Political Science Methodology

Evolution of Science in Political Science

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? See Research Paper on Evolution of Political Science.

Positivism and Its Critique

Beyond the fact that there are several different traditions and streams of positivist thought, it is also unclear whether (or in what form) positivism continues to exist. For some, it is still the case that the appellation of the term positivist is, as James Johnson (2006) said, a “badge of honor, worn . . . to identify those whose research is seen—if not actually, then at least potentially—as embodying the virtues of rigor, clarity, and solidity” (p. 225). For others, the label is one to be avoided. For example, according to Anthony Giddens (1977), positivism “has today become more a term of abuse than a technical term of philosophy” (p. 29). Undoubtedly, at least in recent years, the term has been deployed as “a sufficient reason to dismiss entire brands of research and those who conduct them as abstract, sterile, and politically dogmatic in disciplinary and extradisciplinary terms” (Johnson, 2006, p. 225). Nonetheless, the concept seems to retain a central, if somewhat ambiguous, role within the social sciences generally and political science more particularly. It is perpetually disavowed yet often unconsciously embraced as a default orientation to ground scientific research in the social sciences. Positivism has been declared an anachronism at various points throughout the 20th century, only to reemerge with an uncanny persistence. See Research Paper on Positivism and Its Critique.


The last decades of the 20th century were marked by significant transformations on a global scale. The arrival of new forces created by discoveries in the realms of technology, transportation, and communications changed the patterns of social life and structures of international relations. The end of the cold war and ideological confrontation, decline in state sovereignty, and spread of globalization enlivened scholarly thinking about international relations and fostered academic debates about the nature of global politics and ways in which one can know and study it. The arrival of constructivism in the late 1980s was precipitated by these earthshaking changes in international relations and lively discussions within the discipline. This novel heterodox approach imbibed the criticisms of the mainstream perspectives on international relations, particularly the theories of neorealism. The latter was faulted for its inability to account for changes in the global realm because of its neglect of the transformational power of knowledge and ideas. Instead of prioritizing the role of material factors in international relations, the constructivist perspective emphasized ideational forces. Instead of accepting relations and structures in global politics as the natural or given order of things, it maintained that a reality of international relations was contingent and dependent on people’s thinking about it. See Research Paper on Constructivism.

Content Analysis

Content analysis is, as its name suggests, the analysis of the content of communications. Researchers use content analysis to make statements about the meaning, impact, or producers of those communications. Depending on the purpose of the specific research project, analysts may focus on the literal content or seek to extract deeper (or latent) meanings. This multiplicity of purposes has led content analysts to use a variety of strategies for analyzing text systematically. Some of these strategies, such as word counts, are easy to replicate, whereas other forms are far more interpretive and dependent on the judgment of the individual who codes the text. Most forms of content analysis yield quantitative indicators. Indeed, some would define quantification as an essential aspect of content analysis. Others view it as preferable but not essential. Content analysis is not new. According to Krippendorff (1980), empirical studies of communications can be dated back to the 1600s. More immediate ancestors to modern content analysis, however, are studies that sought to evaluate the content of mass media in the early 20th century and Nazi propaganda during World War II. As a method for studying communications, content analysis has been an especially popular methodology in the field of (mass) communication. See Research Paper on Content Analysis in Political Science.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research

For decades, there has been a raging debate among scholars regarding the differences between and advantages of qualitative and quantitative methods. In fact, this has probably been one of the largest and longest methodological debates in all of social science research. Perhaps it can be briefly summarized by the following two famous and opposing quotations: Donald Campbell says, “All research ultimately has a qualitative grounding”; and Fred Kerlinger says, “There’s no such thing as qualitative data. Everything is either 1 or 0” (in Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 40). Although it is not necessarily critical to determine which—if either—of these approaches can be described as the better one, it is imperative to have a thorough understanding of these methods in order to be able to conduct sound political science research. After all, for a study to be of value to scholars and other individuals interested in the topic, it is necessary for one to choose the correct research approach, ask suitable questions, use appropriate research methods and statistical analyses, correctly deduce or induce inferences, and have suitable general goals driving the research. See Research Paper on Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research.

Survey Research

Survey research is a major tool for bringing facts—data—to bear on political science theories. The way in which survey researchers do so, by collecting data from the few to generalize to the many, is once again undergoing a period of profound change. In the last significant period of change, survey research shifted from a reliance on face-to-face interviewing in respondent homes during the 1960s to the cheaper and faster world of telephone surveying in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, as the 21st century reaches its second decade, this transition toward a technology-mediated experience of the survey interview continues. The revolution in digital communications technology has brought about even bigger changes, from the steady replacement of landlines with cellular phones to the expansion and habitual reliance of an ever-larger number of Americans on the Internet. And although survey researchers have dealt with public skepticism of polling and a refusal to participate before, today it is higher than ever. Nevertheless, survey research has always been an investigative tool shifting with the prevailing social trends. As the study of survey research has become a scientific discipline of its own, survey research in political science is well prepared to meet these challenges and will adapt to do so. See Research Paper on Survey Research in Political Science.


Experimental research experienced a resurgence in the 21st century. This resurgence was led by a group of scholars at Yale University who persuasively argued that randomized intervention into real-world settings should “occupy a central place in political science” (Green & Gerber, 2002, p. 808). Committed to the belief that the value of survey research had been overstated and the value of field experiments was underappreciated, they set out to explore and promote the “untapped potential of field experiments” (p. 808).Working through Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Green and Gerber set up a summer workshop on field experiments, inviting social scientists across the nation (and world) to join them in this shared endeavor. Meanwhile, they trained their graduate students to conduct field experiments, inspiring a series of doctoral dissertations and academic articles using field experimentation. This research paper discusses the experimental method, compares the experimental method to survey-based research, and stresses the importance of random assignment of experimental treatments. The paper also explains the difference between laboratory experiments and field experiments, highlights the wide range of applications for experimental studies, and briefly discusses the policy implications and future directions of experimental research in political science. See Research Paper on Experiments in Political Science.

Formal Theory and Spatial Modeling

In Greek mythology, Hercules is tasked with 12 impossible labors to regain honor and thus ascend to Mount Olympus as a god. The job of explaining formal theory and spatial theory in a brief, nontechnical essay is a labor of sufficient difficulty to make the search for the Golden Fleece pale in comparison. Given that this author has no transcendental gifts (though Hippolyta’s belt may be around here somewhere), aspirations, or pretentions, this research paper eschews the impossible task of summarizing and explaining the entirety of formal and spatial theory. Instead, this research paper settles for the daunting yet mortal goal of a thorough yet concise introduction to some of the classical and contemporary works of the formal and spatial theories on politics and the concepts, definitions, and models on which those works rest. Although Duncan Black (1958) may have understated the mathematical underpinnings of spatial theory as “simple arithmetic,” it is as true today as it was then that the fundamental assumptions, intuitions, and predictions of formal and spatial theory can be grasped with a relatively basic foundation in mathematics such as algebra and geometry. Formal theorists employ a range of advanced mathematical concepts (i.e., integral calculus, matrix algebra, etc.) in their models. However, one does not need these to understand what formal theory is, what the foundational principles of formal theory are, and the gamut of its predictions and conclusions regarding political institutions and behavior. To the extent possible without compromising the material, this research paper keeps the discussion broad and descriptive and thus accessible to the undergraduate reader. See Research Paper on Formal Theory and Spatial Modeling.

Game Theory

Game theory is a branch of applied mathematics that is used to model multiactor interdependent decision making. Game theory is widely used in many social science disciplines, including political science, economics, sociology, and anthropology, where researchers are interested in outcomes when at least two actors interact with certain purposes. Game theory is a method of modeling. A usual game theoretic model specifies some essential aspects of a situation of interest and tries to make logical inferences about ensuing outcomes given the initial setup. There can be a simple election model, for instance, where there are two candidates who want to win the election and n voters who want to elect the candidate who is going to make policies that are beneficial for the voters. Two candidates announce their respective policy platforms, and voters vote. Whoever gets the majority of votes wins and makes policies. Given the initial setting, the solution to the game provides logically deduced inferences about outcomes of interest, such as who can win under which conditions and which policies should follow. See Research Paper on Game Theory in Political Science.

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