Evolution of Political Science Research Paper

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Outline

I. Introduction

II. Conceptualizing Political Science: Truth, Knowledge, and Scientific Method

III. Evolution of Political Science: Debating the Scientific Methodologies

A. Beginning: Positivism and Inductive Political Science

B. Adjustment: Falsificationism and Deductive Political Science

C. Departure: Scientific Paradigms and Interpretive Political Science

D. Synergy: A Mixed Approach to Political Science

IV. Conclusion

I. Introduction

The scientific study of politics bears a rather short history. It was not until the 1950s that political science reached its attic as a distinct academic discipline. The less-than-a-century time frame, however, has seen significant developments in terms of theoretical and methodological divides. From positivism and interpretivism before the 1980s to a synergy of both thereafter, each of these prominent paradigms not only advocates different approaches to political analysis but also shares varying assumptions about the science of social inquiry. This research paper offers a general overview of the evolution of science and scientific methods. The central questions addressed include the following: (a)What is science and how can the study of politics be scientific? and (b) How did the contemporary debates in the philosophy of (social) science shape the methodological development in political science?

II. Conceptualizing Political Science: Truth, Knowledge, and Scientific Method

In its simplest sense, political science is a subbranch of social science, which means the scientific study of the political in human society, such as political actions, systems or institutions, and outcomes. This is often conducted through constructing concepts, models, and theories in order to describe and explain what the properties of the political and the underlying causal mechanisms are. Such inquiry of politics is in sharp distinction from the philosophical tradition of the discipline, which instead seeks to evaluate the political on the basis of normative values and principles. Although the latter tradition, which originated in ancient times, shares a much longer history, the former has expeditiously occupied a dominant standing since the mid- 20th century. How did the distinctive tradition evolve from there to here over the last several decades? One must begin with what political science is all about.

Literally, political science is composed of two essential components. The concept of the political is essentially contestable, but roughly it refers to any matters that involve or affect two or more individuals in which disagreements may arise. Under this definition, the political takes place in any collective human entity as a process of conflict resolution, which is composed of interactions among the agents within (action), arrangements of the entity per se (system), and decisions that form the resolution (outcome). An example is the application of an electoral college (system) in choosing a candidate to be the leader of a country (outcome) based on preferences of the voters within. These are the basic dimensions that the study of the political seeks to examine. Then what does it mean to approach these dimensions with a science? Likewise, the concept is in no way self-explanatory, and it is open to various interpretations and controversies (e.g., see Popper’s distinction between science and pseudoscience in a following section), yet it is essential to offer a minimal working definition.According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term science can be defined broadly as “knowledge or cognizance of something specified or implied” or narrowly as “a branch of study which is concerned . . . with a connected body of demonstrated truths . . . and which includes trustworthy methods for the discovery of new truth within its own domain.” In this way, science is both the content and the method—it is a representation of truth in the form of knowledge plus the way that such knowledge is acquired. For example, chemistry aims at understanding (knowledge) the properties, structure, and composition of matter in nature (truth) through experimentation, observation, and theory construction (method). Political science, similarly, is the use of the scientific method in obtaining knowledge of truth in politics.

An immediate question would be in what ways scientific inquiry in politics is comparable to that in natural sciences such as chemistry and physics. This concerns whether there is any truth in human society as there is in the natural world, and if so whether it is possible and what method can be used to acquire the knowledge of it scientifically To start, what are truth, knowledge, and scientific method? Take, as an example, the celebrated Duverger’s law in political science, a principle that holds that proportional representation and a majority vote on two ballots tend toward a multiparty system (Duverger, 1972). One would, without hesitation, regard Duverger’s law as providing a kind of knowledge of the political in terms of the relationship between electoral systems and outcomes. Such knowledge is represented in the form of a principle, or in more formal language a proposition, where proportional representation, majority vote on two ballots, and multiparty system are concepts, or components of the proposition. These concepts per se, however, are seldom considered knowledge unless they are being used in a proposition. For example, the term proportional representation itself carries no substantial meaning unless it is placed in a proposition, such as the following: Proportional representation means that the percentage of votes obtained by a group of candidates approximates that of the seats allocated to the corresponding group in an election. The above conceptualization of proportional representation, nevertheless, may still not be knowledge, but it is a necessary condition for that concept to be situated in a proposition to qualify as knowledge. But what determines whether a proposition is knowledge? This concerns the nature of knowledge.

When a person, i, says he or she knows the meaning of proportional representation as in the above proposition, for instance, he or she must at least believe that the proposition is true. However, a true belief does not exhaust the criteria of knowledge. Suppose i (mistakenly) believes that proportional representation and a majority vote on one ballot are two identical types of election systems; i can still assert that the proposition is true, although that proposition cannot be considered knowledge at all. This is because i fails to justify why the proposition is true, and at most he or she is said to believe, rather than know, it to be true. In other words, knowledge, as widely agreed in epistemology, is justified true belief. One interpretation of justification is the use of reasons in substantiating a belief to be true. For example, one can analyze the meaning of proportional representation by arguments to demonstrate why the proposition in the previous paragraph, instead of the one believed by i, is true. Meanwhile, one can also test and prove Duverger’s law by collecting empirical evidence from the real world (e.g., Riker, 1986). In both cases, the true propositions as confirmed are knowledge, and hence science, whereas the reasoning applied in arriving at such confirmation is also science, or more precisely, scientific method.

However, why does scientific method lead to (scientific) knowledge? Even though one may take a scientific approach (e.g., experiments and evidence collecting), the proposition under investigation cannot be concluded true right away without establishing a relation between the truth and the results drawn from the scientific method. There are two rival accounts of truth—namely, the correspondence theory and the coherence theory. In a nutshell, the correspondence theory of truth posits that a proposition is true if and only if it corresponds to a relevant (set of) fact(s) (e.g., David, 2008), whereas the coherence theory of truth alleges that a proposition is true if and only if it coheres with a relevant reference set of propositions (Young, 2008). For instance, according to the former theory, Duverger’s law can be true if and only if it represents the corresponding fact of the casual correlations between the proportional representation or majority vote on two ballots and a multiparty system. On the other hand, according to the latter theory, Duverger’s law can still be true even if it does not represent such a fact but instead is consistent with, or at least implied by, a certain specified set of propositions. The specified reference set is assumed to be true, which can be defined by the set of propositions currently believed by actual people (Young, 1995) or which will be believed when people have reached a certain level of inquiry (Putnam, 1981). For example, suppose in a particular space and time, people insist that there is a negative correlation between proportional representation and a multiparty system; Duverger’s law, according to the coherence theory, will be judged false irrespective of whether it may be otherwise in concordance with other criteria of truth. The divergence between the two views on truth is not at all subtle, nor does it belong to a purely epistemological issue in philosophy. It is, instead, fundamental to the methodological debate in both contemporary natural and social and political sciences.

What is the origin of the methodological disagreement? Why is there such a disagreement? Why do the two contending positions of truth affect the evolution of science (or more precisely scientific method) in social and political science? This traces to the very basic assumptions of the two theories of truth, to wit, (scientific) realism and antirealism. According to realism, the entities depicted by any true (social) scientific propositions do, by definition, objectively exist, albeit they may not be directly observable, and such propositions are the best (approximate) descriptions of these entities. For example, for realists, the positive causal correlations between proportional representation and a multiparty system in Duverger’s law is a piece of social fact, given that the law (or proposition) itself is scientifically proven true. The realist position is generally grounded on the no miracles argument where the success of a (social) scientific theory, say the explanatory and predictive power of Duverger’s law as applied in many real cases of election, would be simply a mystery if there were no objectively true entities and regularities in the world (Putnam, 1975). On the other hand, antirealists deny the objective existence of such entities as (social) facts, and one eminent argument is that these entities only exist to the extent to which they are shaped by human knowledge and minds (e.g., Kuhn, 1962). Antirealists would judge Duverger’s law to be true, in accordance with, for instance, the coherence theory of truth, only when it is coherent with what is believed to be true through human understanding. Given the divergent positions of the existence of (social) facts of realists and antirealists, the next question is whether they also differ in terms of the scientific methods used in arriving at those true scientific propositions. The following section illustrates how the realism–antirealism debate molds the evolution of science in terms of scientific methods in social and political science.

III. Evolution of Political Science: Debating the Scientific Methodologies

A. Beginning: Positivism and Inductive Political Science

Positivism presupposes a realist standpoint that posits that (social) facts objectively exist, and are external from humans and independent of human knowledge and understanding. For positivists, a proposition is true, and hence constitutes knowledge, if and only if it is in a correspondence relation with the objective fact(s). Since the facts are out there in the world, it is necessary that the reasoning that reveals such correspondence relation (if any) must go beyond pure formality and extend to reality. Among the Vienna Circle in the 1920s, a group of logical positivists attributed the distinctiveness of scientific knowledge to its possible derivation from the facts of experience in the real world. They distinguished between two kinds of propositions—namely, analytic and synthetic. The former are deductively provable through logical reasoning alone, while the latter are empirically verifiable through logical reasoning by reference to empirical facts obtained through the use of the senses and capture what the positivists regard as knowledge. But how is it possible to reason with empirical facts? This is done by inductive logic. In principle, the positivists see scientific knowledge as a form of universal generalization from empirically observable facts. In the natural sciences, for instance, Newton’s first law of motion, which states that any physical object remains static or in uniform motion unless being acted on by an external force (or inertia), represents a body of scientific knowledge that generalizes the motional properties of physical objects. This knowledge can be obtained by observations, such as through experiments, on a large number of instances in which all entities being observed possess a certain property (inertia) under some conditions (the absence of external force), and an inference can be drawn that all entities (physical objects), even those which have not been observed, exhibit inertia when subject to no external force. Such an inference is a universal generalization arrived at by inductive logic in this form: The property of many (or even some) implies the property of all. It is not difficult to spot that such reasoning is not necessarily valid at all times—it can be true that many entities possess a certain property while there is an unobserved entity that behaves the other way around and thus renders the conclusion false. This concerns the idea of falsification and will be addressed in further detail in the next section.

Positivists in the social sciences (including political science) believe that scientific knowledge is also obtainable in the form of universal generalizations through inductive inference similar to that used in the natural sciences. Assuming the existence of objective social facts, through observations and inductive reasoning, these bodies of social facts can be identified and generalized in terms of both taxonomy and relations. The following two statements are propositions of taxonomy identification, and Duverger’s law generalizes the relations between both taxonomies mentioned: (1) A significant number of countries (n) operate proportional representation in their parliamentary elections and (2) the parliaments of almost all of the above countries (e.g., n − 1) are composed of multiple parties. It is imperative that, to positivists, the social facts be objective and observable in order to be represented as knowledge, and hence, normative questions, such as whether proportional representation should be adopted, are excluded from what can be counted as knowledge that cannot be detected through observations or determined without subjectivity.

Behavioralism has much appeal to positivism and inductive reasoning. In (scientific) methodology, it took a leading position in the 1950s and 1960s when the discipline of political science started to become popular.1 As implied by its name, behavioralism develops scientific knowledge of the political by focusing on phenomena involving either individual human behaviors (the microlevel) or their social aggregate (the macrolevel) in the political process.2 First, it presupposes the realist standpoint that there exist bodies of objective and quantifiable social facts in the political arena that represent the truth—that is, political phenomena (and their mutual relations) do exist and exhibit certain regularity over time. Second, similar to positivism, the truth is observable so that empirical evidence can be collected to identify (the relations of) these political phenomena. These (causal) relations of phenomena can be further generalized, usually through vigorous statistical analysis, comparative case studies to formulate scientific propositions or theories through inductive reasoning, or both. For behavioralists, these propositions and theories correspond to the truth that is there in the observable political realm, and they are constructed objectively, based purely on empirical evidence without any a priori assumptions or subjective human interpretation. Behavioralists believe that their approach to political science is genuinely scientific, and the propositions and theories so formulated offer a systematic explanation of past and present political phenomena as well as a well-grounded prediction of those in the future. Examples of seminal works include Truman (1951), Lipset (1959), Dahl (1961), Duverger (1964), Parsons (1966), and Lijphart (1971).

Is the picture described a complete one? Does positivism provide a satisfactory account of truth? Does induction constitute the best scientific method in revealing the truth as knowledge? Can behavioralism be the only scientific approach in political science? The historical development of (political) science shows that answers to these questions are not necessarily positive, as a result of the received critiques of positivism, inductivism, and behavioralism by their counterparts.

B. Adjustment: Falsificationism and Deductive Political Science

Consider again that inductive reasoning does not guarantee true conclusions (generalizations) from true premises (observations). Pinpointed by the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776), the problem of induction lies in the fact that it fails to construct any generalization of empirical observations that can be proven to be true. This matters particularly when the generalization is supposed to make more or less accurate predictions about the future. The sunrise example can illustrate this point: Even if the sun rises every single day as observed in the past, this does not mean that the same will happen every single day in the future. The common sense that the sun rises every day assumes what Hume called the “uniformity of nature.” This assumption contends that the objective truth exhibits absolute regularity, and the possibility of variation is ruled out. Therefore, even if the sunrise tomorrow is not yet observed (and unobservable here and now), inference can still be drawn to predict that the sun will rise tomorrow based on empirical evidence that the sun did rise every day in history. However, there is no reason that the uniformity of nature assumption must be true in the first place, since subsequent discontinuation of regularity (i.e., change) is at least theoretically possible as long as it is not (yet) proven to be otherwise—that is, there is no way that a proposition or theory is verifiable by inductive reasoning.

Given the possible loopholes of inference by inductive logic, the determination of whether a proposition corresponds to the truth (assuming the existence of such) and hence the representation of a body of scientific knowledge cannot rely on verification as the criterion. This is because the correspondence relation between the proposition and the truth may cease to hold should any change occur about the truth in the future. A proposition that captures the relevant social facts is even more vulnerable to such query because social and political changes are by no means rare. Therefore, an alternative standard is necessary for identifying propositions that constitute (scientific) knowledge or another conception of the correspondence relation between the truth and the proposition. Consider Duverger’s law again. Suppose the correlation between proportional representation and a multiparty system exists as social fact and all empirical evidence confirms the law at present, and there would be a political regime R after n years where its adoption of proportional representation leads to a two-party, instead of a multiparty, system. Such a single instance (Rn) would be sufficient for arguing that Duverger’s law does not always hold. To use a more technical term, Rn would falsify Duverger’s law, provided that Rn exists.

Karl Popper (1902–1994), a renowned philosopher of science, suggested that only propositions or theories that can in principle be falsified, or are falsifiable, but have not actually been falsified are scientific. In other words, a necessary condition for scientific knowledge lies in the possible existence of any instances in which a corresponding proposition or theory would contradict the relevant empirical evidence and render its relation with the truth no longer valid. Duverger’s law is one of those that can potentially be falsified (e.g., Rn). On the other hand, unfalsifiable propositions and theories are not scientific but pseudoscientific, such as propaganda, fairy tales, ideology, religion, and witchcraft, which are generally imprecise and could never be proven to be false. For example, the normative proposition that proportional representation should be adopted does not represent a body of scientific knowledge since there is no way that the proposition can be falsified by denying its possible correspondence relation with the truth (if any). On Popper’s account, it makes no sense to examine whether a particular proposition or theory is true because its correspondence relation with the truth can never be verified through observational testing—that is, the generalizations obtained by inductive reasoning can at most be provisionally true until the moment when further unobserved but contradictory evidence arises in the future. Therefore, the aim of inductivism in attempting to prove any scientific proposition or theory to be true, and hence scientific knowledge, is simply misguided. Instead, according to falsificationism, the logic should be reversed such that as long as a proposition or theory is proven to be false it is not scientific (knowledge).

Popper’s distinction between science and pseudoscience is influential not only in the natural but also in the social and political sciences. The question for political scientists is this: To what extent can a proposition or theory of the political be regarded as scientific (knowledge) in accordance with falsificationism? While inductivists (and behavioralists) insist that a scientific proposition or theory must correspond to the objective social facts (the truth), falsificationists do not reject the realist standpoint concerning the truth but rather the existence of its correspondence relation with the corresponding proposition or theory being provable through observational testing. Therefore, contrary to inductivism, falsificationism does not demand that a proposition or theory be true, but only that it not be false (and can in principle be false) in order to be scientific. Falsificationists disagree with inductivists about the role of truth in science, and Popper (1969) further posits that science progresses by conjectures and refutations instead of inductive inference from empirical evidence. In other words, a scientific proposition or theory is first constructed (conjectured) by discovering new ideas through “creative intuition,” and it is then subject to genuine tests that constitute as many difficult experiments with as much difficult evidence as possible. Such experiments and evidence are regarded as difficult if they can, at least in principle, falsify (refute) the proposed proposition or theory. If after numerous attempts at such genuine testing, the difficult evidence and experiments still do not falsify the proposed proposition or theory, then the latter is said to be corroborated, instead of proven to be true, by the former.

Falsificationism is in line with deductive reasoning. The proposed proposition or theory forms a hypothesis through conjectures for the genuine test. Suppose it is suggested that all countries adopting proportional representation exhibit multiparty systems, and such a hypothesis acts as the first premise. After running several genuine tests, it is then found that proportional representation and a two-party system are present in country A, where such evidence counts as the second premise. Therefore, the hypothesis (first premise) is said to be falsified by the evidence (second premise), and such a conclusion is reached by deduction. The influence of this Popperian view of science can be seen in the emergence of the rational choice theoretic approach in political science in the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike behavioralism, rational choice theory is based on several a priori assumptions as well as deductive logic in constructing propositions or theories that explain and predict the behavior of social aggregates. Similar to falsificationists, rational choice theorists do not inductively infer a scientific proposition or theory merely from empirical evidence but rather conjecture one on the foundation of some theoretical assumptions in the first instance, before the proposition or theory is subject to empirical testing. One key a priori assumption is that each individual is rational and behaves in a way that maximizes his or her expected utility. This represents the creative insights in constructing a scientific proposition or theory, where empirical evidence only takes up the role of genuine testing. In general, many rational choice theoretic models successfully explain some essential political phenomenon, such as the paradox of rational individual behavior but irrational collective outcomes as well as the failing of collective welfare delivery by self-interested public officials. Major seminal works include Downs (1957), Buchanen and Tullock (1962), Riker (1962), and Olson (1965).

One can immediately think of a list of criticisms of the rational choice theoretic approach to political science. In particular, the a priori assumptions on which any proposition and theory is based are not empirically supported, and the general account of rationality is restrictive in the sense that it fails to capture the complexity of human behavior, which is more than atomistic and mechanistic—it is instead situated and significantly shaped by contexts, ranging from the political and social institutions to human psychology and history. That means that even if the proposition or theory is consistent with some relevant empirical evidence, it offers only an overly simplistic account of the political while other perspectives ruled out by the assumptions are left untouched. On the other hand, the lack of fit between the proposed proposition or theory and the empirical evidence does not necessarily mean that all bodies of knowledge it represents are false (which renders a complete dismissal). The mismatch may be, for example, simply due to the problems of certain a priori assumptions that fail to apply in every circumstance, while the proposed proposition or theory still has value for being retained. It is apparent that such a rational choice theoretic (or falsificationist) view of science in social and political inquiries may still leave something to be desired.

C. Departure: Scientific Paradigms and Interpretive Political Science

Inductivism and falsificationism are two scientific paradigms, which give rise to the schools of behavioralism and rational choice theory in political science respectively. They presuppose different fundamental views on whether scientific proposition or theory about (or knowledge of) the political can be obtained by confirming the correspondence relation between the truth and the empirical evidence. On the other hand, they can both be grouped under a common heading in terms of methodology. Similar to the natural sciences, both the behavioralist and the rational choice theoretic approaches aim at explaining empirical (social and political) phenomena through the construction of hypotheses and generalizations that are applicable to more than a single set of empirical observations and making falsifiable predictions about other possible observations. Given that both approaches are founded on positivism in which science and its method of acquirement are considered objective and rational, what accounts for the emergence of two paradigms that differ only along the dimension of logical reasoning (i.e., induction and deduction)? Their fundamental disagreement concerns the possibility of confirming whether a proposition or theory corresponds to the truth and whether such confirmation is necessary for the proposition or theory to be scientific. Which of these two views of science is (more) accurate, if either is at all?

Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996), a historian and philosopher of science, would focus on the “if either” part of the question above. According to Kuhn, the inductivist and the falsificationist accounts of science are misguided since neither of them adequately matches the historical evidence concerning the development of science. Science is not about the logic of justification based on observable evidence but is composed of the unobservable, which gives rise to a particular paradigm. In other words, neither confirmation nor unfalsification of the truth suffices to determine a proposition or theory to be scientific or not. Many of the leading (natural) scientific theories were faced with certain empirical anomalies from the beginning, such as Newton’s gravitational theory, but these theories were preserved and developed despite the fact that they could have been falsified at birth if the falsification demand had been strictly followed. It is also apparent that there were always adherents of established propositions and theories even if the latter were challenged by recalcitrant evidence. Kuhn reminded us that the history of science was in fact characterized by extended periods of normal science where a scientific community conducts research on a subject within an established paradigm. Such a paradigm comprises a set of theoretical assumptions that reflect the fundamental agreement among all members of the community and those members solving problems within a specific set of subjects on the basis of those theoretical assumptions. In Kuhn’s view, normal science is a problem- or puzzle-solving activity, and hence, scientists dedicate their minds and time to research concerning details within an established paradigm without questioning the corresponding fundamental assumptions. For any proposition or theory that contradicts the observable evidence (anomalies), instead of being falsified right away, it is treated as simply one of the unsolved puzzles. When these anomalies are minor and limited in number, they tend to be ignored; only when they accumulate to an extent that most scientists within the paradigm begin to cast doubt on the fundamental assumptions will there be a shift of allegiance from the original paradigm to a new one, or a scientific revolution. In sum, Kuhn sees science as not only logic and rationality but also a carrier of sociological and historical implications in the form of paradigms and their progress and transitions. What makes a subject and a method to the subject scientific depends much on the consensus of the scientific community at a particular place and time. Therefore, inductivism and falsificationism are not the science as a whole but only its constituents, while these constituents (or paradigms) are mutually incommensurable.

Kuhn’s sociological insights on the progress of science offer an angle of reflecting on what counts as science (knowledge) and scientific methods in social and political science. Since scientific knowledge is constructed within a paradigm by its own methods, tools, and criteria of assessment, these unquestioned rules of the game not only affect the selection of research topics but also emphasize how the findings are interpreted. This gives rise to the interpretivist tradition in social and political science. In contrast to behavioralism and rational choice theory, interpretivists insist that the goal of social and political science is to understand, rather than to generalize, empirical phenomena by conducting a rich textual, contextual, or historical (or any combination of the three) study into these phenomena. Interpretivists accept the starting point of antirealists that posits there exist no objective (social) facts, and all social and political phenomena, whether observable or not, are structured and shaped by human thought and discourses. For instance, instead of acknowledging that it is a matter of fact that there is a positive correlation between proportional representation and a multiparty system as in Duverger’s law, interpretivists are skeptical about such a robust generalization and perceive it as presenting an oversimplified, if not incorrect, version of the political. Instead, the interpretivist tradition holds that the truth is not absolute but relative, varying across space and time. This is closer to the coherence theory of truth, where something counts as true if and only if it coheres with a relevant reference set of some accepted knowledge. Here, the reference set is what interpretivists stress about the context that is shaped by a variety of factors including those that are historical and sociological. This resonates with Kuhn’s view on science as paradigms. Hence, for interpretivists, it is not possible to pursue (scientific) knowledge of the political without considering the meanings behind various political phenomena existing in a particular context. For example, interpretivists seek to understand individual voting behavior by revealing the formation and justification of individuals’ voting preferences. Research as such often adopts qualitative methods such as interviews and focus groups. The scope of inquiry tends to be intensive and constricted, and it is hard to avoid subjectivity in interpretations. Nevertheless, interpretivists do not intend to generalize their findings, which are instead context dependent, and subjectivity itself does not threaten the value of interpretations as (scientific) knowledge. After all, truth is relative and depends on whether (and which) reference set(s) is (are) accepted in the first place, and the latter, of course, includes the way in which the findings are interpreted. Examples of interpretivist works include Oakeshott (1962), Anderson (1991), Collingwood (1993), and Risse (1999).

D. Synergy: A Mixed Approach to Political Science

As discussed so far, the two major approaches—the positivist and the interpretivist—seem to be incompatible with each other because of their divergence on the fundamental views about the nature of science. A worthwhile follow-up question would be whether the two contending approaches can be reconciled to make further progress of political science research by combining both of their strengths. This concerns whether science can be both rationalistic and contextual.

Imre Lakatos (1922–1974) suggested that the ideas of Popper and Kuhn can be fused in such a way that science can be understood as not only about empirical observation and logical induction or deduction but also about taking into account the social and historical context of research. On one hand, contrary to Popper, scientific propositions or theories are not to be abandoned right away by falsification when anomalies are identified in contradiction to any empirical evidence. Instead, these propositions or theories usually coexist with the anomalies for some time, during which scientists attempt to rescue the propositions or theories from collapsing by offering further explanation or shifting their attention to other problems. Scientific progress, according to Lakatos, is made by these rescue actions instead of by falsification, and science can be regarded as a kind of human activity, as progressive research programs. On the other hand, Lakatos disagrees with Kuhn that these programs are not mutually incommensurable paradigms resulting in relativism but are open for cross-comparisons and evaluations. Each of these programs is characterized by its own heuristic, which means a certain set of tools, methods, and techniques of problem solving, where the heuristic’s strength determines also the strength of the corresponding research program. A heuristic is strong if propositions or theories are produced so that the corresponding research program can enable individuals to infer novel predictions that lead to the discovery of new empirical facts and explain empirical phenomena at least as well as their rival or previous propositions or theories. In other words, whether a proposition or theory is scientific depends on both the contextual factor of its belonging to a particular research program and the rational factor of the explanatory and predictive power of the corresponding research program. Science, according to Lakatos, can share a double character that covers both Popper’s rationalist and Kuhn’s sociological and historical aspects.

If, in principle, science is composed of both rational and contextual elements as mentioned, how may the methods of inquiry into science be reconceptualized to determine what counts as science (or knowledge) in the study of politics? King, Keohane, and Verba (1994) asserted that social and political science can be approached in both the positivist and the interpretivist manners, with the use of quantitative and qualitative research methods respectively. This is due to their shared underlying logic of interference. Propositions or theories generated from research through either method are considered scientific as long as they satisfy a set of criteria. First, these propositions or theories are meant to draw, based on empirical observations, either descriptive inferences that concern further observations or explanatory inferences that portray (causal) correlations between empirical phenomena. Here, the interpretivists would focus more on the former where the understanding of the subject matter (political phenomena) goes beyond what is observed, while the positivists would stress the latter where the (causal) correlations as such are seen as existing facts and can be revealed. Second, no matter which methods are adopted, the set of procedures for arriving at the propositions or theories should be publicly transparent and thus able to be comprehended and tested by the scholarly community. This to some extent echoes Lakatos’s view that scientific research programs are mutually commensurable and open for scrutiny. Third, since there is no single perfect and absolute way of drawing inferences, any propositions or theories so generated could in principle be wrong, and hence, good scientific research should identify its degree of uncertainty. This makes the inductivist and the interpretivist methods remain scientific even in the face of the falsificationist challenge by pardoning the demand of verification. Last, scientific research should stress both the method and the content, and the propositions or theories should be drawn by following a set of rules of inference. This is, again, compatible with both the positivist and the interpretivist positions.

A crucial implication of the previous assertions is that science is about rationality and context (Lakatos), and the positivist and the interpretivist approaches can both be applied as methods in revealing the rational and the contextual elements of science once they fulfill certain criteria (King, Keohane, & Verba). This inspires the development of political science research in the sense that methodology is no longer confined to only one approach. Instead, it is a noticeable trend that a mixed approach has become more popular since the 1980s, when the school of new institutionalism arose. The new institutionalism, which recognizes the importance of political institutions in shaping political phenomena, corresponds to Lakatos’s view in the way that scientific study of the political is about not only the political phenomena per se (positivist tradition) but also the social and historical context under which they are positioned (interpretivist tradition). Meanwhile, in acquiring the science as such, the scientific method used is a combination of both quantitative (positivist tradition) and qualitative (interpretivist tradition). Examples include historical institutionalism (e.g., Pierson, 1996; Pierson & Skocpol, 2002) and rational choice institutionalism (e.g., Laver, 1997; Shepsle, 1989). Although on the operational level a synergy of the two prima facie contending methodologies in political science research has been brought about by the new institutionalist turn, it is not clear on the metaphysical level whether there can truly be a reconciliation between the positivists and the interpretivists concerning their fundamental disagreement about the relationship between (political) science and the truth.

IV. Conclusion

This research paper reviews the development of the idea of science in political science. Since the 1950s, when political science arose as a separate academic discipline, there have been plenty of debates about the nature of political science as well as the corresponding method of inquiries. Although within the positivist tradition the behavioralists and the rational choice theorists disagree on the logical reasoning in arriving at propositions or theories that explain and generalize objectively existing political phenomena, the interpretivists insist on the importance of understanding the contextual factors that shape the political phenomena. Such disputes can be mapped into the disputes in the philosophy of natural and social sciences among the inductivists, the falsificationists, and the interpretivists. Although the tension can be reconciled by reconceptualizing science as comprising both rational and contextual elements and applying a mixed approach consisting of quantitative and qualitative methods, such methodological middle ground is far from settling the conflict between the positivists and the interpretivists on the fundamental nature of (political) science.

See also:

Notes:

  1. Strictly speaking, political science as an academic discipline began as early as the late 1890s when the scientific study of political institutions emerged, often regarded as the old institutionalism (e.g., Spencer, 1891; Weber, 1946; and Pareto, 1935).
  2. The study of macrolevel behaviors is also known as structural functionalism.

Bibliography:

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