political science as a social science

Topics: Sociology, Social sciences, Scientific method Pages: 8 (2405 words) Published: March 31, 2014


Political Science is in part a social science, and in part a humanity. Both are important. In this topic, we will look at the basics of social science inquiry, and then proceed to show how this differs from, on the one hand, inquiry in the natural sciences and, on the other, inquiry in the humanities. Social Science Social science inquiry seeks to develop empirical theory. �Empirical� refers to things that can be experienced through the five senses of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or (in the case of political corruption) smelling. �Theory� basically means explanation. An empirical theory of politics, then, is an attempt to explain why people behave the way they do politically. If a social scientist (or anyone else) observes people engaging in political behavior, he or she will need to focus on certain characteristics of the people being observed. The observer may wonder why some people differ from others in their political characteristics. Why, for example, are some people Liberals while others are Conservatives and still others are New Democrats. Characteristics that differ from one person to another are called one variables. Those that do not are called constants. Constants are generally less interesting than variables. There is not much point in trying to explain voting behavior in a country in which only one party appears on the ballot. Of course, we might then ask why some countries have only one party whereas others have multi-party systems, but now we are treating �number of parties� as a variables. Everyday language is full of what are, in effect, hypotheses about political behavior. For example, talk about a �gender gap� in voting hypothesizes that vote (the dependent variable) is in part a function of gender (the independent variable), with women more likely to vote for the Liberals or New Democrats and men more likely to vote Conservative.

Social science research differs from everyday discussion of politics in two ways. The first is where hypotheses come from. Anyone who follows politics will likely carry around in his or her head a lot of ideas about what explains political behavior. Such ideas may come from personal experience, from conversations with others, or from following politics through the mass media. This is true as well for the ways social scientists think about politics. In addition, however, social scientists develop hypotheses more systematically by studying the scholarly literature for the results of previous research. This is important for at least a couple of reasons. For one thing, it is usually the case that the more you learn what is already known about a subject, the more new questions you are likely to have. A review of the literature helps generate new hypotheses. Even more important, social science seeks not merely to describe raw facts, but to explain why people behave the way that they do. To accomplish this, we need to put our ideas into a broader theoretical context that offers such an explanation. It is a fact that in the United States, from 1936 through 2000, the incumbent party has always won the presidency whenever the Washington Redskins won their last home game before the election, and lost whenever the Redskins lost. However, since there is no reasonable explanation for why this should be the case, it is merely an interesting bit of trivia, and no serious observer of politics would rely on it in analyzing the next presidential contest. A second difference is that, for many people, ideas about patterns of political behavior remain merely assumptions. Social science insists that the validity of assumptions must be tested against data.

Conceptual definition. We need to know, and be able to communicate to others, what our independent and dependent variables mean....
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