many other subjects such as economics, sociology, behaviorism, and history, as these fields all affect the role and function of the state in contemporary society.

Political science also examines trends in politics and the function of the state across geography and over time. As such, people in this field are often sought after to make predictions by collecting and studying relevant data. The hope is that political scientists can predict a crisis before it occurs and lay out the actions needed to avoid one.

There are five commonly recognized sub-disciplines of political science. These are public administration, comparative politics, political theory, public law, and international relations. Each examines the role of politics and government within these particular fields.

Many people who study political science find employment as career politicians, campaign managers, lobbyists, and political consultants. Many can also apply it to a legal profession or in business since there is a lot of cross-over in these fields as well.

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Political science is an academic discipline. Its focus is the theory and practice of politics at every level of governance. This involves so many different facets that it is difficult to characterize the essential nature of the discipline. Generally, however, political science focuses on a few key areas. One is political theory. Since the ancient Greeks, philosophers have thought hard about the best ways to organize societies, the nature of political behavior, and other important questions. These issues still occupy political scientists. Another aspect of political science is comparative politics, the comparison of different aspects of varying political systems and cultures and their counterparts. However, political science is also a quantitative discipline that attempts to measure political trends, behaviors, and practices through hard data. This means that political science has close relationships with other disciplines, including communications, psychology, sociology, and history. The best way to characterize the nature of political science is to say that it is a very wide-ranging and diverse discipline.

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Is political science a science?

Let's define a few terms and that should largely answer the question.  In the broadest sense, the term science means

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

In centuries past, science and the study of science was actually very closely linked with philosophy, with both fields of study being centered around answering some of the most basic questions of the nature of the universe and the world around us.

In more recent times (particularly the late 19th and 20th centuries), the term science has come more to specifically mean natural science, or the study of the natural world and phenomena that can be qualitatively measured through the scientific method and also quantitatively measured through mathematical data and analysis.  The term natural science can also be thought of as dealing with physical sciences, or the study of the physical universe.  This covers the classic areas of study like chemistry, biology, physics, geology, and astronomy.

Another more recent division of the term science is the term social science.  This is meant to separate the previously mentioned natural sciences from other areas of study less concerned with the natural world and more concerned with human behavior, thought, and interaction.  Areas of study in this realm include sociology, anthropology, economics, psychology, and political science.  Mathematical data are still used to quantify and study patterns, but the subject matter is less tangible and more abstract in nature (thoughts versus physical objects).  Specifically, political science is the subset in this area that studies politics, government, and bodies of law that govern human societal interactions.

So the answer to your question does depend a bit on your specific point of view.  In the most broad and classical sense, political science is indeed a science.  But in the more modern, compartmentalized context, political science would best be considered a social science.

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Is political science a science?

There is some amount of disagreement on this topic, even within the discipline of political science.  My own view is that political science is not a science, but there are many political scientists whose work consists of studies that are driven by data and which utilize such techniques as regression analysis.

Within the discipline of political science, there is something of a split between people who want to do qualitative studies and those who want to do quantitative studies.  The former group would be less likely to see political science as a science.  They would be more likely to say that it is a field that can never be truly scientific.  They would say that political scientists need to do things like case studies in which they closely examine (for example) the actions of a given president to see what sorts of “laws” they can extrapolate from that president’s actions.  This is not something that can be done scientifically. 

On the other hand, you have the more quantitative people who are interested in crunching numbers.  These people are more likely to want to take large sets of data (like votes in Congress) and to try to use statistical methods to determine what measurable factors are driving the ways in which members of Congress vote.  They would say that political science should be conducted in this quantitative way.

My own view is that the most interesting questions in political science cannot be answered with numbers.  For example, we cannot say what makes a great president through numbers and science.  We cannot use science to show what impact the Supreme Court has on movements for rights.  We cannot use science to determine whether President Obama would have been better off compromising more (or less) with the Republicans in the House.

Political scientists can and should try to be as scientific as possible in terms of formulating their questions and looking for data that can answer those questions, but they cannot aspire to do experiments or statistical analyses on most of the more interesting issues in the discipline.

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