The argument of whether or not political science is a science has been a long standing debate. Of course, most political scientists would be biased and argue that it is, but I am no political scientist. ‘Science’ is defined as an activity that gathers knowledge on existing phenomena with the aim of explaining them and to formulate statements of patterns through objective observation. Now the existence of political science as a field is relatively young compared to the existence of the study of natural sciences such as Physics, Chemistry and Biology. Even in the world of social sciences, political science is new compared to the likes of History and Law. The modernity of politics makes it susceptible to critics as to what exactly is the science of politics. Its young age shows that there isn’t a particular definition of what the exact science of it is. If science is to be bluntly defined as the explanation of phenomena as a constant reference, how can political science sum up to that? With that in mind, how can we define political science as a science? The inherent nature of humans, existence of social facts and politics as a study of human behaviour, makes it difficult to be boxed into a set guideline. In this essay I will answer why I do not think that political science is in itself a science.
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If the definition of science is bluntly taken as the three main principles of natural sciences then political science has defied its nature as a ‘science’ (Schmitter, Phillip C., 2016). Charles Merriam argued that it was fundamental for the two worlds of social and natural sciences to come together in order to understand the human behaviour. Russet and Oneal justify the need of emulating natural sciences in the world of political science by stating that “just as epidemiological research helps prevent disease by prescribing or proscribing certain lifestyles and habits, so political research could help prevent violent conflict by prescribing certain political practices identified as causes of international peace (e.g. democracy)” (Russett and Oneal, Triangulating Peace, 84–85.). Although the idea of marrying the two sciences to help build a brave new world may seem attractive, the reality is that the factors or variables identified in researching human behaviour causes there to be a large flaw in defining political science as a natural science. If a natural scientist is to observe and manipulate variables into finding truth about a phenomena, the variables in itself are unaffected by the scientist’s observation of how or why they react the way they do. Russet also identifies that social scientists construct realities. The way that a social scientist would like to identify “facts” could be distorted by the reality that if “social behaviour” is repeated enough it could turn into a “social fact”. (Bruce Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 136.). There is a lack of consistency within what the ontology of politics is, and is inconstant according to time and space.
Hence, how can we define it as a science if the existence of what we construe as fact is dependent on whether we want to or make it exist? The inherent nature of humans to be constantly self-realising no longer allows variables to be constant and others manipulated as emulated in the natural sciences. This value of self-realisation causes implications in the political world, which is once the subject(s) are aware of how their actions affect reactions, new political patterns emerge that are no longer in order with the law-like consistencies that were explained by the research. Claude Henri de Saint-Simon claimed that political science observations are so vulnerable to individual perceptions that there can be no universal consensus as to how, what and why political issues occur. (Thiele, L. P., 1997). The social facts that exist are due to social construct, making them impossible to act as independent facts. The very fact that humans are constantly self-analysing and self-aware makes human behaviour unpredictable thus unfit for methods associated with the natural sciences. The constant change of interpretation when it comes to political phenomena based on ethnicity, cultural background or class makes it impossible to conclude that every individual would react equally. For example, the illegal status of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) group in Malaysia is seen to be “appropriate” according to the cultural and religious backgrounds of the country, whereas the idea of criminalising the LGBT group in a modern, Western country such as the United Kingdom would result in a large-scale backlash. Citizen cooperation or otherwise depends on the cultural context, thus political science is in itself dependent on context.
Furthermore, humans are volatile in nature. This trait causes there to be a great divergence in how we choose to react; so can there be a pattern formed at all? The existence of different political structures such as democracy and totalitarianism are by idea supported in order to ensure the best possible living situations for the nation’s citizens, but once power is passed to an individual or group, they too have the power to abuse the resources available. What differentiates fact from fiction is the nature of those who hold the power themselves. If a leader would like to be corrupt, he can be corrupt. Idealistically, the individual in power would put the needs of his nation before his own, but realistically self-interest comes into play with the prioritisation of their status to remain in their seat. To what extent their self-interest has when it comes to corruption then depends on the economic climate of their nation. For example, although many nations practice democracy, some are more corrupt than others. There is a strong negative relationship between level of income and corruption, thus generalising that richer or more developed nations are less likely to be corrupt in comparison to developing nations (Wraith, R., Simpkins, E., 2012). No two democracies are alike, and they are unable to establish patterns that are universal and timeless, further strengthening the fact that political science research must be contextual.
Positivists would like to seek out a world whereby political phenomena is able to be explained and understood by means of rigorous quantitative data. To mimic the natural sciences and establish general laws of politics would be the end goal. If science exists to explain and identify phenomena that are naturally occurring and established, whether or not we know of its existence, political science should exist to explain highly specific situations that unfortunately, cannot be used as reference for time to come without expecting extremely low validity and reliability. As Alan Gewirth states, “the laws of social sciences cannot have the same fixity or permanence as the laws of natural sciences”. This is not to say that the study of politics itself is useless, but we cannot assume that politics, as a quintessential human activity, is sustainable to be observed as a “science”. The phenomena that occur are so highly specific to a certain culture, economic climate and time that the lack of possible generalisation makes it almost impossible to reach the goals of natural scientists, which is to produce highly reliable and valid data.
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In conclusion, political science isn’t a science by definition of natural sciences, but its own field. As German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey puts it, social sciences should aim for verstehen (understanding) of social phenomena instead of finding causal relationships. Human nature is complex and ever-changing according to current social climate. Research that is conducted now may not be viable come the next century. Social sciences can neither explain nor predict the social world, that the best social scientists can do is gives us many different kinds of literary “thick” descriptions of social reality (Kincaid, H., 1996). As political scientists we can adopt the methods used by the natural sciences and encourage a wide use of both quantitative and qualitative data to produce the most reliable data as it can get, but we do not necessarily have to imitate the path of natural sciences. Political science should exist to comprehend current political phenomena in order to learn from past choices rather than predict what the outcome would be if the same choices were to be made in the future.
- Schmitter, Phillip C. (2016) Politics As A Science (aka Politology),
- (Russett and Oneal, Triangulating Peace, 84–85.)
- (Bruce Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 136.)
- (Thiele, L. P., 1997)
- (Wraith, R., Simpkins, E., 2012)
- (Kincaid, H., 1996)
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