Is the study of politics best considered a science or an art?
Since its conception as a formal academic discipline, Politics has existed on the fault line between two great fields of enquiry, the sciences and the arts. During the mid 20th century, with the rise of the behavioural movement, a general trend towards the “scientification” of the study of politics could be observed. The origins of this movement can be traced back to the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle and the writings of Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century (Sanders, 2010). However from the 1970s, there emerged a growing dissatisfaction with behaviouralism and a revival of interest in normative questions, as seen in the writings of theorists such as John Rawls and Robert Nozick (Heywood, 2002). This debate over the nature of politics, which is reflected in the different stages of development of the discipline, continues till date. But before we can decide which position is more relevant, it is important to clarify the distinction between the science of politics and the art of politics. Those who consider the study of politics as a science and those who consider it an art, pursue slightly different aims and apply different methodologies (Berlin, 1979). As Leftwich (2004) puts it, “the study of politics [as] a scientific endeavour... seeks to identify, on an explanatory and probabilistic basis, some general regularities, patterns and processes (if not laws) underlying all politics....”; whereas, “the study of politics [as] a more humanistic, historical, normative and hence non - scientific exercise, [is] concerned with the qualitative understanding and evaluative analysis (and moral judgement) of particular processes at particular times and in particular places.” Leftwich is distinguishing between the arts and sciences by pointing out the difference in their purposes and their aims of enquiry. Science is concerned with identifying repetitive patterns and thereby outlining laws which are universally applicable i.e. can be adapted to all situations. In contrast, art concerns itself with more in-depth analysis of a particular situation and attempts to find solutions particular to that historical or cultural context.
It is evident that an important aspect of the scientific study of politics requires the political scientist to provide descriptions that are generalizable beyond a particular case. The aim here is to use different variables to derive causal relationships which remain constant in any situation. This is done with an eye towards reliability and replication (Bond, 2007). While this process seems to have a wider significance and credibility than art, as art does not appear to be providing any broad solution beyond isolated case studies, science may in effect be restricting the scope of politics. An essential component of science is that another researcher, following the same procedure, is able to arrive at the same result. However, political and social events involve complex human behaviour and interactions which are often autonomous and cannot be viewed as simply reactive to independent variables. Science rests on the principle of rationality and consequently cannot account for the apparent unpredictability of human choices. Further it underestimates the intervention of memory, goal seeking, problem solving etc between the independent and dependent variables. People as a group evolve through a continuous process of learning and causal relationships change simultaneously because, unlike the physical world, the political world is rarely static in the long run. This inherent instability of variables in the social scenario renders the search for regularities or lawful relationships, which was a remarkable success in the natural sciences, an exercise in futility when it comes to explaining social outcomes. In the political arena, this strategy can only hope to explain, at most, some of the conditions which affect these outcomes (Almond and Genco,...
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