Political Science Nature and Scope

Political Science

Man is a social animal. He cannot live in isolation, because he is not self-sufficient and the natural instinct to survive compels him to live a collective life. According to Aristotle, this collective life necessitates a political mechanism of rules, regulations and leadership. An organized society needs some system to make and enforce rules for orderly behaviour in society. This led to the evolution of a political system with elaborate governmental institutions and procedures in each society. Therefore, man is also a political animal. Political science is one of the oldest subjects of study of this political life of man. It focuses on the theory and practice of government and politics at the local, state, national and international levels.

Political Science is the branch of knowledge that deals with systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the state and political institutions through scientific analysis. It is an academic discipline concerned with man’s official institutions and activities, such as the state, government, citizenship, public affairs, etc. In other words, it is a social science concerned with the theory, description, analysis and prediction of political behaviour, political activities and political system as a whole.


The word ‘politics’ is derived from the Greek word ‘polis’ which means the city-state which was the basic unit of political organization in ancient Greece. It was the Greeks who first embarked upon the study of state as distinct from the church.

Science is the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation, evidence and experiment. So, political science is the branch of knowledge that deals with systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the state and political institutions through scientific analysis.


Politics refers to the subject matter of study whereas science denotes the methodology or the way of studying the process of politics. The first term seeks to answer the question “what is studied” and the second term refers to “how is it studied”. Therefore, the political phenomenon which should be studied in accordance with a definite plan or system is called political science.


The foundations of political thinking were laid by Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Plato was the author of “The Republic”. Aristotle, also considered the father of political science, was the first to use the term ‘politics’ and he is the one who converted the subject into an academic discipline. He published his book ‘Politics’ as a first systematic study of politics.

Read More: Delinking political and economic liberalism


Most definitions of political science dealt generally with state and government. From the traditional point of view, we may define political science as “the study of the state and government in all their manifestations, aspects and relationships”. However, it is difficult to give a precise definition to political science because of its varying scope in different situations. Nonetheless, some important definitions are as follows:

1. J.W. Garner: “Political Science begins and ends with the state.”
2. R.G. Gettel: “Political Science is the historical investigation of what the state has been, an analytical study of what the state is and a political, ethical discussion of what the state ought to be.”
3. Paul Janet: “Political science is that part of the social science which treats the foundations of the state and the principles of government.”
4. David Easton: “Political Science is the process by which scarce resources – human, economic, spiritual, are allocated within a social limit be it a city, a state, a nation or an organization for the purpose of providing for human needs and desires.”
5. H.J Laski: “The study of politics concerns itself with the life of man in relation to organized states.”
6. Gareies: “Political Science deals with the origin, development, purpose and all political problems of the State.”
7. Andrew Heywood: “Politics can be defined as an activity through which people make, preserve and amend the general rules under which they live.”


a. Science of polis – Aristotle
b. Science of state – Gettle
c. Politics deals with government – Lecock
d. General problem of state and government – Glichrist
e. Politics is the struggle for and use of power – Morgenthau

From the above definitions, we may conclude that the ‘state’ is the central theme of political science. It is the study about the state, its origin, its nature, its structure, its functions, and so on.

Nature: Science or not?

Political science as a subject of study is still a growing and developing field. So, there is no uniformity among political thinkers regarding its nature, whether it should be treated as a science or not. Even today the controversy whether political science is a science or not has not died down.

1. It is a science

There are a large number of thinkers who believe that political science is not a science. The central idea of science is the experimentation and correct prediction thereupon. But, these two aspects hardly have any scope in political science. So, this subject of study cannot be placed in the same rank physics or chemistry is in.

Noted political scientists like Buckle and Comte reject the scientific nature of political science on the premise that in this subject, there are no uniform principles on laws which are universally valid. Human behaviour is also unpredictable. It, therefore, does not supply sufficient materials for scientific study. The essence of the scientific method is that it will not accept generalizations unless they are based on facts which can be verified.

2. It is not a science

The holders of the opposing view maintain and forcefully argue that physics and chemistry are, no doubt, sciences but they are not the only sciences; there are others branches of science as well. Physics and chemistry are physical sciences but there are also social sciences and political science is a prominent branch of social science. When we call political science a branch of social science, we invariably use the word science in a broader sense.

Aristotle, the father of political science, considered it as the master science. Political philosophers like Bodin, Hobbes, Bryce and others also held the view that this subject is a science.

Mackenzie’s View

W. J. M. Mackenzie in his small and illuminating work Politics and Social Science makes the following observation which is pertinent in more than one respects. “So far as I can judge, political science is still the name which carries meaning to the general public. The word ‘science’ here indicates, simply that there exists an-academic tradition of the study of politics – a discipline communicated from teacher to pupil, by speech and writing for some 2500 years now. It does not mean that this discipline claims to be a material science or that it could be improved by copying the methods of physics and chemistry more exactly.”

Major Approaches to Study

According to Van Dyke, the word ‘approach’ denotes the criteria employed in selecting the questions to ask and the data to consider in political inquiry. In political science, different scholars and students employ different criteria in order to analyze the data and find out the answers to the questions. These criteria have been designated as approaches.

Alan Ball in his “Modern Politics and Government” has categorized the approaches into traditional and modern or new approaches.

Approaches to the study of political science can be divided into two domains: (1) Traditional; and (2) Modern

1. Traditional Approaches

They include: (a) Normative; (b) Philosophical; (c) Historical, and (d) Institutional.

(a) Normative approach

In the normative or classical period, political problems were analyzed philosophically. The method was deductive and the approach was normative. The purpose of this approach is to clarify the words and terms used by the political philosophers. They spent too much of their time on the problems of ends and means and also in describing the ideal state.

The writings of Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Bentham and Hegel have the characteristics of the classical period. They were very particular in finding the standards or values of life like justice, freedom and happiness.

(b) Philosophical approach

Also known as speculative or ethical or metaphysical approach, it is one of the oldest approaches to the study of politics. The philosophical approach is mainly concerned with the analysis of the nature and fundamental attributes of the state, the concept of political obligations, the nature of political authority and other philosophical problems.

According to Van Dyke, “Philosophy denotes thought about thought. Somewhat more broadly, it denotes general conceptions of ends and means, purposes and methods.” The purpose of philosophical approach is to explore the objective of political writings or the purpose of political writer. It also aims to enhance linguistic clarity. This method starts with assumptions about the nature and end of the state based on philosophical ground.

(c) Historical approach

History serves as the best kind of laboratory for political science. It is the store-house of the past events pertaining to humans. The study of history gives us not only information about what happened in the past but also about the utility and futility of various institutions of various times.

History tells us how government, political parties and many other institutions worked and what were their successes and failures. From these, we learn lessons which guide us for the future course of action.

The approach is based on the assumption that political science emerged out of socioeconomic crises as well as the reactions they leave on the minds of the great thinkers. For example, conditions of ancient Greece created Plato and Aristotle, the 17th-century England produced Hobbes and Locke, the capitalist system created Mill and Marx, and so on.

(d) Institutional approach

In the light of the emergence of other social sciences during the second half of the 19th century, the need for a narrower and precise definition of political science was felt. The institutional approach shows a shift in the scope, methods and objectives of the discipline of political science.

It gives importance to the study of formal as well as informal structure of political institutions like executive, legislature, judiciary, political parties, pressure and interests groups, etc. in political system. It is also known as structural approach.

In the words of Dyke, “The study of politics is the study of the state or of government and related institutions.”

After analyzing properly the actual functions of various institutions, political philosophers compared them with other institutions. Comparative study of the merits and demerits of the different systems like unitary and federal, parliamentary and presidential, territorial and proportional representation was made by the political philosophers of the institutional period. The emphasis was on the importance of the governmental institutions and practice in promoting social conditions and realizing moral and political purposes.

2. Modern Approaches

The modern approaches are: (a) Behavioural; (b) Post-Behavioural; and (c) Marxian.

(a) Behavioural approach

Behaviouralism is considered a new or modern approach to the study of political science. Really, the approach started with a protest movement of American political scientists against the traditional study of political science. They believed that the traditional approaches totally neglected the political phenomena. Therefore, they developed a new approach for their careful study, i.e. behavioural approach. They began to adopt the methods of natural sciences like observation, survey and measurement in political science. The exponents of this method were Harold D. Lasswell, George Catlin, Charles Merriam, David Easton, et al.

(b) Post-behavioural approach

Behaviouralism failed to solve any problem of the world such as threat of nuclear war, hunger, poverty, disease, cold war, arms race, etc. Behaviouralists were eager to develop new research methods and techniques about political phenomena so that in political science, too, theories may be developed like natural sciences but they, in effect, divorced political science from philosophy, history, law, etc. Towards the end of the 1960s, a powerful attack was made on the behaviouralist position by David Easton out of deep dissatisfaction with its findings.

Post-behaviouralism is both a movement and an intellectual tendency. It is future-oriented. This is a genuine revolution, not a reaction, not preservation, a reform not a counter-revolution. It is just a continuation of the former, i.e. behaviouralism taking it to a higher stage.

Post behaviouralists argued that political scientists should be more concerned with values, with issues of justice, freedom, equality and with political activity. It is not appropriate to take a value-free, academic detachment from public policy and political reform.

The two main demands of post-behaviouralism are ‘relevance’ and ‘action’. David Easton who had at one stage enumerated eight main characteristics of behaviouralism, now came out with seven major traits of post-behaviouralism as the ‘credo of relevance’.

(c) Marxist Approach

The Marxist approach to political analysis is primarily associated with the contributions of Karl Marx. The significance of the Marxist approach is due to its emphasis on production and distribution of goods in assessing social changes and political revolutions. This is quite different from traditionalism and behaviouralism. Marx said, “The mode of production of the material means of existence condition the whole process of social, political and intellectual life.”

The three primary aspects of Marxism are:

a. Dialectical and materialistic concept of history
b. Critique of capitalism (base and superstructure, surplus value and class struggle)
c. Advocacy of proletarian revolution

Today, the Marxist approach has established a parallel stream of theories and definitions to all basic political concepts like origin of state, rights, development, feminism, identity politics, concepts of liberty, equality and property, etc.

Scope of Political science

The scope of political science is vast and experts have divided the field of political science into five sub-disciplines that are: political theory, public administration, comparative politics, international relations, and public law. It needs to be noted that these sub-disciplines cover the entire gamut of the modern political economy and provide the basis for the study and understanding of how the global political economy works. The study of the matters concerning the allocation and distribution as well as the transfer of power is one of the main preoccupations of political scientists. The success or otherwise of the governance structures is gauged by political scientists who examine the multifaceted and multilayered factors at work that contribute to good or bad governance. The scope of the political scientists has now been broadened to include the realm of the study of the democratic elections across the world. In other words, with the explosion in the political systems all over the world, political scientists, and their scope of study has been considerably enhanced.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.