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Monday
Jun052006

What is "Political Science?"

If someone asked whether political science was its own subject matter, we would need to clarify something: (1) do they mean it own activity (a methodological focus); or (2) do they simply mean its own topic of conversation? Let’s take the second one first. Clearly, political science is not distinct in what it talks about. Journalism talks about the same thing. So does history to some extent. Indeed, so do some in taverns on the weekends. But compare this to, say, statistics or engineering. Talking about these subjects seems to require its own expertise before the conversation is understood. Can you talk about engineering without first having to learn something about engineering as an activity? It is not that people in taverns do not talk about engineering, it is that, when the do, they are being “amateur” engineers. Can we say the same of political science? When plain people talk about politics, are they merely being amateur political scientists? Are journalists or historians when they talk about political phenomena just “winging it,” while the true masters of this subject dwell elsewhere? I doubt it. It seems to me that the conversation of politics is neither foreign to ordinary people or something that requires is own expertise to understand the conversation.

Having cast doubt upon the subject of whether politics is an exclusive conversation, let us consider the second question: is political science its own means of inquiry (the methods part)? That is, is political science its own intellectual or scientific craft? It seems to me that what political science is, is the application of history, political philosophy, statistics and psychology to the study of political phenomena. To be a political scientists requires you to be a little of something else. Too much of one at the expense of the others puts it in another box.

But how does this compare with other “disciplines?” History appears not to be its own topic of conversation, but it does appear to be its own craft. So, too, for psychology. But then again, I must be careful: isn’t statistics merely the borrowing of the craft of mathematics, which borrows from arithmetic? Here is the difference: statistics is a distinct kind of applied mathematics, as is, say, algebra and calculus. This is not true of political science. What it borrows is not an activity unique to itself. So the point is this: political science appears to have neither its own conversation nor its own activity. And so I must now ask: are we even a “science?” Or are we simply a collection of educated people who apply someone else’s science to an ordinary conversation?

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Reader Comments (1)

Let me see if I can shed some light on this question concerning whether or not political science is a science in the true sense of the word.
Before the scientific revolution, all sciences were grouped under philosophy. If you were a scientist, you were a philosopher. Galileo was considered a philosopher in his time, for example. It was during the scientific revolution that these scientist-philosophers (Bacon, Descartes, and of course Newton) were able to successfully separate themselves from philosophy.
This ushered in the Age of Enlightenment and science became the man's hope for the future. Universities shifted their focus from theology to the new sciences. The attachment of the word "science" to a field of study carried with it a measure of prestige. "Social science" was one of the fields of study that took on this new moniker.
I find it interesting that although it is called "political science", you still get a B.A. instead of a B.S. Perhaps attaching the word "Science" is still seen as prestigious in the academic world.
June 22, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterRichey

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