Nature of Political Science

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POLITICAL SCIENCE, academic discipline, the focus of which is the systematic study of government in the largest sense, encompassing the origins of political regimes; their structures, functions, and institutions; all the ways in which governments discover and deal with socioeconomic problems—from dog licensing to diplomacy; and the interactions of groups and individuals that play a part in establishing, maintaining, and changing governments.

Nature of the Discipline.

Political science usually is viewed as one of the social sciences, which also include anthropology, economics, history, psychology, and sociology. Its relationship to these disciplines can be seen from two perspectives. Some say that political science occupies a central position because the human and social concerns of the other social sciences must take place within—and be affected by—the political beliefs, practices, and authority that exist everywhere. The opposite view is that political science is the “handmaiden” of the other social sciences because it depends on them for its concepts, methods, and understandings. Whichever side one takes, it remains true that throughout the nearly 100-year history of political science as an academic field, first one and then another of the other social sciences has been seen as the key to comprehension of political matters. The precursors of political science were concerned with the attainment and securing of ideal ends. Questions about the best form of government are now widely considered outside the scope of the discipline, which is regarded as being concerned not with what ought to be but, rather, with what actually is. Although the question of the ideal usually is placed in the field of political philosophy, some scholars argue that because value questions are implicit in all political inquiry, they need to be squarely faced. Today most published research and formal study in political science deal primarily with tangible topics such as political campaigns and elections, the legislative process, executive power, administrative regulations, tax and welfare policies, international relations, comparative politics, judicial decision making, and the actions and effects of groups involved in business, labor, agriculture, religion, ethnic cultures, the military, and the media.

Early History.

Strong interest in the nature of the state, its organs of control, and the place of the citizenry within its boundaries existed as far back as ancient Greece. Most scholars would agree that Aristotle was the earliest forerunner of the political scientist. Among other things, his treatment of types of regimes in his Politics presaged countless efforts to classify forms of government and has remained a major influence on the discipline. Plato’s Republic, with its theoretical development of a utopia, or perfect city, was another important early work. Over the centuries, other classics of the field were written by the Roman statesman Cicero, by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, by the Italian statesman Niccolò Machiavelli, by the British philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, by the French writers Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Baron de Montesquieu, and by the German philosophers Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and Karl Marx. The Federalist (1787–88), a series of essays, most of them by the American statesmen Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, is a classic of early U.S. political thought (see FEDERALIST, THE). Almost all of these authors dealt with the possibility that a society could provide the conditions for a good life for all its people. These works are still read, largely because they go beyond material comfort to treat such higher values as justice, equality, liberty, and the promotion of human excellence.

Development in the U.S.

As an academic discipline, political science is a part of higher-education curricula all over the world, although it is more prevalent in the U.S. than...
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