In the early stages of academic study students are invariably encouraged to reflect on what the subject itself is about, usually by being asked questions such as 'What is History?', 'What is Economics? or 'What is Astrophysics?'. Such reflections have the virtue of letting students know what they are in for: what they are about to study and what issues or topics are going to be raised. Unfortunately for students of politics, however, the question 'What is Politics?' is more likely to generate confusion rather than bring comfort and reassurance. The problem is that debate, argument and disagreement lie at the very heart of politics, and the definition of 'the political' is no exception[i].
Politics, in its broadest sense, is the activity through which people make, preserve and amend the general rules under which they live. As such, politics is inextricably linked to the phenomena of conflict and cooperation. On the one hand, the existence of rival opinions, different wants, competing needs or opposing interests guarantees disagreement about the rules under which people live. On the other hand, people recognise that in order to influence these rules or ensure that they are upheld, they must work with others. This is why the heart of the politics is often portrayed as a process of conflict-resolution, in which rival views or competing interests are reconciled with one another. However, politics in this broad sense is better thought of as a search for conflict-resolution than as its achievement, since not all conflicts are - or can be - resolved.
Nevertheless, when examined more closely, this broad definition of politics raises as many questions as it answers. For instance, does 'politics' refer to a particular way in which rules are made, preserved or amended (that is, peacefully, by debate), or to all such processes? Similarly, is politics practised in all social contexts and institutions, or only in certain ones (that is, government and public life)? There are, in other words, a number of more specific definitions of politics; indeed, it sometimes appears that there are as many definitions as there are authorities willing to offer an opinion on the subject. The main definitions nevertheless can be broken down into four categories: politics as the art of government; politics as public affairs; politics as compromise; and politics as power .
Politics as the art of government
'Politics is not a science... but an art', Chancellor Bismarck is reputed to have told the German Reichstag. The art Bismarck had in mind was the art of government, the exercise of control within society through the making and enforcement of collective decisions. This is perhaps the classical definition of politics, having developed from the original meaning of the term in Ancient Greece.
The word 'politics' is derived from polis, literally meaning city-state. Ancient Greek society was divided into a collection of independent city-states, each of which possessed its own system of government. The largest and most influential of these was Athens, often portrayed as the cradle of democratic government. In this light, politics can be understood to refer to the affairs of the polis, in effect, 'what concerns the polis'. The modern form of this definition is therefore: 'what concerns the state'. This view of politics is clearly evident in the everyday use of the term: people are said to be 'in politics' when they hold public office, or to be 'entering politics' when they seek to do so. It is also a definition which academic political science has helped to perpetuate.
In many ways the notion that politics amounts to 'what concerns the state' is the traditional view of the discipline, reflected in the tendency for academic study to focus upon the personnel and machinery of government. To study politics is in essence to study government, or more broadly, to study the exercise...
References: [i] For a broader discussion of politics, government and the state see Heywood, A. Political Theory: An Introduction. London: Palgrave, Ch. 3.
[ii] Easton, D. (1981) The Political System. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
[iii] Aristotle (1948) Politics, ed. E. Baker. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
[iv] Crick, B. (1993) In Defence of Politics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 21.
[v] Crick, B. ibid ., 30.
[vi] Leftwich, A. What is Politics?: The Activity and its Study. Oxford: Blackwell, 64.
[vii] Lasswell, H. (1936) Politics: Who Get What, When, How? New York: McGraw-Hill.
[viii] Millett, K. (1970) Sexual Politics. London: Granada, 23.
[ix] Marx, K and Engels, F. (1970) Communist Manifesto. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 105.
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