Can the study of politics be regarded as a science?
The debate as whether politics can be regarded as a science is ‘complex, voluminous and multi-faceted one’ . The origins of political analysis lie in the philosophical tradition of Plato and Aristotle whose work was fundamentally rooted in the normative. At the very early stages of politics as an academic discipline, the great thinkers of the time were not concerned with empirical evidence; instead basing their ideas on literary analysis. The emphasis on the normative that comes with the traditional study of politics suggests that politics is not a science as it cannot be objective. This was followed by the emergence of the normative model of political analysis and what Peter Lasslett called the ‘the death of political philosophy’. This movement was spearheaded by Machiavelli who was known as the father of the ‘politics model’ of political science. For example, he changes the value-laden question (what is better?) into a scientific one; what is safer? The shift from the prescriptive to the descriptive and impartial suggests that political thought has shifted away from the traditional philosophical to the scientific model. The empirical model of political thought emphasised the importance of experience as the basis for knowledge and this later developed into positivism which dictates that the social sciences should adhere to the methods of the natural sciences . An extreme version of this was also created called ‘logical positivism’ which stated that only statements which were empirically verifiable and aimed to say something about the meaning of political concepts are legitimate .
In fact the empirical model is seen as the foundation of comparative politics that is now the standard form of analysis in the UK and the US. This method seeks to develop generalizations by comparing different states or political systems. This produces slightly more informative results as one is more likely to be able to produce an ideal political situation through comparison rather than just using empirical evidence alone. However, there have been criticisms of the validity of comparative politics most notably from Alasdair MacIntyre. He states that creating law-like cross cultural generalizations between countries with radically different cultures is not as valid as proponents of comparative politics make it out to be . He uses the example of a study by Almond and Verba that states that Italians identify less with the actions of their government than the English or Germans because they of a survey asking what they took pride in . The point that McIntyre then goes on to make is that the notions of pride in Italy and England are vastly different and thus any comparison would have to start by identifying the virtues that are embedded within the institutions. However, he goes on to add that this shortcoming doesn’t completely devalue the work of comparative politics.
Karl Marx was the first to describe politics in terms of science and, along with Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, was described one of the main architects of political science . He believed that he could methodically determine trends in history and from these deduct the future outcomes of social conflicts. However, whilst this approach may seem to be simply empirical in its approach to political analysis it has been confirmed that ‘his theories yield testable propositions that allow rigorous evaluation and even falsification’ . His role represents a dramatic shift from the political philosophers of the traditional Greek model as he famously said in his Theses of Feuerbach that ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it’ . However, whilst Marx may have been the first person to truly combine scientific methodology with political thought, questions can still be raised over its validity. For example, the fact that Marx predicted the fall of capitalism whilst in fact state socialism has been on the...
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