The notion of "concept" in social sciences

From Baripedia

In social science, theory plays a central role, but it is not always clear:

  • A first misunderstanding often associates theory with an abstraction, it can seem intimidating in the reserved domain of philosophers and intellectuals. Everyone, in fact, develops and uses theories.
  • A second misunderstanding would be that the theory would be irrelevant, not objective and far from facts and reality.

In fact, facts and theories are closely linked through inductive and deductive theoretical reasoning:

  • Inductive: this is a reasoning that starts from a few theoretical cases and attempts to identify general theoretical principles. It is starting from empirical ground and then infer principles and generalizations.
  • Deductive: we start from theory, we postulate, then we deduce propositions that are necessarily deduced from logical reasoning. Mancur Olson's rational choice theory is deductive reasoning.

The theory is an explanation of how reality works. A good theory identifies the factors and processes that structure part of social reality and identifies laws to explain them.

More specifically, according to Lim, in his book Doing Comparative Politics: An Introduction to Approaches and Issues published in 2006, he defines it as a simplified representation of reality, a prism through which facts are selected, interpreted, organized and linked together so that they form a coherent whole.

The theory guides the organization of facts, it will link facts to each other. So theory not only reduces the complexity of reality, it will also order it.

Finally, the theory itself is a coherent argument characterized by a strong internal logic that will explain which mechanisms support a causal relationship.

We can think of two analogies to grasp the notion of theory:

  • The pair of glasses: working the theory is like working the world through different pairs of glasses in order to focus on various aspects (role of political institutions, structure of globalized capitalism, etc.). Each pair is used to select facts. These choices are part of the theorization efforts. Thus we can focus on different aspects of reality; these focal points can complement each other.
  • That of the map: the theory would be like a map, a graphic representation of the physical reality of the world essential or even indispensable in many circumstances. One can imagine maps with reliefs to for example give us an idea of world geopolitics. According to the information we will have a different representation of the world.

We usually distinguish two perspectives of explanations:

  • Karl Marx's approach: he sees the explanation of theory as a way to change social reality. In the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, Marx says: "Philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, it is now a question of transforming it".
  • Max Weber's approach: Rather, he sees theory as a simple theoretical exercise that is the majority view of political science practitioners today.

Perhaps it was Marx who best formulated this approach when he said that philosophers only have to treat the world differently; today it is a question of transformation. We can clearly see the character of theory in the service of politics and social change, it is an instrument of revolution through class consciousness.

According to Robert Cox, in his book Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory[1], la théorie est toujours pour quelqu’un et dans quelques buts. Il n’est pas possible d’avoir une théorie entièrement neutre, elle est toujours au service d’une cause.

Conversely, Max Weber will emphasize the possibility of scientific objectivity in the social sciences and in particular the possibility of separating factual judgment and value judgment. In technical terms we speak of axiological neutrality according to this doctrine. The possibility of neutral and objective analysis without issuing a value judgment from the researcher is preferable.

Weber elaborates this axiological neutrality in Politik als Beruf. The following excerpt is from a series of lectures given in 1919 at the University of Munich; a reflection on the nature of scientific work is developed:

« Let us now turn for a moment to the disciplines that are familiar to me, namely sociology, history, political economy, political science and all kinds of philosophy of culture which have as their object the interpretation of the various kinds of previous knowledge. It is said, and I agree, that politics has no place in the classroom of a university. It has no place there, first of all on the student side. I deplore, for example, both the fact that in the amphitheatre of my former colleague Dietrich Schäfer from Berlin a number of pacifist students once gathered around his pulpit to make a racket, and the behaviour of the anti-pacifist students who, it seems, organised a demonstration against Professor Foerster, of whom I am, however, by my own ideas, as far away as possible for many reasons. But neither does politics have a place among teachers. Especially when they deal scientifically with political problems. Less than ever then, it has no place there. Indeed, taking a practical political position is one thing, scientific analysis of political structures and party doctrines is another. When, during a public meeting, we speak of democracy, we do not make a secret of the personal position we take, and even the need to take a clear stand is then imposed as a cursed duty. The words used on this occasion are no longer the means of scientific analysis, but constitute a political call to seek positions from others. They are no longer ploughshares to loosen the immense field of contemplative thought, but swords to attack adversaries, in short means of combat. It would be vile to use words like that in a classroom.When, in the course of an academic presentation, one proposes to study, for example, "democracy", one examines its various forms, analyses the functioning of each of them and examines the consequences that result from each of them in life; one then opposes the undemocratic forms of the political order to them; and one tries to push one's analysis to the point where the listener himself will be able to find the point from which he will be able to take a position according to his own fundamental ideals. But the real teacher will be careful not to impose on his audience, from the pulpit, any position, either openly or by suggestion - because the most disloyal way is obviously to let the facts speak. Why, basically, should we refrain from doing so? I presume that a number of my honourable colleagues will agree that it is generally impossible to put this personal reservation into practice, and that even if it were possible, it would be a hobby to take such precautions. Lady! One cannot demonstrate scientifically to anyone what one's duty as a university professor consists of. We can never demand from him that intellectual probity, which means the key obligation to recognize that on the one hand the establishment of facts, the determination of mathematical and logical realities or the observation of intrinsic structures of cultural values, and on the other hand the answer to questions concerning the value of culture and its particular contents or those concerning the way in which action should be taken in the city and within political groups, constitute two kinds of totally heterogeneous problems. If I were now asked why this last key set of questions should be excluded from an amphitheatre, I would answer that the prophet and the demagogue have no place in a university chair [...] I am ready to provide you with proof through the works of historians that each time a man of science called upon his own value judgment, there is no more full understanding of the facts »

— Max Weber, « Le métier et la vocation de savant », Le savant et le politique.

By following Weber, it is not nice to mix genres, analysis would do well to separate them and to tend them towards objectivity. However, normative considerations have their place in political science with a scientific approach that has followed the revolution of rational choice. These considerations tend to be studied in the field of political theory. There would be a division of labour in the sense of political science with again normative political theory that wonders, for example, whether parliamentary democracy is desirable. Any empirical questioning is postulated on normative postulates, however they will not be dominant, it is the dominant analysis that prevails.

Today, in practice, the vast majority of researchers are oriented towards explanatory and phenomenological research.

Max Weber on the delimitation of the field of political science and its purpose says « it is not the relationship between "things" that constitutes the principle of the delimitation of the different scientific fields, but the conceptual relationship between problems[2] ».

What delimits the object of political science are the conceptual relationships between problems, that is, between two concepts. We see that what constitutes the object is links between concepts.

The classic model[edit | edit source]

Definition: what is a concept?[edit | edit source]

As a preamble, it is useful to look at its etymology. In Latin, the word "concept" comes from "concipere" which is formed by "corp" and "capare" which means "to grasp fully". The concept will therefore be a tool, an aid to understanding.

However, there is a polysemy of the term. Different users will define it and propose various assertions:

Robert Adcock in The History of Political Science[3]

published in 2005 proposes a definition according to the classic model also called "objectivist paradigm" of the concept. He defines the concept as mental representations of categories of the world they represent external reality.

Concepts function as mental symbols ("mental symbols"; "mental representations"; "mental images"), representing external reality. This classic model treats objects as cognitive entities representing a series of classes of objects in reality via the common features of these entities in reality.

In 1984, Sartori published Social Science Concepts: A systematic analysis[4] for which the concept consists of a set of necessary characteristics that define it, thus distinguishing A from non-A. Conceptual analysis is the crucial methodological task facing any researcher. He opposes scientific discourse with the discourse of very vague common sense; Sartori requires science to define terms clearly. Definitions of clear and intersubjective concepts shared by the community as a whole must be identified. Conceptual work can also generate new concepts.

Taylor distinguishes between necessary and sufficient categories. The elements are of binary type, i.e. one has either the presence or absence of a characteristic. It is a dichotomous variable. All members of a category have the same status.

Measure[edit | edit source]

Article détaillé : De la théorie aux données.

Theories establish relationships between concepts, but they remain unobservable. What can be observed are measures of conceptual abstractions. Operationalization is the link between an abstract concept and its manifestation in a specific case that translates into the creation of indicators.

A measure is a quantification of a concept. Any concept must be operationalized to be able to do empirical research and test theoretical and conceptual connections.

History and "art" of the discipline: state of the art[edit | edit source]

The five major changes that enable us to understand the state of modern political science, to define the objects of the discipline and to question the very notion of political science are :

  1. the shift from description/judgment to explanation/analysis: from descriptive analyses that make strong value judgements to analyses that focus on explanation and theory ;
  2. the rise of the method: strengthening the method and the scientific nature of research;
  3. specialization ;
  4. we leave metatheoretical approaches to theorize more with the help of mean range theories;
  5. the revolution in available data.

From description to explanation[edit | edit source]

Since the Second World War and from the 1960s onwards, this double movement has been observed in the study of political phenomena, from description to explanation as an object of research, but also from normative and descriptive judgment to analysis and reasoning.

Towards the end of the Second World War, political science was essentially descriptive and the question of why? was rarely asked.

In the immediate post-war period, political science was essentially normative and inhabited by reformist sentiments. Normative considerations such as "what should be" must be understood without necessarily analyzing social and political mechanisms and realities.

It is the "why? questions that allow us to go beyond the description. The answers call for an explanation based on coherent reasoning and analysis.

What piques the curiosity of researchers is recurrent empirical regularities, recurrent social facts across time and space. The objective is to try to identify the mechanisms that identify and explain these empirical regularities.

Growth of causal thinking.png

This table illustrates the number of articles that mention a word that refers to causality as "causal analyses" in the American political science journal, but also in a larger number of scientific journals. We see a strong increase in causal jargon in these publications, which illustrates this strengthening of the role of explanation in what political scientists have been doing since the 1960s.

Nota bene

Changements qui ont eu lieu sur 100 ans, mais qui se sont renforcés depuis les dernières décennies. Il y a un double mouvement dès les années 1960 :

  • de la description on passe à l’explication ;
  • du Jugement normatif et prescriptif, on passe à l'analyse.
  • Prescriptif : jugements, évaluations émises en vue d’un aménagement politique

La science politique était très descriptive après la Seconde guerre mondiale, et très normative on ne se posait pas la question « pourquoi ? » (sentiment réformiste très présent) : c’est pourtant la réponse à « pourquoi ?» qui demande une explication et qui présuppose un raisonnement et donc une analyse.

  • Accent sur l’explication et l’analyse

Les sciences politiques se rapprochent des sciences exactes: sciences physiques et sciences naturelles. (Méthode comparative : on va regarder un certain nombre de fonctions constantes)

Strengthening the method and the scientific nature of research[edit | edit source]

This emphasis on explanation goes hand in hand with greater rigour in the method. Methodological rigour and mainly a strengthening of the scientific character of research.

The compared method is based on a small number of cases from 2 to 15-20. This method is scientific because if we look around us, we see a great diversity of political institutions Switzerland and characterized by federalism while the French state is highly centralized, others by Switzerland has a parliamentary system while in France the political and semi-presidential regime.

There is great institutional and political diversity across the world and this variation makes comparison desirable for two main reasons:

  1. the comparison gives us a good insight into the realm of the possible, it opens our eyes to the great institutional varieties that exist throughout the world reflecting the possible options and the capacity that societies have to choose their destiny. We see that there is a freedom that exists to shape its institutions through history, culture, society, etc. Effective institutions exist elsewhere and could be introduced in one's own country.
  2. Institutional and political differences are an analytical point for testing causal hypotheses, because causal analysis requires institutional, political, economic variation between entities being compared. These disputes will provide analytical support that will allow causal type explanation.

In comparative politics, "most similar research design" is a research design that will compare countries that are the most similar to each other. The idea is to identify an explanatory independent variable as an institution or political practice or even an individual characteristic of the voter if one is interested in electoral behaviour; identify such an independent variable, an explanatory variable absent in one of the two cases, but present in the other and that it is associated with different results at the level of the explained variable.

The selected cases are similar in all respects except for one independent variable and the result.

Bo Rothstein's article Labor-market institutions and working-class strength published in 1992[5]

which illustrates the theme of the institutions will focus on about fifteen European OECD countries, these are countries that are very similar from a geographical, historical, economic point of view. He will show on the basis of the trade union organization of the workers that there are very great variations in the European countries; he seeks to explain the variation. For this he will be looking for a factor that varies to explain this difference: a main institutional variable that will be the Gantt system, some countries experience such an institution of the labor market unlike others which will explain to a large extent why Scandinavian countries have high unionized rates.

In other words, these countries are very similar in many respects, but one variable changes which will explain the level of union density.

A second article by Robert Cox compares a smaller number of countries, namely the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, on the reform capacity of the welfare state based on a most similar research model.

We can also illustrate the strengthening of the method by the increasing use of regression analysis in political science that comes from econometrics.

Growth of mentions of words related to causal thinking.png

In this table, we see a growth of this statistical tool in the causal demonstrations that political scientists make more and more from the middle of the century. Thus, can isolate the effect of an independent variable on a dependent variable while controlling the effects of an alternative variable. If we use the explanations of the Weimar Republic, if we took more countries and historical moments, we would be interested in isolating the effect of a single variable on the fall of the Weimar Republic, which could for example be the proportional system. The idea is to isolate this net effect, that is, how important one variable is over another, which is what regression analysis allows.

Nota bene

Avantages de la comparaison :

  1. Elle donne un bon aperçu du domaine du possible : options possibles et capacités de la société de choisir pour les sociétés. Elle nous rencontre la plasticité des institutions politiques.
  2. Différences institutionnelles et politiques offrent un point d’appui analytique à fin déterminer des hypothèses de type causal. Car l'analyse causale requiert de la variation institutionnelle, politique et sociale entre pays qui se comparent les uns aux autres. Fournit « analytical leverage »

Most similar research design: l'idée c'est d'identifier une variable indépendante (facteur explicatif) de l'objet qu'on souhaite expliquer dont l’absence et sa présence dans différent cas va être associé à des résultats différents.

Donc la sélection de cas des pays se fait sur la similarité des cas.

Les pays vont être le plus comparables possible à l’exception de la variable indépendante. Postulé comme le facteur explicatif principal. Et la variable dépendant (résultat) va aussi varier.

Specialization in the field[edit | edit source]

Great thinkers such as Marx, Weber, Darwin, Tolstoy, Dickens or Dostoevsky were each a living encyclopedia on their own. A few years ago, Foreign Policy magazine conducted a ranking of the 100 most influential international thinkers, including Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Maria Vargas, Joe Stiglitz and Martin Wolf, an influential journalist with the Financial Times.

One may wonder why the contemporary list is so unimpressive:

  • it takes a certain distance in time to truly judge the genius;
  • this proximity, and thus familiarity with the great thinkers of our times, reduced genius tending to trivialize it;
  • a structural change in the way knowledge is managed, in particular universities promote excessive specialisation; knowledge progresses through cooperation and interaction between specialists organised in networks which meet at international colloquia and which increasingly occupy niches and perimeters of smaller knowledge and which nevertheless accumulate and grow in knowledge. This is facilitated by new technologies such as the Internet that allow all kinds of cooperation around the world. This specialization is reflected in the organization and structures of political science departments, particularly at the University of Geneva, where professors occupy chairs covering areas of the sub-discipline of political science. One and the same researcher tends to contribute to a single subfield of political science. For example, Damian Raess is an expert in comparative politics.

Mid-range theories[edit | edit source]

Nowadays, we tend to leave aside the big"-isms" like Marxism, liberalism, constructivism, realism in order to focus on context-specific debates and theories of averages. These are context- and problem-specific debates that can also be solved through empirical analysis.

Metatheory[edit | edit source]

A metatheory is a framework or schema that logically connects and reintegrates partial theories and participates in the construction of a general theory. It is a general theory of politics, which seeks to show how these various theories entwine.

These are, for example, structuralism, Marxism, historical-institutionalism or the theory of rational choices.

Mid-range theories[edit | edit source]

The definition comes from Robert Merton, he speaks of a theory with limited scope that focuses on one or a limited number of political aspects that tend to be specific to an issue. Researchers, for example, will dedicate their entire careers to better understanding the theorizing processes. It is a set of theories of limited scope that will try to explain specific phenomena, for example, specialists in civil conflicts who will try to analyze their determinants. It is also the theory of electoral behaviour and the approach of the varieties of capitalism that attempt to analyse, among other things, the results in the way market economies are organised between countries.

Revolution in available data[edit | edit source]

This revolution can be mentioned in quantitative data and the availability of large data banks and opinion polls that facilitate and enable research for political scientists and allow international comparison. It is a factor that contributes to the strengthening of quantitative and statistical analysis in our discipline.


History of the discipline: theories and conceptions[edit | edit source]

The constitution of the discipline, its professionalization and empowerment dates back about 100 years, it is a young discipline. However, its origins can be traced by a set of texts dating back to ancient Greece.

Origins in Ancient Greece[edit | edit source]

The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right)

In the 5th century BC, Greece is a world where the analysis of political ideas and ideals, the properties of political systems, the essence of citizenship and government action as well as state interventions in the political and foreign policy spheres are studied recurrently.

  • Plato (427-347 BC) The history of political science begins with Plato. In The Republic which is the first classic in the discipline, key work that offers the first political typology of different regimes.
  • Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) Politics. He pursued an inductive, empirical and historical method of social observation that contrasted with Plato's deductive reasoning and idealism.

There are two major themes dear to political science in this period:

  • What are the institutional forms of politics?
  • What are the criteria that will make it possible to evaluate these various institutional forms? This is a typically normative debate.

Renaissance[edit | edit source]

The Middle Ages are dominated by Christian thinkers and the theory of natural law is the belief in a universal natural law resulting from an order of transcendence of the divine; therefore the city-state must implement structures responding to this natural law. It is from the rebirth that things change.

  • Machiavelli [1469 - 1527] : "The Prince" is a treatise on the legitimacy of regimes and politicians. He sees in morality not only an end in itself as is the case in Christian thought, but he will say that in politics morality is also a means to a certain end. Morality is an instrument that allows a certain purpose.
  • Jean Bodin [1529 - 1596] : he is a theoretician of state sovereignty, his main work is The Six Books of the Republic from which he exposes the nature of the state whose existence is defined by the notion of sovereignty.

With the Enlightenment progress, contributions in theory accelerated with Hobbes, Locke, Humes, Smith, but also Hamilton in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. In the French tradition we can note Montesquieu and his work''De l'Esprit des Lois'' which became famous for the distinction he drew between legislative, executive and judicial power with the notion of separation of powers.

Late 18th - 19th century[edit | edit source]

This is the period of the classics of social theory:

Classical social theory.png

19th century: Classical period of social theory[edit | edit source]

On the one hand, political philosophy is marked by a certain historical determinism, particularly in the work of Engels and Marx, who consider history as a linear development in the direction of freedom and reason.

In reaction to these determinisms there is a first wave of empirical work which will see the light of day and oppose these abstract, generalizing and deterministic theories proposed in the middle of the 19th century.

This reaction produces a large number of descriptive studies of political institutions, including The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics by President Wilson which is a political ethnography of political institutions with a classification of models with a similar typology developed by Plato and Aristotle.

Wilson was a Democratic president during the First World War period, he himself was trained as a political scientist at Princeton University writing many books in political science.

Weber and Durkheim contrast modern rationality with tradition. They address the themes of modernisation, economic development, social development and also political development which is democratisation in particular.

These themes are still key themes in political science today.

It is becoming more and more common to speak of the study of politics as a true science. There is a definite advance in the scientific rigour of the analysis of political facts, greater coherence in the reasoning and proposals put forward are increasingly generated by the inductive approach rather than on presuppositions of human nature as in the Middle Ages.

An increasing use of the comparative method is emerging, but it remains in an embryonic and unsystematic state.

Political science has as its main object the institutional sciences of government and therefore always adopts a very descriptive approach of a legal and formal type. Focusing on these formal institutions of governments and parliaments, it remains committed to a narrow research agenda.

Late 19th early 20th century[edit | edit source]

At the beginning of the 20th century, the discipline became more professional. It is in this context that political science as a discipline is professionalized and empowered; this process first took place in the United States with the creation of the first political science departments:

  • In 1880, we can note the creation of the first doctoral school at Colombia University in New York;
  • In 1903 was founded the American Political Science Association which brought together political science researchers in the United States.

We have a differentiation in relation to history which is the discipline most closely associated with political science in those years:

  • « History is past politics, and politics is present history[6] »: Political science will focus on the contemporary period and will address changes in recent decades.
  • It will also reject history in its ambition to address all the explanatory factors and to provide a unique explanation of a given phenomenon. For historians, every event has a unique explanation that is not reproduced later, before, elsewhere in the world when political science will focus on a smaller number of factors and will formulate general type propositions that are valid across space and time.

Les limites approchent de types formels, légales et descriptives amenant des propositions et des hypothèses. Les propositions sont de plus en plus générées par une approche empirique. L’analyse comparée demeure à un état embryonnaire, peu développée encore.

Selon la devise de l’époque : la science politique se concentre sur la période contemporaine et l’histoire sur le passé. La science politique se centre sur des facteurs limités (de types uniques) ; par contre, l'histoire est trop ouverte.

Post-War Behavioral Revolution[edit | edit source]

This is the behavioural revolution, i.e. we will focus on the study of the political behaviour of the actors. She first started with the Chicago School.

  • Chicago School [1920 - 1940]

Founded by Charles Merriam at the University of Chicago in 1921. In 1929, Merriam published a manifesto for a new political science that sought to break with the historical approach. This manifesto will generate a lively debate to define political science and capture new trends. The Chicago School will emerge as an important center of political boiling.

Other protagonists are Harold Lasswell or Leonard White in public administration or Quincy Wright in international relations.

The objects of interest to them are the study of voting behaviour and the study of social mobilization in politics. In 1939 Lasswell co-published a study on the impact of the Great Depression of 1929 on the political mobilization capabilities of the unemployed in the city of Chicago entitled World revolutionary propaganda. A Chicago study[7].

In summary, the significance of the Chicago School lies in demonstrating that genuine improvement in political knowledge is possible through rigorous empirical studies and the use of more sophisticated methods that are at the heart of individual attitudes and behaviours.

Post-War Behavioral Revolution [1950 - 1960][edit | edit source]

It is the pivotal moment of the behavioral revolution which is the bearer of two main ideas:

  • the objects of political science: the proponents of these currents oppose a definition of the limits of political science that would be restricted to formal institutions of government. They seek to go beyond the formal institutions of government and integrate informal procedures and political behaviour, whether of individuals or groups such as political parties. Informal procedures could be procedures for setting up new public policies, there are often consultations with organised interest groups such as trade unions and other civil society associations. They are not always institutionalized, it is not a formal institution, but rather could be characterized as informal.
  • willingness to make political science more scientific at the methodological level: they oppose empirical analysis which is not informed by theory and will advocate rigorous and systematic theoretical reasoning through empirical tests, in particular studies of theoretical hypotheses.

Let us note the rapid growth of academic research activity in the post-war period; the sub-disciplines of political science that are international relations, comparative politics and the study of American institutions are institutionalized, occupy a visible space, new sub-disciplines are added to existing ones such as, for example, the beginning of security studies, international economic relations, but also the study of political behaviour.

Another actor that will be the spearhead of the behavioural revolution is the University of Michigan, which will revive scientific culture in the post-war period.

Two books from this period that embody this behavioural revolution are Political Man; Lipset's The Social Bases of Politics published in 1960[8] and The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations published in 1963 by Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba[9].

To conclude, the behavioural revolution has brought about a greater theoretical orientation, a strengthening of theoretical reasoning and a greater theoretical sophistication in the discipline. In other words, it is a more serious consideration of the scientific method.

Troisième révolution scientifique [1989 - ][edit | edit source]

From the 1970s onwards, a third scientific revolution was to take place, an extension of the behavioural revolution in the sense that it would continue to assert and want ever greater rigour in the scientific aspect of the discipline.

Rational Choice Theory [RCT] is a theory based on assumptions borrowed from economic science such as the assumptions of homo-economicus that will make choices based on costs and benefits in order to maximize its utility. On the other hand, it does not seek to redefine what the objects of political science are, but it will advance a general theory of action in the form of metatheory.

This scientific revolution will emphasize an ultra vigorous logical reasoning in theory and especially reasoning of a formal type where postulates are made at the beginning of the analysis and from which a certain number of proposals and hypotheses will be deduced by coherent and logical reasoning and empirically tested. It is also game theory and at the level of methods it will push rigour through statistical analysis.

It will have repercussions on other theoretical and methodological approaches, notably the qualitative method, in reaction to the pressure of rational choice theorists, the qualitative method will become stronger and more rigorous. There is a spill-over effect on other methods:

  • King, Keohane, Verba 1994. Designing Social Inquiry : Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research[10] ;
  • Brady & Collier 2004. Rethinking Social Inquiry : Diverse Tools, Share Standards[11] ;
  • George & Bennett 2005. Case Study and Theory Development[12] ;
  • Gerring (2007) Case Study Research: Principles and Practices[13].

To summarize this overview, we can summarize some of these great paradigms with a simple idea because each of these approaches has a maxim that summarizes fairly well the contributions made by the theory of behavioralism and rational choice:

  • behaviouralism: "don't just at the formal rules, look at people actually do", it is not only necessary to focus on analysis of formal institutions but also on informal rules and procedures and especially how individuals act within this framework.
  • rational choice: "always remember people push you power and interest", what motivates individuals' decisions is their considerations and their quest for power and maximum satisfaction according to neoclassical terminology.

Two other great schools that can be amassed into simple ideas:

  • systemism: "all, everything is connected, feedback matter", everything is connected, but only feedback counts, because it creates results and outcomes that will be integrated into the new demands produced and addressed to the political system
  • structuralism-functionalism: "forms fits functions", the function will determine the form that political institutions take.

Finally, the other idea that defines institutionalism.

  • Institutionalism: "institutionalism matter", a whole stream of historical-institutionalism has emerged which is defined in relation to this idea.

This account of disciplinary history is that of Almond's "progressive-eclectic perspective" which can be defined as the mainstream of political science. It is not shared unanimously, but by those who accept it as a criterion of knowledge and objectivity with the possibility of separating facts from values based on rules of empirical evidence:

  • "Progressist" in the sense of imputing the notion of progress of historical science to the accumulation of knowledge, either quantitatively in terms of the number of knowledge accumulated over time or qualitatively in the rigour and progress of knowledge.
  • "Eclectic" in the sense of non-hierarchical, integrative pluralism means that there is not one current that will consider itself superior to others, it is integrative in the sense that any perspective and methodology can be part of that dominant perspective and history. But rational choice theory and institutionalism will produce works that will fit into this perspective.

These tables summarize the history of the discipline with the different revolutions and classifications, we also see the evolution of methods through time.

The origins and evolutions of comparative politic in us 1.png
The origins and evolutions of comparative politic in us 2.png
The origins and evolutions of comparative politic in us 3.png

Alternative Stories[edit | edit source]

As this story is not unanimous, it is appropriate to quote other schools.

Currents that reject scientific and progressive character[edit | edit source]

  1. Antiscience: this position is associated with Lévi-Strauss, it refutes Weber's heritage, which is the separation between facts and values and the possibility of objectifying social reality; it also refutes behaviouralism and, more generally, positivism, that is, causal study in political science through rigorous empirical analysis. This position considers that the introduction of the scientific method is harmful, because it is an illusion, moreover it obscures and makes trivial the social dynamics. Lévi-Strauss proposes a humanistic social science that is intimately and passionately engaged in a dialogue with the great philosophers and philosophies about the meaning of the central ideas of political science. It is a posture which proposes an interpretation of social facts rather than an explanation and which sees in the scientific method an illusion.
  2. Post-science (some constructivists; postmodernists): this is a post-behavioral and post-positivist position illustrated by philosopher Jacques Dérida with the idea of deconstruction placing this current as postmodernist. Similar to the antiscience position, he refutes the opposition between the judgement of facts and the judgement of values by adopting a critical position. He wants an end to positivism and the demand for empirical verification as the only philosophical position in the human sciences. There is a demand for empirical verification of a theory that will lead to the advancement of science, which post-sciences refute by advocating a renewal of normative discourse by reintroducing values.

Any theoretical perspective is associated with fundamental choices:

  • Ontology: refers to the nature of the social and political world and therefore to what "is". It consists of a set of postulates and assertions that each theoretical approach makes in relation to the nature of social reality, i.e. in relation to what exists, but also in relation to the basic entity or unit that constitutes politics or political analysis.
  • Epistemology: refers to what we can know about the social and political world.
  • Methodology: refers to the procedure by which we acquire knowledge.

In relation to what "is" one can see a distinction between the postmodern and the mainstream progressive-eclectic in the sense that the latter adopts an objective ontology, that is, what "is", exists independent of the conception that one can have of it. Therefore, reality can be distinguished from its representation. Postmodernists adopt a subjective ontology in the sense that reality cannot be distinguished from its representation and/or one's representation of the world constitutes the world.


This table summarizes the ontological, epistemological and methodological position characteristic of the postmodern school.

At the level of epistemology that derives from this ontological position, there is no affirmation or truth that can be made, because it is not really possible to acquire scientific knowledge that would be true without requiring investigation and empirical tests. There are only subjective positions that result in different knowledge assertions. Then; the objective of analysis is to deconstruct a dominant discourse and to show that there are dissonant voices that have just as much place in political science and argumentation.

Those who reject eclecticism (pluralism)[edit | edit source]

  1. Neomarxists: this school interprets Marx, the objective of social science lies in the truth discovered and elaborated by Karl Marx in the 19th century and which has been updated by neomarxist authors like Nico Poulantzas and Robert Cox more recently. These societal laws discovered by Marx show that historical, economic, social and political processes, but also that human action within these structures form a whole and that history will follow a unidirectional evolutionary trajectory. This history is deterministic in the sense that Marx conceptualized this class antagonism inherent in the capitalist mode of production that will necessarily lead to the overcoming of the class system and the communist revolution. There is a rejection of eclecticism, because it is difficult to introduce new arguments into this system. One can see clear limitations in its tendency to omit other explanatory factors such as political institutions, the role of ethnicity, nationalism, the international system. To illustrate through nationalism, a Marxist would have great difficulty explaining why the German Social Democratic Party in 1914 voted the war credits in the Bundestag and allied itself by a national pact against foreign nations instead of the Social Democratic Party allying itself with all the workers of the world for a true revolution and solidarity within a social class.
  2. Theorists of rational choice: it is a lateral entry into political science through economics. The pioneers were authors such as Arrow, Anthony Downs and Mancur Olson, who were the first in the post-war period to apply economic methods and models to the analysis of political phonemes. This approach aspires to develop a unified theory, it operates by deduction from axioms or postulates derived from the economy in particular by considering the individual as a homoeconomicus, a rational being motivated by personal interest making cost-benefit calculations that try to maximize his satisfaction; postulates by which result hypotheses subjected to empirical tests. It is also a parsimonious theory because it really wants to explain political theory with very few axioms and postulates. It has a great claim to a universal applicability i.e. to be able to explain any political phenomenon and that the partial theories that it can generate in relation to defined objects can be integrated into a more general theory of politics. It is in this sense that we can speak of a rejection of eclecticism in favour of a hierarchical model and a consideration of superiority. Moreover, rational choice theory considers that it introduces a discontinuity in the sense that all that precedes it is considered prescientific.

What is political science?[edit | edit source]

Three classic definitions of politics can be distinguished:

  • Lasswell published in 1936 Politics: Who Gets What, When, How[14] where he defines political science as who gets what, when and how. In other words, it is a permanent conflict at the level of society for the control of scarce resources. These are conflicts between individuals and between social groups to obtain the resources of a society that are necessarily limited. This refers to conflicts over the redistribution of scarce resources in a society.
  • In 2009 Goodin published the book The State of the Discipline, The Discipline of the State[15] for whom politics is the limited use of social power that would be presented as the essence of politics. The central concept is the notion of power, which was particularly well worked out in the social sciences. According to Weber, A's power over B is A's ability to get B to do something he would not have done without A's intervention. This general definition refers to the ability to act on other individuals or groups or States by compelling their behaviour without such intervention. One of the interests of this definition is to show that power is relational. For Goodin, power will take many forms, but it will always be forced, because even the most powerful cannot impose by force, their will to the dominated. Power takes many forms, but it is always constrained and it is the task of political science to account for these power relations at different levels.
  • Goodin proposes another definition of political science as the discipline of the state. Here, the state is understood as a set of norms, institutions and power relations. As far as standards are concerned, the history of the modern State is closely linked to liberal democracy, there are specific standards which may be, for example, the separation of powers, but also the idea of political competition, but are based just as much on the political participation of each individual and the political responsibility of elected representatives towards voters. A whole set of norms and values must be developed and justified, and why the superiority of these values is a normative consideration. The State is a set of institutions, these are the different forms of politics, but also within a type of regime; it is the operation or functioning of democratic institutions, of the different types of regimes. The State would be like the privileged site of power relations between individuals, between groups.

Political science became autonomous during the 20th century, particularly in relation to history. James Duesenberry (1918 - 2009), American economist was professor of economics at Harvard said "economics only talks about how individuals make choices, sociology only talks about the fact that they have no choices to make"[16].

We see that sociology is accompanied by a conception of the over-socialized man, acting refers to external social forces with limited room for manoeuvre whereas the neoclassical economy has a conception of the under-socialized man or the individual operates in the economic sphere that is distinct and separate from other areas of social life.

On the other hand we can quote Marx "men make their own history, but they do not make it arbitrarily in the conditions chosen by them, but in the conditions directly given and inherited from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs heavily on the brains of the living. And even though he seems busy transforming himself, they and things to create something completely new, it is precisely at these times of revolutionary crisis that they fearfully evoke the spirits of the past, that they borrow their names, their watchwords, their costumes to appear on the new scene of history under this respectable disguise and with this borrowed language"[17].

We see the tension in historical development that is caught between human action in structures and institutions, but do not do it arbitrarily under conditions chosen by them, but under conditions given and inherited from the past.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Cox, Robert W.. "Beyond international relations theory: Robert W. Cox and approaches to world order", Approaches to World Order. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 3-18.
  2. M. Weber, Essais sur la théorie de la science, op. cit. p.146
  3. Adcock, R. and Bevir, M. (2005), The History of Political Science. Political Studies Review, 3: 1–16. doi: 10.1111/j.1478-9299.2005.00016.x
  4. Social Science Concepts: A Systematic Analysis Giovanni Sartori Beverley Hills: Sage, 1984
  5. Rothstein, B. (1992). ‘Labor-market institutions and working-class strength’. In S. Steinmo, K. Thelen and F. Longstreth, eds. Structuring Politics. Historical Institutionalism in Com¬parative Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 33–56
  6. Herbert Baxter Adams (1883). The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science . p. 12.
  7. Lasswell, Harold Dwight, and Dorothy Blumenstock. World Revolutionary Propaganda: A Chicago Study. New York: Knopf, 1939.
  8. Lipset, Seymour Martin. Political Man; the Social Bases of Politics. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.
  9. Almond, Gabriel A., and Sidney Verba. The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1963.
  10. King, Gary/ Keohane, Robert O./ Verba, Sidney: Designing Social Inquiry. Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research. Princeton University Press, 1994.
  11. Henry E. Brady & David Collier (Eds.) (2004). Rethinking Social Inquiry: Diverse Tools, Shared Standards. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 362 pages, ISBN 0-7425-1126-X, USD 27,95
  12. Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences Alexander George, Andrew Bennett Cambridge, USA Perspectives on Politics - PERSPECT POLIT 01/2007; 5(01):256. DOI:10.1017/S1537592707070491 Edition: 1st Ed., Publisher: MIT Press, pp.256
  13. Case Study Research: Principles and Practices. John Gerring (Cambridge University Press, 2007). doi:10.1017/S0022381607080243
  14. Lasswell, Harold Dwight, 1902- Politics; who gets what, when, how. New York, London, Whittlesey house, McGraw-Hill book Co. [c1936] (OCoLC)576783700
  15. Goodin, R 2009, 'The State of the Discipline, The Discipline of the State', in Robert E. Goodin (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Political Science, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 3-57.
  16. Duesenberry, 1960, p. 233
  17. Karl Marx (trad. R. Cartelle et G. Badia), éd. sociales, coll. Classiques du marxisme, 1972, chap. Les origines du coup d'État du 2 Décembre, p. 161