Academic Papers

Is politics a science?

Politics, in its broadest sense, is the activity through which people make, preserve, and amend the general rules under which they live (Heywood, 2015). People learn many things from different experiences and ways, for example, people understand that at a 212 degrees water boils, a virus called HIV causes AIDs. Similarly, people claim to know things, for instance, dictatorship is bad as oppose to democracy and vice versa. Individuals acquire knowledge through different means such as, personal experiences, books & journals or acquiring it from reliable scholars; as it seems to be consistent with common sense (Johnson, Mycoff and Reynolds, 2008). Therefore, to study Politics, various scholars such as, positivists and interpretivists have proposed different ways and methods. Modern political scientists (positivists) rely on “scientific methods” to understand political or social phenomena and suggests that it should only be understood by a “scientific process” (Johnson, Mycoff and Reynolds, 2008). Positivists maintain that the application of “scientific method” would allow the researchers to understand society objectively, based on empirical observations (Haralambos and Holborn, 2013). This essay aims to show that political knowledge is highly unlikely to be acquired only through “scientific methods”, therefore, politics cannot be regarded as a science. The first part of the essay will show the claims of the “political scientists” that using “scientific methods” can explain a political phenomenon. In the second part, this essay will highlight the difficulties of the “scientific method” in the study of politics. This will be done by highlighting the epistemological and ontological approaches in their research and understanding of the world.

The doctrine that social science or all forms of philosophical enquiries should adopt the “scientific method” and anything which cannot be empirically verified has to be rejected as useless and meaningless. The proponents of this idea are called positivists. The positivists focus on empirical evidence and encourages the philosophers to lose interest in moral and philosophical issues. One of the main achievement of the positivism was the emergence of the behavioural-ism and attempt to developed a value-free science of politics. Behavioural-ism allows the researchers to be free of constitutions and normative theories and gave the study of politics strong credential. This led analysts such as David Easton (1979) that scientific methodology can be used through quantitative researchers in the areas such as voting behaviour, the behaviour of legislators, lobbyist and municipal politician (Heywood, 2015).

Generally, to explain natural phenomena through “scientific methods” it has to go through the particular process. It should be base on empirical observations and it should be empirically verifiable. Once the observation is made, for its explanation one or more hypotheses should be developed. Then it should go through the experimental process. Also, it should be falsifiable or testable (http://www.uic.edu, 2016). Similarly, the “social scientists” claim that same method or methods can be applied to explain and understand the social or political phenomena. Firstly, a positivist researcher would develop an idea to solve or investigate a problem in his or her interested areas such as conflicts, voting, etc. Secondly, the researcher would form hypotheses that would simplify their subject matter. Thirdly, investigation is the core aspect of positivism, through asking questions via questionnaires, analysis of data, statistics, quantitative method. The new findings or data are perceived as “empirical” or “objective” evidence. Finally, after investigation, the decision will be made based on collected evidence. Also, if the evidence did not confirm the hypothesis and it contradicted it, a further modification of the theory will be made. However, if the evidence were favourable new prediction can be formed. (Johnson, Mycoff and Reynolds, 2008).

Furthermore, positivism is grounded on foundationalists ontology i.e. positivists see the world as independent of the human knowledge. Traditionally, Positivists have argued that the world is real and there is no appearance. Moreover, positivists see both natural and social science analogously and claim that positivism strives to make “casual statements”. Also, positivists argue that it is possible to differentiate between normative and empirical questions (Furlong and Marsh, 2002). However, there are two objections, particle and philosophical, to the positivists approach. Practical objection is that the investigation of human behaviour hypothesise that individuals are consistent and act in a predictable manner. This assumption raises practical problems for a researcher. For instance, the subject might act deliberately in accordance with the hypothesis or vice versa. Also, the subject might not accurately reveal what is in their mind due to different reasons, such as fear, social embarrassment and so on. Also, scientists have to take the complexity of human behaviour into consideration, since humans are highly complex than the subject of natural scientists. Moreover, Quine (1961) argues that any knowledge that is gained from five senses is mediated by the ideas we use to evaluate it. Therefore, it is impossible to describe an experience without interpretation.

Also, social scientist must face ‘measurements’ or contestability of ideas. For example, to investigate the cause and effects of ‘terrorism’ it is understood that terrorism has a different meaning in a different part of the world, perhaps even in one society people might define it differently. For example, the execution of Al Nimr, an influential Shia scholar. However, in Saudi, he was convicted as a “terrorist” (BBC, 2015). Another strong criticism of positivism could be the generalisation of the phenomenon. For example, if a positivist researcher is trying to find out about women and driving. After observation and investigation, the research concludes that women are, almost, the worst drivers on the road. This conclusion is highly problematic deductively and inductively because it can be falsified just by other examples that women are the winners in the car race. Additionally, women have passed their theory and practical tests with high marks (Driving Test Data, 2015). Also, in natural science, you can repeat numerous experiment and can make changes to falsify the hypotheses. However, in social science, the experimental aspect is impossible and problematic. For example, to analyse the French revolution political scientists might assume that French revolution was caused by the poor people due to poverty, unemployment and lack of food. It is highly unlikely to analyse the historical events objectively and impossible to repeat the event is falsifiable for the hypothesis.

In addition to practical objections, positivists face philosophical objections as well. The interpretivism rejects the ontology of positivist that real world independently exist. This rejection is based on “social construction of reality”; the reality is socially constructed and the process in this occurs must be analysed” (Elder-Vas, 2012, p236). For example, the inequality that exists in the world is not independent, it has been created by a system of people. For example, in 2007, one-third of Americans died because of poverty (Priester and Mendelson, 2007). These deaths were caused by a social system that is created by the few top powerful people. Furthermore, constructivists argue that people take many things for granted as “facts” or “truth”, which are created as a result of human thought and interaction. For example, Democratic Party is not a separate entity like DNA or electrons, but it exists due to people’s belief and practice (Johnson, Mycoff and Reynolds, 2008). Additionally, Marxists disagree with positivism’s philosophical approach. In Marxists perspective, society is socially constructed by the bourgeoisie. Marxists perceive knowledge as a product of history created by the “elites” to justify social inequality (Haralambos and Holborn, 2013).

The essay highlighted that, there are differences in human nature/behaviour and, natural science is highly unlikely to regard politics as science. Therefore, politics cannot be studied as a science. The proponents, positivists, fail to take the complexities of reality into consideration. Positivism’s ontological and epistemological argument seems to be weak. The ontological and epistemological approach of the positivism lacks to address the reality and perception of reality by the people. In addition, it is shown that the differentiation of values and facts is almost impossible in politics. Besides, generalisation as political “scientists” propose create more complexities such as stereotypes against or in favour of the entire population, class and gender. Additionally, positivists fail to address the effects of history in contemporary society, as history shapes today’s perception. Also, positivism is unable to analyse historical events objectively. Finally, in politics ideas and conceptions are highly contested and value-laden. Therefore, it cannot be studied or examined objectively.

by Khalil Sabawoon

BA Politics and International Relations (Hons.)


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