Thoughts on the science, theory and philosophy of politics, Part I

People aiming to study and understand some aspect of society from an objective perspective have to consider whether their subject is influenced by political power or not. The difference between political and non-political subjects is fundamental because political power usually has a strong influence which must be explicitly accounted for. For the purposes of this essay and the following ones I will think of social studies (social science, theory and philosophy) as being divided into two subcategories: a political and a non-political (or apolitical) one.

Starting from this twofold division, I intend to examine two things. The first is the basic categorization of political studies into political science, political theory and political philosophy. What separates and links these three fields from and to each other? The second is how they compare with a similar division in apolitical studies: apolitical science, apolitical theory and apolitical philosophy.

The word “apolitical” may seem awkward, but I will use it simply to avoid the misleading use of “social science” and “social theory” as parallel alternatives to “political science” and “political theory”. In my usage the word “social” designates the general category and “political” and apolitical” are its two subcategories.

Political science ↔ Apolitical science

Those who engage political science face problems that are common to all social science: the phenomena to be studied are complex, fleeting and not amenable to effective control. But there are regularities and they can be studied empirically. In his book on social science Mario Bunge summarizes the challenges of social science as follows:

“In short, there are important differences between social experiments and experiments in the natural sciences. These differences combine to make the former much harder than the latter. As a consequence, it is far more difficult to test hypotheses and theories in the social sciences than in the natural ones.” (Bunge 1999 p.15)


“The difference between [all-else-equal clauses] in the more advanced sciences and the less advanced ones is this: in the former the variables assumed to remain constant are explicitly identified and controlled, whereas in social studies they are usually left unidentified and uncontrolled; in these the expression ceteris paribus is commonly used to denote whatever the theorist overlooks.” (Bunge 1999 p.17)

These two quotations nicely summarize the reasons why social science has to be statistical. Social scientists must resort to data collection and analysis in an uncontrolled environment. Social experiments consist of statistical analyses where certain variables are collected while others are excluded (they are assumed to be “equal” for the purposes of the experiment at hand). This process is uncertain, but empirical social studies are nevertheless possible and important.

With these general restrictions in mind, how does the empirical study of political phenomena differ from that of apolitical ones? I suggest that political science has to seek much more support from speculative theoretical ideas than apolitical science does. There are two reasons for this.

The first reason is what I call the vertical scope of politics. Political actions are nested in a hierarchy of power which  ranges from international institutions and other states to the sovereign state and to its subunits: districts, counties, cities and whatever there may be.  Lower-level political phenomena are not fully explicable without reference to higher ones and vice versa. So political scientists face a very complex hierarchy of cause and effect where it is difficult to even think of all the variables that have been assumed “equal” in an empirical study.

The vertical power structures themselves are unwieldy and perhaps impossible to “measure” or “observe” in any meaningful sense of these words. Political scientists often tackle this complexity by restricting their studies to the most independent political units, the “sovereign” nation states; in other words politics at the national level, organized through a national parliament with nationwide parties and studied through national statistics. The other way to account for vertical scope is to seek help from political theory.

The second reason why political science is reliant on theory is what I call its horizontal scope. By this I mean the  division of political science into three parts; (1) input: how power is divided (elections and the formation of governments); (2) process: how decisions are reached and (3) output: how decisions are implemented once they have been made (Pennings 1999 p.17). The input and output sides are open for free research just like other aspects of society.

On the input side, parliamentary laws specify how elections determine the distribution of power among parties and provide a framework for the exercise of power. This conversion from election results to parliamentary seats can be observed, since it is a public process. Voters can be polled before elections and pre-election programs and promises can be stored as the elected representatives begin their work. On the output side, the laws and decisions enacted by parliament are announced publicly and normal social science methods can again be employed to study their effects.

However, the actual decision-making process, which lies between the input and the output, is public only under direct democracy, so it is not possible to gather empirical information on part 2 in modern government. Even though sessions and votes in parliament are often open to the public, the actual political compromises are more likely to be made in secret. The idea that politicians would truthfully answering a survey on how they reached a specific decision or compromise is absurd. Political scientists can address this problem by examining second-hand data such as parliamentary debates and proceedings, press releases and political news (Pennings 1999 p.76), but these sources of information are unreliable. That’s why political theorists can be of use in helping scientists bridge the gap between input and output.

Apolitical scientists do not have to seek theoretical assistance so urgently. It is much easier for them to perform a restricted study on a well-defined topic with reasonable accuracy. That’s not to say that apolitical science is devoid of complex causal chains or ignorance gaps. All social phenomena have historical roots that extend the causal chains backward as far as the researcher chooses to look. As for ignorance gaps, privacy requirements are a similar basic restriction in apolitical science as the opaque decision-making process in political science. Research subjects may not answer truthfully survey questions that touch on private matters.

But political science shares both the historical and the privacy challenge and problems of vertical and horizontal scope come on top of that. Furthermore, questions of power and decision-making are central to political science, whereas problems of history and private life can be safely avoided and ignored in most fields of social science. So when the all-else-equal clauses commonly denotes whatever the scientist overlooks, political scientists have to be more careful in deciding what they assume to be equal. Theoretical speculation is the best way to make the boundaries between controlled and overlooked variables more flexible.

Political science ↔ Political theory

Political theories, like other social theories, are mere educated guesses. As such they are uncertain and inaccurate, but their speculative freedom is essential for resolving the empirical restrictions that limit statistical analysis. Their primary use is that they provide a set of concepts, a vocabulary linked with ideas, to describe political phenomena. In this sense political theories, and social theories in general, are no different from scientific theories in other fields.

However, social scientists will never attain the interplay between empirical results and formal theory that scientists in some fields of the natural sciences have been able to develop. The theoretical description of political phenomena does not emerge from statistical measurements. The influence is strictly unidirectional: political theory provides a conceptual framework for political science. Political science does not have the empirical clout to challenge (or falsify) this framework.

It seems to me that political theory has throughout history drawn its material mostly from practical observations supplemented with good imagination. The task of a political theorist is to guess how the political system might be working and to provide a coherent and sensible description of it. It is guesswork, but it can be informed by both history and everyday knowledge.

As a statistical science political science is bound by its theoretical presuppositions. The results of a statistical analysis may correspond to prior expectations, or they may not, but either way they can never directly conflict with the presuppositions that guided the analysis. This is a basic feature of statistical analysis. So it is an important requirement for useful political theories that they provide a rich set of ideas so they can guide statistical investigations from a variety of perspectives. But richness should be tempered by economy, because a concise general theory will always carry more intrinsic conviction than a set of weakly connected partial theories, however rich they may be. This is the basic dilemma of all theorizing.

Looking at the part of modern political theory that I’m familiar with (and excluding all normative theories, which I categorize as philosophy), the work of Robert Dahl stands out as a particularly good body of political theory for studying questions in the horizontal dimension. The clarity of his thoughts and the variety of perspectives he offers on both the input and output side of democratic politics provide a direct avenue for empirical research to fill in details.

No comparable work seems to have been done on the vertical dimension of politics. Political science and theory remain wedded to national politics to a degree that I find inexplicable. Even “international relations theory” describes a game between states, not the workings of international political institutions. There’s no doubt that our current international political institutions are still infantile and underdeveloped, but one way to improve them would surely be to theorize their workings in an adequate fashion.

The neglect of local, small-scale politics in political science and theory is even more perplexing, because one would expect this to be the venue where empirical research could be most easily carried out. Since every citizen in a local democracy is a citizen in a national democracy as well,  the implications of empirical results at this level to politics on other levels should not be hard to elucidate with the help of good theory.

The task of political theory is to describe and explain the political system with concepts and ideas that can be investigated more closely in political science. If the descriptions also intuitively correspond with our daily experience as citizens participating in the system, so that it can be incorporated into public debate, so much the better. But there’s one question that I have not touched upon in this essay. It concerns theories of how political system should work. I will deal with it in the next essay where I suggest that political theory is never normative. Insofar as a theory is normative, it should be classified as political philosophy.


Bunge, Mario, Social Science Under Debate, University of Toronto Press 1999.

Pennings, Paul et al, Doing Research in Political Science, SAGE Publications 1999.


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