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Social Sciences: What is Political Science?

“There are two things you should never talk about: politics and religion.” It’s a quote we’ve grown up hearing our whole lives. It’s also one we fail at miserably, especially during the holidays. With so much discourse around politics, it is easy to assume that just keeping updated with the news makes us experts. Political Scientists, however, dedicate their lives to the study of politics and the underlying factors surrounding it. 

To really understand how Political Science works, we first need to understand what it is. Definitions of Political Science vary between universities, but the general consensus is that political science is the study of the exercise of power and behavior in local, state, national, and international institutions. One branch of Political Science looks at what the government does, why it does it, and how. The second branch is research into the political behavior of people: their choices to participate in government, or not, and why. 

With so much to study, the field of Political Science is generally broken up into a few subfields. In the US, these generally include American Government and Politics, International Relations, Comparative Politics, and Political Theory

American Government and Politics, like its name suggests, focuses on the political system in the United States. This covers everything from  researching how the structure of institutions like Congress or the Supreme Court influence political actions to looking at why American citizens choose to vote (or not) and who they might choose. Specific research areas in this subfield might include Executive Branch Politics, Legislative Decision Making, Constitutional Law, National Security, or Area Specific Politics (Urban, Rural, etc). 

The subfield of International Relations looks at how politics operates on an international scale, studying topics like why countries go to war, how human rights influence policies, and the effect of peacekeeping operations.

Comparative Politics, like International Relations, operates with a view of all countries. It looks at the difference between governmental structures  across the world, and what makes them successful or unsuccessful. 

The subfield of Political Theory focuses on a philosophical investigation into why humans have government and what the best form of government might be. Research in this subfield generally involves reading classical works like Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics as well as more modern works like Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. This subfield is more commonly associated with philosophy then with science. 

How Does Political Science Conduct “Science”?

Political Science has many areas of study, and the methods for studying in the field can vary greatly. Excluding Political Theory, which is a more philosophical undertaking, most other areas in Political Science utilize the Scientific Method of starting with an observation, which leads to a question, then a hypothesis which is tested in an experiment, followed by conclusion and sharing of results

The type of experiment utilized for different studies can also vary. In some circumstances, it is best to have an Experimental study, characterized by manipulating an independent variable (changing something while keeping everything else constant) and seeing the results on a dependent variable (see more here). 

Sometimes, however, there is no ethical way to manipulate an independent variable. For example, Political Scientists can’t expose individuals to human rights abuses just to see how it changes their political behavior. Therefore, researchers often utilize Observational studies, where they do not manipulate any variables but simply measure results by collecting observations through surveys or field studies.  Case studies are research into how a specific situation influences  political behavior, and they are a helpful start in research into a new area. They are less generalizable because the study is only of one situation. 

While results from Experimental studies are more trustworthy in that manipulating an independent variable in a regulated environment can produce more reliable results, Observational Studies are often more applicable because real politics does not happen in an isolated environment. 

Throughout all political science studies, there is a large emphasis on three major factors. First, a study should have validity, meaning that it is measuring what it is meant to measure. Next, it should be reliable: if the study was repeated, you would get the same or very similar results. Further, a study should have generalizability or external validity, meaning that the results can be applied outside of the population in which the study took place (see more on reliability and validity here). Combining these factors creates a study that has real results that are applicable to real life. 

The Impact of Political Science

Political Science has very clear real life impacts. Studying how human rights abuses occur now can help prevent them in the future. Studying what makes people not want to vote can help insure that more people might in the future. Studying how our government works can help people best utilize it. Simply put, Political Science is a complex field with rigorous research that leads to concrete, invaluable results.

See Other Pieces in Our Social Science Series:

Why “Soft Sciences” Matter

What Is Psychology?

Ethics in Social Sciences

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