Political Science Research Paper

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The first efforts to systematically study politics can be traced to Plato’s Republic (c. 427-c. 347 BCE) and Aristotle’s Politics (384-322 BCE). Their works were later incorporated into Christianity through neo-Platonists, such as St. Augustine (354-430 CE), and neo-Aristotelians, such as St. Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274 CE). The classical and Christian traditions of political philosophy postulated metaphysical first principles and relied on a process of deductive reasoning that sought to derive the moral and ethical principles of an ideal-state. Whether the ideal-state was ever achieved by any civilization was considered secondary to discovering the “highest good” that ought to guide citizens and statesmen.

The political writings of Niccolo Machiavelli were the first to break with these traditions of political philosophy. Machiavelli believed that the study of political history could yield general principles to guide statesmen in the conduct of politics, diplomacy, and war. He studied existing and historical political institutions, and the actions of great statesmen, not for the purpose of discerning a morally ideal-state, but to identify institutional arrangements that would maintain social order and political stability. The separation of politics from any metaphysical or theological foundation led subsequent political philosophers to seek a new basis for legitimate political authority, although, in the end, solutions such as reason, natural law, custom, and tradition were superceded by the idea that sovereignty resides in a nation’s people.

From Political Philosophy to Political Science

Francis Lieber (1798-1872) is considered the first modern political scientist. Its major contribution was to establish “the idea of the state,” or Staatswissenshaft, as the organizing concept of political science. The idea of the state was gaining wide currency in Europe, particularly in Germany, but it was Lieber who first argued in the United States that the “idea of the state is the basis of a class of sciences, and gives them a distinct character as belongs to the various classes of history, philosophy, theological, medical, &c., sciences” (1838, Vol. 10, p. 225). He drew a distinction between idea of the state and the “form of government,” which was “merely a means of obtaining the great objects of the state” (1838, Vol. 11, p. 568). Against the backdrop of events leading up to the U.S. Civil War, Lieber articulated a distinctly idealistic theory of the state which identified the state as an abstract and organic sovereign society that was the source of governmental authority and the basis of its legitimacy. Lieber’s appointment as professor of history and political science at Columbia University in 1857 made him the first person to hold that title in the United States.

The Domain and Methods of Political Science

After Lieber, political science was established as a broader discipline when John W. Burgess, a professor of constitutional law, founded the Faculty of Political Science at Columbia in 1880. Burgess’s school became the leading graduate faculty in political science during the 1890s along with the Department of History, Politics, and Economics, which had been established by Henry Baxter Adams at Johns Hopkins University in the 1870s. Burgess and Adams were both adherents of the Staatswissenshaft doctrine, but they shifted the discipline’s methodological emphasis from political ethics to history.

In 1886 Columbia’s faculty founded the Political Science Quarterly (PSQ), which was the new discipline’s first scholarly journal. In its first issue, Edmund Munroe Smith, a professor of international law, announced that it would “recognize but one political science—the science of the state” (1886, pp. 2-3). However, the PSQ also facilitated a new departure in Staatswissenshaft by emphasizing that it was one thing to describe the state’s development, comparatively and historically, but more was required to explain changes and development in the state. Smith argued “if we seek to trace through history the evolution of the state, we find each step in its development recorded in the evolution of law and explained to a great degree by economic changes” (p. 7). This methodological principle, which was called “the economic interpretation of history” was developed first by James E. Thorold Rogers (1823-1890), a professor of political economy at Oxford University, whose work stimulated the next advances in the discipline.

The Economic Basis of Politics

The Populist revolt and the Progressive movement were fertile political environments for an intellectual revolt against the formalist-idealism of the early discipline. The method of economic interpretation led to a new iteration of Staatswissenschaft that seemed better able to explain the political conflicts of the era. During the 1890s, there were several miscues in the effort to define “the method of economic interpretation,” including both skirmishes and dialogues with Marxian historical materialists. The major breakthrough came from Edwin R. A. Seligman, a political economist in Columbia’s Faculty of Political Science. Seligman’s general statement of the economic interpretation of history is that:

The existence of man depends upon his ability to sustain himself; the economic life is therefore the fundamental condition of all life. Since human life, however, is the life of man in society, individual existence moves within the framework of the social structure and is modified by it… To economic causes, therefore, must be traced in the last instance those transformations in the structure of society which themselves condition the relations of social classes and the various manifestations of social life (1967, p. 3).

The method of economic interpretation was widely adopted by political scientists in the early twentieth century, particularly after Seligman had differentiated it from Karl Marx’s historical materialism. Nevertheless, the method of economic interpretation is most often identified with the work of Charles A. Beard, one of Seligman’s students, and the author of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution ofthe United States (1913). In its political context, the book became an intellectual lightning rod, because according to Beard capitalistic interests had dominated the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787 and, consequently, they authored a founding document that appealed “directly and unerringly to identical interests in the country at large” (p. 188). Beard later sought to generalize this doctrine in The Economic Basis of Politics (1922).

Beard exerted a powerful influence on the discipline over the next two decades, partly by authoring the first introductory textbook on American Government and Politics (1910), which became a standard text in political science for nearly four decades. In 1926, Beard’s soaring reputation secured his election as president of the American Political Science Association (APSA). By the mid-1930s, his economic interpretation of the American state had achieved orthodox status among scholars as the Great Depression forced economic considerations to the forefront of government and political science.

However, developments in political science and other disciplines put the doctrine of Staatswissenschaft under pressure from the outset. In 1895 the American Historical Association was established by historians seeking to institutionalize Leopold von Ranke’s methodological program of historical positivism. Frank J. Goodnow, who had been a member of PSQ’s editorial board, led the founding of the American Political Science Association in 1903, along with its new journal, the American Political Science Review. As the APSA’s first president, Goodnow reaffirmed that the domain of political science is “that political organization of society which is termed ‘the State’ ” (Ross 1991, p. 282). Nevertheless, the vision for a science of the state, anchored by political economy, started to fragment as one social science after another splintered into separate disciplines and, after World War I, began exploring the new positivist philosophy as an alternative methodological foundation.

The Positivist Movement

During the 1920s, political science began a paradigm shift that culminated in the behavioral revolution of the 1950s. The first aspect of this paradigm shift was a redefinition of the meaning of “science.” The positivist movement sought to place political science on the same methodological foundations as the natural sciences. This movement was also promoted by the federal government, which was anxious to bring about the same types of technical success in the social sciences as had been achieved in the physical, life, and behavioral sciences (psychology) during World War I. Positivists claim that all research is similar in method and differs only in the specific problems to be solved by a particular science. Thus, there is a single “scientific method” that starts with the formulation of a hypothesis, followed by empirical observation or experimentation, which leads to a falsification or verification of the initial hypothesis. Knowledge is accumulated incrementally as hypotheses are rejected or accepted as a result of empirical tests.

The Social Science Research Council (SSRC) was chartered in 1923 as an independent nonprofit organization, and funded by private foundations, specifically to encourage “behavioral research” in economics, sociology, and political science that employed empirical and statistical methods of the type advocated by positivists. The University of Chicago, which was among the first to pioneer such methods, was designated as the SSRC’s showcase institution. The SSRC distributed funds to political scientists and political science departments for fellowships and training in the new empirical methods, for the development of new courses in statistics and behavioral research design, and general department building along the Chicago model. Charles E. Merriam, a professor of political science at Chicago, is often called the father of behavioral political science. In his New Aspects of Politics (1925), Merriam called for a science based on the observation of real governments and political behavior, although he remained skeptical about an overly quantitative political science. This skepticism was retained by Harold D. Lasswell and V. O. Key, who were both students of Merriam and important transitional figures between the positivist movement of the 1920s and the behavioral revolution of the 1950s. Lasswell called for an applied political science oriented toward solving the problems of democracy as opposed to a discipline that emulated natural science in a quest to discover “universal laws” of political behavior without respect to their practical applications. In 1951 Lasswell proposed that “policy scientists” should conduct research that was directly and immediately useful to decision makers, while employing “appropriate” quantitative methodologies that acknowledged the limits of data availability and the pressures of time and scarce resources in the decision-making process. Key is best known for his work on political parties, interest groups, electoral behavior, and public opinion. Although he disagreed with the behavioralists’ fundamental tenets, he pioneered many of the statistical techniques and analytic concepts later employed by them.

The Behavioral Revolution

The positivist influence reached its apogee in the “behavioral revolution” of 1950s, which consolidated the discipline’s paradigm shift, first, by codifying behavioral methodology and, second, by finally rejecting outright the concept of the state. The behavioralists broke with the earlier practice of political scientists by claiming to have discovered a “value-neutral” science and by viewing all earlier works on politics as merely a storehouse of hypotheses for empirical falsification or verification. This attitude toward political philosophy widened the long simmering rift between empirical political science and normative political theory with the latter regarded as an “unscientific” legacy of the discipline’s past.

Behavioralism’s main methodological claim was that uniformities in political behavior could be discovered and expressed as generalizations, but that such generalizations must be testable by reference to observable political behaviors, such as voting, public opinion, or decision making. Most behavioralists equated observation with quantification to a degree that went beyond what Merriam, Key, or Laswell had considered “appropriate quantification.” Finally, the behavioralists proposed a “pure science” where the theoretical explanation of political behavior was to precede the solution of urgent practical policy problems in society.

The concept of the state, which had been central to political science, was also displaced in the 1950s by a concept of the “political system” that is mainly associated with Talcott Parsons’s systems analysis. Parsons’s sociology identified the political system with behaviors and institutions that provide a center of integration for all aspects of the social system. David Easton echoed this view by declaring, “neither the state nor power is a concept that serves to bring together political research” and instead defined the political system as “those interactions through which values are authoritatively allocated for a society” (1953, p. 106). Systems analysis was tied closely to various theories of decision making, but most notably to pluralist theory, which viewed decision making as the outcome of peaceful bargaining between interest groups in society. Easton emphasized that to account for the persistence of political systems, one had to assume that they successfully generate two “system outputs”: (1) the political system must successfully allocate values for a society (decision making); and (2) the political system must induce most members to accept these allocations as binding, at least most of the time (legitimacy). These “policy outputs” feed back into the social, economic, international, and natural systems to generate new inputs and demands that must be continually processed by the political system.

Easton’s model of the political system stimulated a great deal of research over the next two decades on decision making, interest groups, political communications, political parties, elections and voting behavior, legislative behavior, political socialization, political beliefs, and the policy process. These fields of research have also been characterized by ever increasing levels of sophistication in the use of statistical techniques and concepts. However, the systems model was often limited in applicability by its emphasis on system stability and the assumption of institutional arrangements peculiar to Western democracies. These limitations were partly addressed by the functionalists, who employed a modified concept of the political system that focused on “functions” and “processes,” while acknowledging that the same functions could be fulfilled in various political systems through different processes or institutions. Functionalism was particularly influential in the study of comparative politics and non-Western political systems, where there were different institutional arrangements or where the use of statistical techniques was hampered by the absence of data and technology.

During the 1950s the political science discipline also assumed its current form as a collection of distinct sub-fields with most political scientists specializing in one or two subfields, while having less and less interaction with practitioners in other subfields of the discipline. The standard subfields are American government, comparative politics, international relations, political theory, public administration, and public policy, although the two latter “applied” fields have often been shifted into separate academic units, such as schools of public administration or public policy, while political theory is now actually practiced as often by historians, philosophers, and literary critics as by political scientists.

The Postbehavioral Revolution

Political science entered a postbehavioral revolution amidst the political rebellions of the late 1960s and the new social movements of the 1970s and 1980s. New intellectual currents, such as neo-Marxism, postpositivism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism were conjoined with a variety of political movements, including pacifism, feminism, environmentalism, postcolonialism, and the gay and lesbian liberation movements. Easton identified the source of the postbehavioral revolution as a “deep dissatisfaction with political research and teaching, especially of the kind that is striving to convert the study of politics into a more rigorously scientific discipline modeled on the methodology of the natural sciences” (1969, p. 1051). The behavioral persuasion remains the dominant orientation of the official discipline, but it has been challenged numerous times since the late 1960s.

One of the most significant intellectual challenges to the behavioralist paradigm and to pluralist theory was the return to the state initiated in the late 1960s by Marxists, such as Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas and then carried forward by the “new institutionalists.” Nicos Poulantzas’s Pouvoir Politique et Classes Sociales (1968), and Ralph Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society (1969) directly challenged systems analysis and pluralist theory by drawing on a radical tradition identified with the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, V. I. Lenin, and Antonio Gramsci. These authors developed theories of the state that questioned the basic assumptions of the dominant political science, particularly its assumption that political power is distributed more or less equally among different social groups. At the height of his popularity in the mid-1970s, Miliband was recognized as one of the leading political scientists in the English-speaking world, while Nicos Poulantzas was arguably the most influential political theorist in the world for a time.

However, the interest in state theory waned temporarily as many political scientists abandoned the quest for grand theory in the context of a more widespread intellectual disillusionment with grand scale metanarratives, such as state theory and their attendant transformational political projects. The shift from Marxist to post-Marxist to poststructuralist and postmodernist theory shifted the analysis of power from macroscopic to microscopic forms of power and, therefore, to the multiple “technologies of power” such as language, family, interpersonal relationships, culture, leisure and entertainment, and the configurations of repressed desire (Foucault 1972, p. 12).

The growing discontent among a minority of political scientists led to the establishment of the Caucus for a New Political Science in 1967. The Caucus includes political scientists of many diverse viewpoints, but it is united by the idea that the discipline should abandon “the myth of a value-free science” and advance a progressive political agenda. While originally founded as an alternative to the APSA, it won recognition as the first organized section of the APSA with the right to sponsor its own panels, collect dues, and to publish its own journal New Political Science. Members of the Caucus have authored numerous commentaries on “the tragedy” of political science, “the crisis” in political science, and “the flight from reality in political science.” In 2000, these discontents again resurfaced in the “perestroika” rebellion, which denounced the APSA as an organization controlled by “East Coast Brahmins,” which promotes a “narrow parochialism and methodological bias toward the quantitative, behavioral, rational choice, statistical, and formal modeling approaches” (Monroe 2005, pp. 1, 9).

While Caucus members remain a small proportion of the APSA’s membership, it established a precedent that has resulted in the proliferation of “organized sections” to represent the interests of political scientists in interdisciplinary, subfield, and methodological research outside the official discipline. There are now 37 organized sections in the APSA, whose combined membership is greater than that of the discipline as a whole and attendance at “section” panels of the APSA’s annual meeting tends to be higher than at the “disciplinary” panels. Political science is now fragmented into so many subfields, methodological approaches, area specializations, and theories that “political scientists apparently come together at APSA meetings, but only in spatial terms” (Yanow 2003, p. 398). The future of the discipline in the next century is not clear, but its development over the last century has been characterized by the accretion of multiple approaches. Despite major paradigm shifts, no conception of the discipline is ever completely displaced by another approach and the discipline is now clearly marked by a lack of consensus concerning its basic concepts, theories, and methodology.


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