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Behavioral political science is an approach to the study of politics that claims to be more “scientific” and methodologically sophisticated than the older, so-called “traditional” political science. Although the study of politics and government dates back to Plato and Aristotle, Greek philosophers in the fourth century BCE, political science only emerged as a separate academic discipline toward the end of the nineteenth century. Since that time, the science of politics has shifted from a descriptive focus on political history, formal institutions, and legal codes to a more “behavioral” emphasis upon decision-making processes, the political behavior of individuals and groups, and their informal relationships. Methodologically, behavioral political science has replaced the predominantly historical, legalistic, and institutional studies of the traditional approach with the more empirical methods of modern social science, borrowed mostly from the field of psychology.
Broadly defined, the traditional approach of political science was concerned with the purpose, nature, and organization of the “state,” stressing humanistic, ethical, and philosophical perspectives. The traditionalists shared a preference for intensive case studies and other qualitative observations in which inferences were derived on the basis of subjective norms and values. Quantitative methods were only rarely used, because the traditionalists doubted that the “scientific method” of the natural sciences could be successfully applied to the investigation of the more indeterminate human behavior. Research typically focused on the detailed description of historical data, political institutions, constitutions, and legal systems, earning traditionalists the label of “hyperfactualists.”
Traditionalist political scientists regarded both empirical and normative questions as equally worthy of scholarly attention, often undertaking their studies because of strongly held personal opinions about the nature of politics. Many of their inquiries showed a normative or prescriptive slant, trying to describe the general principles and best-suited institutions of “good” government. They were also inclined to examine the influence of human values in politics and prescribe specific public policies.
In contrast, behavioral political science has attempted to apply the methodologies of empirical natural sciences to the study of politics and government. In response to the influential political scientist Heinz Eulau’s (1915–2004) call for political scientists to study behavior, not institutions, the field has focused analysis on the political behavior of individuals and groups, rather than on their formal roles or the structures within which they function. Although little consensus exists about the exact characteristics of the so-called “behavioral revolution” in political science, the scientific method of the behavioralists emphasizes the collection of observable data and the use of statistical analysis based on many recorded cases. Behavioral political science claims to be “value-neutral” in the sense of separating fact from value and describing political phenomena without judging their goodness or morality.
Behavioralist-oriented political scientists try to be more rigorous and disciplined in their research, seeking scientific precision by the quantification and measurement of collected data. Through the formulation and systematic testing of empirical hypotheses, they attempt to discover regularities and uniformities in political behavior, which can be expressed in generalizations or theory. Behavioralists see a close relationship between theory and empirical research in the sense that theory should be “verifiable” by analysis of observed behavior, while the process of seeking and interpreting empirical data should be guided by theory. Behavioral political science is concerned with the cumulative acquisition of law-like generalizations about human behavior and suggests a close relationship with the other social sciences.
The “behavioral revolution” in the science of politics emerged as a major force in the 1950s and won over much of the field during the 1960s. For years its supporters and detractors debated whether or not behavioralism represented a Kuhnian “scientific revolution,” producing a “paradigm shift” in the basic values and objectives concerning the nature of political science and how the pursuit of systematized knowledge about politics should be conducted. According to Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996), one of the most famous philosophers of science, a scientific revolution is a noncumulative revolutionary development in which an older scientific (paradigm) is supplanted by an entirely new, incompatible tradition that does not build on preceding knowledge. As the behavioralist approach gradually established itself, a new emphasis on methodology and the use of quantitative tools of analysis swept the field and increasingly became the preferred instrument of research, as reflected in refereed academic journals, scholarly books, and professional conferences. The behavioralist approach has made some remarkable contributions to the discipline, especially in providing political theory with a strong empirical basis and in dissecting the “social bases” of politics, as well as in examining comparatively the “political culture” of average citizens, as in the classic study by Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba, The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations.
By the late 1960s, however, the behavioral mode of inquiry came under heavy attack for its preoccupation with methodology at the expense of substance and publicpolicy orientation. Many younger political scientists criticized the distinction between fact and value, or “value-free” science, as abstract, sterile, and irrelevant in the age of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Far from being value-free and scientific, behavioralism was seen as static, pro-status quo, imbued with conservative values, ethnocentric, and presenting a highly idealized model of American politics. Behavioral political scientists were accused of focusing on trivial subjects of inquiry (such as analyzing accumulated statistics from elections, public-opinion surveys, legislative votes, and other easily quantifiable data), while ignoring the great ideological struggles of the day. The new movement, which the renowned Canadian-born political scientist David Easton called the “postbehavioral revolution,” reaffirmed the obligation of political scientists to be more problem-oriented and concerned with class relations and conflict, as well as to use their expertise about politics to improve public life. Postbehavioralists wanted to reverse some of the “excesses” of the behavioral school by placing substance before technique, policy orientation before ahistorical “pure science,” and the service of society before academic neutrality and moral relativism.
While the fundamental changes wrought in political science by the behavioralist emphasis on empirical theory and quantitative methods now seem irreversible, what emerged from the postbehavioralist revolt of the early 1970s was a widespread recognition that practical relevance and ethical evaluation of politics are equally important. The discipline has since moved to a “postbehavioral synthesis” of the traditional and behavioralist approaches, combining the empirical perspectives and statistical tools of behavioralism with renewed concern for change-oriented values and the use of specialized political knowledge to solve societal problems.
- Almond, Gabriel , and Sydney Verba. 1963. The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Easton, D 1965. A Framework for Political Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Easton, D 1969. The New Revolution in Political Science. American Political Science Review LXIII (December):1051–1061.
- Eulau, H 1963. The Behavioral Persuasion in Politics. New York: Random House.
- Kirn, Michael 1977. Behavioralism, Post-Behavioralism, and the Philosophy of Science: Two Houses, One Plague. Review of Politics XXIX (January): 82–102.
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