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Political Science

The Discipline Of Political Science

The beginning of American political science as an organized discipline can be dated to December 30, 1903, when John Burgess, Frank Goodnow, Westel W. Willoughby, and others founded the American Political Science Association (APSA). The association's journal, the American Political Science Review (APSR), followed in 1906. Even though most schools still lacked separate political science departments, the appearance of the APSA, and thereafter its journal, legitimated professional commitment to political science as a coherent area of study. The APSA gave political scientists, in and out of the university, a sense of common purpose, and the APSR offered an outlet for original research and scholarly exposure.

As the discipline was established, political scientists increasingly incorporated political knowledge as their peculiar domain. Political scientists, after "authorizing" themselves through the creation of a discipline, began cordoning off political research as their area of study. The study of politics started to become a professional pursuit, sanctioned by a professional association. This trend toward professionalism in the field of political research became more clear during the behavioral revolution's move to "pure" science. With behavioralism, the discipline settled on a scientific identity, an identity that has changed little since its inception. Behavioralism, though, has its roots in the "science of politics movement," which began in the 1920s.

Political scientists believed that a scientific, disciplinary, and professional identity (that is, acceptance as "legitimate" producers of knowledge) depended on a common and useful methodology to separate trained "political scientists" from methodologically untrained amateurs. Scientific method would allow political scientists to arrive at objective, value-free truth (or truths) about a certain aspect of (usually) American politics in order to aid a modernizing polity in a purely technical way. There could be no normative goals in a value-free science. Political scientists, in other words, should not seek to express what ought to be done. Instead, their goal must be simply to explain the political world.

The roots of behavioralism.

In the early 1900s, Arthur F. Bentley offered a tool for empirical, value-free social research in his work, The Process of Government: A Study of Social Pressures. Although Bentley was not an academic by trade, he did influence subsequent generations of political scientists, especially those within the behavioralist tradition. In The Process of Government, Bentley wanted to move away from the traditional notions of scientific explanation in society. He considered political science, with its nineteenth-century reliance on formalist studies of institutions, to be dead. The "barren formalism" of political science needed to be touched up with the "glow of humanity" by studying social actors themselves "for what they are" and "for what they represent" (Bentley, pp. 163–164). According to Bentley, the "raw material" for the scientific study of government cannot be found in one person. It must always be located in "something doing," in the activity of groups, in "the dispersal of one grouping of forces by another grouping." And while these groups do consist of thinking and feeling persons, the social scientist knows "nothing of 'ideas' and 'feelings' except through the medium of actions" (p. 175–176). Government is a process that is forever in flux, and, as such, it can never be described by law books, law, essays, addresses, or constitutional conventions.

Bentley argued that social science, then, should be empirical, measurable, progressive, and concerned with the interaction and activity of a complex and overlapping system of social, political, and economic groupings. Such a social science could, in Bentley's view, be objective and, as such, achieve "knowledge." Most of these aspects are evident again, in the science of politics movement of the 1920s and 1930s and in the behavioral political science that conquered the discipline by the late 1950s. The empirical, measurable, "progressive," and quantified behavioralist tradition gave political science the "scientific" identity it had sought since Bentley's era.

The science of politics movement.

The new era in political science that followed World War I, like most new eras in the discipline, repudiated the previous era of political science. Progressive political science was condemned as invalid and partisan, not scientific enough. The new era sought even more detached, scientific, methodical, and therapeutic reforms for what was perceived to be a democracy in crisis. According to post–World War I political scientists, the United States' "liberal democracy" emerged badly shaken from the war. Political scientists had supported the war "for the usual reasons—it was supposed to end European autocracy and thus end war" (Seidelman and Harpham, p. 102). Instead, emboldened and effective fascist and communist governments in Europe strengthened their abilities to motivate their populaces to act in accordance with government interests. Post–World War I political scientists in America noticed a peculiar lack of any such motivational ability in the United States, and their wrath fell on their immediate predecessors. In their view, reform-minded progressive political scientists had not adequately and systematically located receptive reform publics, and their superficial and hasty analyses and proposals had consequently failed to be effective.

In light of this, political scientists of the new era saw the need for scholarly renovation. They renewed their dedication to establishing scientific inquiry in the hope that "scientific knowledge would emerge and contribute to improving the quality of public life in America" (Ricci, p. 77). The professional identity of the political scientist became that of political "healer," and political knowledge, implemented in the governmental system, was to be constructed toward this end. Political scientists such as Charles E. Merriam and Harold D. Lasswell saw themselves as social engineers whose purpose was the "rational" supervision of political actors tasked with ordering and controlling a logical and brave new political society. Merriam and Lasswell simply wanted to install a professional identity for political scientists based on a science that was organized to aid the liberal democratic state. As such, political knowledge was to be organized for the same purpose. This is part of the reason why such a formulation of science caught on in the discipline. It was constructed to correspond to the technical needs of society, and therefore it became the accepted identity for political scientists. But after World War II, this identity began to crumble. Behavioralists wanted to purify scientific political knowledge.

According to Albert Somit and Joseph Tanenhaus, numerous factors emerged to help establish behavioralism as a force in political science: Political scientists perceived that they were not considered legitimate scientists and consequently had problems securing research grants; they believed that the other social sciences (particularly psychology) were making broad advances while political science lagged behind; the reformist, normative nature of the discipline was generally considered speculative and unscientific; research technology (including survey techniques, statistical computations, and computers) became much more refined and available; and they pursued a "pure" science that operated on the presupposition that democracy is the best system of government because of its open and scientific qualities. In short, post–World War II political scientists sought to define the science of politics from the standpoint that science should be pure. The science of politics should be interested only in explaining the workings of American democracy in order to understand the American system better.


Postwar political scientists believed that political crises remained because pre–World War II political scientists had allowed their reformist aims to occlude their understanding of politics. Many postwar political scientists wanted to embark on the pure scientific project of analyzing the workings of the American system without tainting the analysis with speculative notions of reform. These were the first self-conscious attempts to push normative political theory to the margins of the discipline. The assumption that American democracy is the best political system in the world expels the normative determination of value from the discipline's activities. A pure science, after all, cannot consider such a claim. Rather, it must presuppose its end as it determines how best to reach or enhance it.

Somit and Tanenhaus have combined the various strands of behavioralism into what they term the "behavioral creed":

  1. Political science should search rigorously for regularities in political behavior in order to facilitate prediction and explanation.
  2. Political science should concern itself with empirical political phenomena, that is, with the behavior of individuals and political groups.
  3. Data should be quantifiable in order to aid predictive capabilities.
  4. Research should be theory driven; in other words, research should begin with a theory that yields empirically testable hypotheses.
  5. Political scientists should avoid applied (reform-minded) research in favor of pure scientific research.
  6. Values such as democracy, equality, and freedom cannot be scientifically established and should thus be avoided unless they can somehow be made empirically testable.
  7. Political science should become more interdisciplinary, at least at the behavioral level.
  8. Political science should place more emphasis on methodology and make better use of multivariate analysis, sample surveys, mathematical models, and simulation.

Behavioralists were intent on building a scientific community that was centered on behavioral inquiry. They could do this by further institutionalizing political knowledge. Therefore, the research skills that behavioral inquiry required served to exclude those who did not possess the proper training and to solidify the scientific identity of political scientists.

One example of behavioral inquiry can be found in the work of David B. Truman, who is probably best known for his book The Governmental Process, first published in 1951, which revived Bentley's group process theory of government. Truman's argument, although less polemical, closely resembles Bentley's and is offered in response to the expanding role of interest groups in American politics and the public's growing fear of their influence. The Governmental Process, by Truman's own account, contributed to the "political behavior movement" in political science by increasing "the analytical strength and usefulness of the discipline" (pp. xix–xx). It also triggered the growth of the study of interest groups in the United States and abroad. Like Bentley's work, The Governmental Process offers a tool for analysis: a theory to drive systematic behavioral research. It contains many "testable hypotheses" ranging from the political orientations of groups to the internal politics of the group process to the influence of groups on the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, and elections.

Truman's basic argument revolves around the notion that because every individual attempts to become an accepted participant in a group or a set of groups, it makes sense to study political behavior in terms of groups and group interactions. He argues that "the patterns of action and attitude among individuals will differ from one another in large measure according to the clusters of group affiliations that the individuals have" (p. 16). Individuals define themselves based on the opportunities that groups afford. In Truman's words, "It appears … that the group experiences and affiliations of an individual are the primary, though not the exclusive, means by which the individual knows, interprets, and reacts to the society in which he [sic] exists" (p. 21). Like Merriam, Truman believed that society had become sufficiently complex to necessitate an interdependent approach to the analysis of political behavior and government. In other words, any social or political action involves a complicated series of interactions, particularly at the group level, that affect individuals and the government. With this in mind, the purpose of Truman's book was to analyze rigorously both the operations of representative government in the United States and the character of groups' relationships with the governing process. He does not desire progressive reform; his research seeks "pure" explanation.

Another behavioralist, Heinz Eulau, openly criticized the reformist ("utopian") political science of the pre–World War II era. In his 1969 book, Behavioralism in Political Science, Eulau argued that science can function only "in an environment that permits freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech" (p. 12). American liberal democracy allows such freedoms and thus is most suitable for scientific work. Political science can never undermine liberal democracy, as David M. Ricci reported that pre–World War II political scientists feared. Political scientists assumed, then, that American democracy must be alive and well as they pursued the new, nonreformist, scientific goal of analyzing and explaining the ways in which the American political system functioned.

The dominance of the behavioral approach to studying politics was seen in the field of international relations as well, which tended to personify states and study their "behavior." This approach has been seen most clearly in realist and neorealist research in international politics. The field of comparative politics was also affected by the behavioral shift, as its practitioners abandoned the field's legal-institutional approach in favor of a more quantitative analysis. Instead of simply explaining the similarities of and the differences between political institutions across culture and context, behaviorally inclined comparative politics scholars sought to ground such institutional differences and similarities in "universal" terms of political behavior. The field of normative political theory was largely immune to the behavioral revolution and operated as a critic from without, which ultimately served to marginalize it from the accepted approach of the discipline. Postbehavioralism altered this situation in some important ways. All of the various subfields of study were opened to other methodological approaches, and political theory moved in a bit from the margins. Still, the scientific mood was not fundamentally altered.


In 1967 the Caucus for a New Political Science was organized as a response to behavioral hegemony. Behavioral discourse, pro and con, dominated the discipline's mainstream by the mid-1960s in terms of method, language, and research focus. Members of the caucus lamented the limited scope of behavioral inquiry. Behavioralism, they argued, neglected too many possible points of view; it was too "parochial." The caucus desired a more open and expansive discipline. In 1969 David Easton responded to the aims of the caucus in his presidential address to the APSA. Easton coined the term postbehavioralism and made relevance and action its watchwords. Postbehavioralists, Easton argued, wanted to make political science more relevant to and active in society.

Ultimately, new areas of research were opened up within the discipline (for instance, the Vietnam War, race relations, poverty, and women's rights), and the well-populated, university-centered discipline became specialized. Political scientists increasingly carved up special areas of the discipline for themselves, each area with a special language and technique that made intercommunication difficult and often without purpose. These subfields rapidly grew into self-contained entities within the field of political science.

During this era of fragmentation, antibehavioral forces found new voices. Research that was distinctly anti-or nonbehavioral found legitimacy as the discipline's professional identity evolved away from its behavioral parochialism. The discipline became more tolerant of various perspectives on politics and political science during the postbehavioral era. The intellectual "community" that behavioralism constructed in the discipline of political science collapsed during the 1970s, the decade that witnessed the fragmentation of the discipline's research agenda. This transpired for at least three reasons: (1) the Caucus for a New Political Science's effectiveness at forcing the field to open up to more research interests; (2) the population explosion that occurred in the discipline following World War II, which increased the competition for recognition among political scientists; and (3) a related mood of openness that prevailed in the discipline following the closed and parochial behavioral era.

Because political scientists were generally required to publish in order to advance the accumulation of knowledge that "scientific communities" need, and because the range of suitable research topics was limited during the behavioral era while the population of the discipline was rapidly increasing, the discipline was quickly saturated. Political scientists sought new areas of expertise and the discipline opened up, allowing for the creation of many new subfields. The topics covered by these new subfields were so diverse by 1977 that Nelson Polsby, the managing editor of the APSR at the time, "conceded that no editor could 'judge the quality of manuscripts over the full range of concerns that political scientists write about'" (quoted in Ricci, pp. 222–223).

The discipline has become so complicated that even political scientists are unable to comprehend completely or become comfortable with its entire range of research. So much material is published in increasingly narrow fields that political scholars find it difficult to keep up with their own subfields, much less understand and integrate other subfields. Specialties and subspecialties continually emerge, and a broader base of expertise results. Each subfield churns out vast quantities of literature, and the literature from each subfield, taken together, is more than any one researcher can master. Nevertheless, one researcher can become an "expert" in the work of one subfield. Therefore, the discipline does not consist of "experts" in political knowledge (a central tenet of the APSA); it consists of "experts" in certain aspects of political knowledge. But while political scientists from different subfields find communication difficult, the notion of a common purpose (the construction of a body of political knowledge) remains.

In the early twenty-first century, however, the claim to this common purpose has come under some scrutiny by a new movement within the discipline called "Perestroika." The Perestroika movement, begun anonymously in 2000, calls attention to two problems in the discipline: its lack of inclusiveness and its increasingly mathematical approach. In many ways, this movement revives the thinking behind the Caucus for a New Political Science movement in its concern for the apparent irrelevance of the discipline in the wider political context and its criticism of an increasingly quantitative orientation within the discipline. Those active in the Perestroika movement consistently point to the growing preponderance of rational choice approaches to studying politics, which, in their view, are becoming hegemonic within the discipline as departments re-populate themselves with scholars using rational choice methodologies in their research. While the Perestroika movement has witnessed some success (such as the founding of a new journal that promises to be more methodologically inclusive), it is not at all clear that it will succeed in altering the increasingly quantitative orientation of the discipline.


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Tim Duvall

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Planck mass to PositPolitical Science - The Importance Of Knowledge, The Universal And The Particular, Empiricism, The Discipline Of Political Science