General Approaches in Political Science

History of Political Science

Within the discipline of political science in the United States, traditionalism, behavioralism, and postbehavioralism are three distinct political science research approaches. That is, each offers a perspective on how best to carry out investigation, analysis, and explanation relating to politics and political life. These three approaches represent different points of emphasis regarding the ways in which research about politics should proceed. For example, it will be seen that traditionalism—in comparison with behavioralism—tends to emphasize the usefulness of analyzing governmental institutions when studying political phenomena, whereas behavioralism tends to assert the importance of research into the intricacies of the behavior of individual political actors (e.g., citizens, lobbyists, candidates, elected officials). However, all three research perspectives share the belief that political science research should produce explanations that improve and deepen our understanding of complex political processes. See Research Paper on the History of Political Science.


“Postmodernism,” writes criminologist John Crank (2003), “is a body of philosophy, methodology, and critical review of contemporary society that encompasses a variety of standpoints” (p. 153). Although we will revisit this simple description of postmodernism in some detail below, it is not uncommon that when first encountering this (or similar) encapsulations of postmodernism, many students of political theory are left scratching their heads. This is not necessarily the fault of the student. In fact, scholars, too, are left scratching their heads (sometimes angrily) over the dilemma of postmodernism and its “questionable” application to “real life.” Whether postmodernism and postmodern theories are applicable to real life is a debate, essentially, about the nature of reality and the value of some types of knowledge over others. This research paper intends to plunge the student directly into this debate. Drawing inspiration from famous postmodernist Jean- François Lyotard, this paper intends to expose readers to knowledge that will both enhance their knowledge base and change the way they acquire and process knowledge in the future. See Research Paper on Postmodernism.


Neoinstitutionalism, also known as the new institutionalism, has been one of the primary methodological approaches in political science in the United States since the late 1980s. This methodology is especially popular among scholars of U.S. politics, although it is growing in influence in the fields of comparative politics and international relations. The new institutionalism combines the interests of traditionalist scholars in studying formal institutional rules and structures with the focus of behavioralist scholars on examining the actions of individual political actors. The new institutionalism thus explores how institutional structures, rules, norms, and cultures constrain the choices and actions of individuals when they are part of a political institution. In other words, “The neo-institutionalist perspective combines the microlevel study of individual behavior with the macrolevel sensitivity to the institutional factors that help shape that behavior” (Miller, 1995, p. 6). The new institutionalism is a very influential postbehavioralist methodology today among political scientists in the United States and abroad. See Research Paper on Neoinstitutionalism.


Systemism has emerged as an important worldview and methodological approach in social science. This approach is generally against reductionism, and it sees everything either as a system or as part of a system. This view is different from individualism or holism. While individualism emphasizes individuals in society, holism focuses on structure. Systemism can be seen as an alternative way to make sense of a complex world. This research paper explores the historical and theoretical development of the systemism approach in social science by addressing its applications and policy implications. Systemism contributes to methodological issues such as systems analysis, modeling, case study, and survey research, and it may have significant policy implications in the fields of environmental politics, administrative decision making, and urban politics and development. See Research Paper on Systemism.

Rationality and Rational Choice

The rationality concept has figured prominently in some of the most fascinating, heartfelt, and at times acrimonious scholarly exchanges among political scientists. This research paper focuses on five important intellectual developments in the study of rationality from a political science perspective: (1) the 1960s as an important era in scholarly exploration of the relationship between public policy making, decision making, and rationality; (2) Herbert Simon’s seminal and hugely influential theorizing on decision making and the limits of individual rationality; (3) the legacy of bounded rationality, particularly in Graham Allison’s models of decision making; (4) the seminal work of a group of economists and political scientists during the 1950s and 1960s who figured prominently in the emergence of modern rational choice theory; and (5) the modern scholarly debate over rational choice. A central theme of this survey is the tension between economic and political definitions of rationality and how these conceptions of rationality have shaped contemporary political science theory and research. See Research Paper on Rationality and Rational Choice.

Principal-Agent Theory

In political science, the principal–agent relationship is usually studied by rational choice scholars. The rational choice paradigm uses economic assumptions of human nature to study political outcomes. As such, rational choice scholars begin with assumptions of rationality as well as the maximization of (relatively) fixed goals. These are the strong assumptions of rational choice. For example, the assumption of wealth maximization often translates to power maximization or reelection for political leaders (Levi, 1997). It also includes several weaker assumptions, including no information costs; no transaction costs; no collective or organizational costs; no transportation costs; and no role for history, institutions, or culture. There are simplifying assumptions that are not true, per se, but they are held to be true for the parsimony of the model. However, some authors do not include all of the assumptions (or they lift or “assume away” one assumption or another) and examine the likely outcomes of no longer having all the simplifying assumptions in the model. However, different scholars have examined political interactions and have lifted one assumption or another. Olson (1965), for example, lifted the assumption of collective action costs to show how by reintroducing these costs, one could predict more realistic political outcomes than before. See Research Paper on Principal-Agent Theory.

Political Psychology

The term political psychology refers to the study of the ways in which human psychology—our thought processes, personalities, beliefs, and so on—affects politics, and it can be thought of as the area where the academic disciplines of political science and psychology overlap or intersect. It can also be thought of as a kind of “bridge” between the two fields. Just as political economy studies the ways in which economic relationships affect political behavior (as well as the ways in which politics affects economics), political psychology looks at the ways in which our cognitions and emotions, as well as the social pressures surrounding us, can shape our behavior in the political realm. It would be odd indeed if the ways in which the human mind works, for instance, did not affect our voting choices in significant ways, the manner in which we campaign, the tendency of some individuals to engage in genocidal behavior, or the practice of terrorism (to note but a few of the ways in which human beings act politically). In fact, while many political scientists attempt to explain our behavior in other ways—most commonly, by modeling it according to the assumptions of classical economics—there is at least a grudging acceptance within the discipline today that any full account of the vast array of behaviors that human beings engage in when they act politically simply requires an understanding of political psychology. See Research Paper on Political Psychology.


Leo Strauss was one of the most prominent and controversial political theorists of the 20th century. He is perhaps most well-known for his view that classical political science, exemplified by Plato and Aristotle, is superior to modern political science in its various forms. Strauss cultivated in his students and admirers a certain disdain for contemporary political science, which he believed was largely irrelevant or even dangerous to political life. He emphasized the need for political science to be prescriptive with respect to the ends as well as the means of political action. Strauss’s followers are now commonly known as the Straussians, although some of them resist the label. While there are disagreements among them, they generally adhere to his rejection of mainstream political science, with its emphasis on method, math, and theory. They make up a relatively small but important group within academic political science, several holding posts in some of the most prestigious universities in the United States. While most of them hold formal positions in the field of political philosophy, their work extends to all the substantive fields of contemporary academic political science. See Research Paper on Straussians.

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