Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Blinded by 'Political Science'?

Reading lots of books about politics is not rocket science...

This originally was a quick presentation I gave in a class for my Politics M.A. back in late 1992. I then developed it in early 1994 in the first year of my Ph.D studies, when I (and all the other first year Ph.D "social scientists") was lumbered with a "Social Science Research Training Course" which meant coursework and classes when I just wanted to get on starting my thesis. I wrote this around Easter 1994 (I've made minor modifications- mainly putting "-" around "free markets" and "free marketeers"- corporate apologists have as much to do with Adam Smith's ideas about free markets as our remaining Bolshevik day-dreamers have to do with Marx) and I think I should have written it the first week of my first year- then I could have said "I don't believe in the idea of social science- so why do I need training in it?" Instead I had no idea this course would be thrust upon us, so I spent too much time in the Student Union bar...

A polemic against the concept of “Political Science.”


I believe that “political science” is a dangerous, nonsensical concept. When I say “political science” I do not mean political analysis that uses theory and strives to be factual or even speculates about the future in an informed manner. I have no quarrel with political analysis, or even with such political analysis that is described by its authors as “political science”, either as a matter of course or as a way of impressing the gullible. What I do oppose is the belief that politics can be studied in a value-free, or to use Max Weber’s term, “wertfrei” manner in a similar way to how the physical world is studied by the so-called natural sciences, such as physics and biology.

In political studies, attempts to apply natural science methods to the understanding of political phenomena came rather later than they did in most other social studies disciplines (Hughes, 1980, p.16). The methodology of the natural sciences can be best described as being of a positivistic-behaviourist character. Positivism postulates that all human ideas come form experience (Hughes, 1980, p.21), while behaviourism attempts to use an observational language that only deals with outward behaviour (Hughes, 1980, p.39). From using such methodology, a number of characteristics arise which can define natural science.

Natural Science

Natural science consists of a number of testable (Ake, 1972, p.8), uniform laws of universal applicability. These laws are also interdependent; laws in one sphere of science, say physics, cannot contradict those in biology and chemistry if they are to be considered scientific (Allison, 1973, p.250).

Natural science is complete. Every event or phenomena in nature must be explained within the context of scientific theory. Otherwise, either than event or the scientific theory it contradicts must be reinterpreted (Allison, 1973, p.250).

Each event, or effect, must have a cause for it to be scientific. Natural scientists, if they cannot prove something occurs in nature, must accept what happens in nature for what it is. The natural sciences have no place for normative theory. Kuhn characterises “normal” science as consisting of “puzzle solving” empirical research, rather than by grand philosophical speculation about the fundamentals of theory and approaches (Hughes, 1980, p.35).

In the natural sciences, the concept of the random event does not exist (Allison, 1973, p.251). Natural science is able to predict future events, such as water at sea level always boiling at 100 degrees Centigrade, with complete confidence (Trig, 1985, p.181).

Natural science is unique, as there is one scientific universe. All events are reducible to a fundamental terminology, consisting of a set of analytical terms with precise definitions. For instance, all natural scientists know what defines water, gravity and heat. Unless events occur which change the terminology of science, such concepts are incontestable (Allison, 1973, p.251).

Why Politics is not a “science”

The methods of positivistic natural science cannot be applied to the study of politics because human beings are not inanimate objects (Trigg, 1985, p.41). Furthermore, humans distinguish themselves from other living creatures by being conscious of themselves and their possession of free will. Humans therefore have the ability to make deliberate choices about what values and motives to have, as well as the interests they want to pursue. It is not possible, then, for human behaviour to be describes as a kind of “brute fact” independent of motives or reasons (Hughes, 1980, p.81). Neither is it possible for positivistic methods to adequately explain the motives of what is “in people’s minds” (Hughes, 1980, p.78). Consequently, there cannot be any system of political analysis that has universal applicability. Political analysts are not ,therefore, constrained in their outlook in the way that natural scientists are by phenomena, such as the existence of gravity.

As there are no scientific laws to shape their theory, political analysts are compelled to construct theories to make sense of the complexity f political discourse and activity. To quote Leys (1989, p.4): “There is an observable reality, but the concepts we employ it hep to determine what, given the reality, the ‘facts; are held to be.” Such theories are inevitably imbued with the values learnt and accepted by the analyst (Trigg, 1986, p.107), and no neutral viewpoint can exist from which an analyst can look at political phenomena “objectively” (Hughes, 1980, p.116). There are, therefore, no totally undisputed ways of examining political phenomena. For instance, the different political values and outlooks that anarchists, elitists, Marxists and pluralists possess would result in all of them theorising about state institutions in different ways. Similarly, there are many different accounts, from many different political viewpoints, about how imperialism as a world system came into being before World War One> in both these examples analysts’ conclusions about the same political phenomena would be almost inevitably different, due to using different criteria based on the different values they hold. Unlike the natural sciences political theories can be incompatible, but, all other things being equal, have equal validity as a starting point for investigating political phenomena (Taylor, 1973, pp.143-4).

Political analysts must also allow for random events occurring which have political effects but no explanations in the political sphere (Allison, 1973, p.252). For instance, the fact that Czar Nicholas II’s son was a haemophiliac must be taken into account when investigating the collapse of Imperial Russia in 1917, but no political theory could explain why the heir to the Russian throw was a haemophiliac. Nor can political theory explain John Smith’s heart attack in May 1994, which allowed the rise of “New Labour”.

Human free will also interferes with any pretensions political analysts have of being able to predict future events in the way that the natural sciences can. This is because links between cause and effect in politics are so weak (MacIntyre, 1964). One cannot say that, in all case, unemployment makes people vote for politically extreme parties, in the same way that natural scientists can say that water at zero degrees centigrade or below freezes. This does not even take into account whether unemployment, instead of a thousand and one other, conscious or unconscious, reasons makes people act like that. How could such an assertion in political analysis be tested to a degree rigorous enough that it could be accepted as valid science? One could say opinion polls, but after getting the result of the 1992 British General Election so wrong, one might think such a “test “ as useless for predicting the future (Butler and Kavanagh, 1992, Chapter 7). Moreover, a person possessing free will might not fulfil the political analysts’ predictions, perhaps just to prove that valid general predictions about human behaviour are not laws in any true scientific sense (Trigg, 1985, p.179; Hughes, 1980, p.55).

Unlike the natural sciences, political analysis has a place for normative theories based on the theorist’s own free will and value system, since no political analysis can avoid basic questions about human nature any more than he or she can avoid making choices between different sets of values (Trigg, 1985, p.117). So-called “political scientists” who claim to be “wertfrei” in their outlook succumb just as inevitably to normative realities as the most politically partisan theorists. For example, the work of theorists such as Seymour Lipset and Harold Lasswell are based on their normative beliefs, since their “neutral” descriptions of “democracy”- and a particular definition of democracy at that- cannot be accepted without the reader failing to agree that “democracy” is a better form of government than any alternatives (Taylor, 1973, pp.150 & 157).

There is also more than one political universe in existence, due to the existence of human free will, values and motivations. Other intellectual disciplines can also examine political events and theories in ways that could not be attempted in the natural sciences. For instance, as well as countless explanations by political theorists in attempting t account for the rise of McCarthyism in the USA after 1945, there are also exist a number of quite valid psychological and sociological explanations of the same phenomena (Taylor, 1973, p.143).

Political analysis lacks a set of tight rigorous analytical terms that are found in the natural sciences. Claude Ake (1972, p.110), in attempting to “clarify the scientific status of political science”, bemoans the fact that so many political terms, such as “political change”, “political stability” and “political democracy” are descriptive rather than analytical terms. That is, they are identified empirically rather than through clear watertight definitions. He does not accept that political discourse inevitably comes up with many “essentially contested concepts”, to use W.B. Gallie’s phrase. Gallie defined essentially contested concepts as those that “the proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users”: “democracy” was one of Gallie’s examples (Allison, 1984, p.49). One has only got to look at disputes over the precise nature of political phenomena such as “freedom”, “justice”, “socialism” and “terrorism” to see Gallie’s point. Moreover, just because they are disputed, “unscientific” terms surely should not preclude political analysts from studying them?

The dangers of “Political Science”

I hope that I have successfully demonstrated that political analysis cannot be described as a science in any meaningful manner. Many political analysts, however, hold the view that a genuine “political science” will eventually emerge. There is understandably, perhaps, a sense of failure amongst many political analysts that they have not produced analyses of political phenomena as convincing as those of natural phenomena achieved by natural scientists (Hughes, 1980, p.14). These “failures” are often rationalised by either describing politics as an “immature” science, or by arguing that the social world is more complex than the natural one. Consequently, political phenomena are more difficult to measure, and so more errors are likely (Hughes, 1980, p.52). Frankly, hoping that politics will “grow up” to be a “mature science” appears to me to be the intellectual equivalent of searching for the Holy Grail. This forlorn quest should be abandoned, since the whole idea of “political science” is as dangerous as it is futile.

It is an intellectually dangerous concept at two levels. Firstly, many “political scientists” give the impression that “value free” analysis is the only type of analysis worth pursuing if anything new is to be discovered about politics. As well as being a value judgement in itself, it is a strange notion since political thinkers such as Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Burke, Mill and Marx all analysed politics in ways that were in no way “wertfrei” (Cobban, 1953, p.331). Even Max Weber’s work is not “value free”, since his work on leadership, bureaucracy and the class structure (Garth and Mills, 1964, p.38) were developed as part of the debate about the legacy of Bismarck’s Chancellorship and the future of Germany (Garth and Mills, 1964, p.46). Furthermore, Hugh Stretton (1969, pp.155-7) argues that all other things being equal, a strong commitment to some particular goal will make a social researcher more anxious to be right than one who is indifferent to the potential implications of what he or she is studying, as “value-free” analysts insinuate.

Secondly, “political science” is an intellectually dangerous concept since it implies that, through investigation, sooner or later humanity will be able to understand all political phenomena in the same way as the natural sciences understand the natural world. With that aim achieved, there would be nothing left to learn about politics. If it is though that all questions in politics have been answered, surely all we need to do is teach everyone those answers. This, in turn, encourages a belief in scientific morality, for it an analysis is correct it must be morally right as well. Consequently, analytical methods become ideological dogma, and as William Blake once observed, “the man who never alters his opinion is like standing water/and breeds reptiles of the mind” (Thompson, 1985, p.261).

“Political scientists” may argue that this cannot happen, but look at what happened to much Marxist political thought in the Twentieth Century. “Scientific socialism”, whether “Stalinist” or “Trotskyite”, increasingly made a method of political analysis into a dogma, which stemmed from unthinking application of Lenin’s belief that : “The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true. It is comprehensive and harmonious and provides men an integral world outlook” (Callaghan, 1987, p.4).

Pretensions of scientific certainty espoused by subsequent generations of “Marxist-Leninists” have led to many Marxists becoming intellectually washed-up or brain-dead. For instance, most Trotskyites have had serious problems analysing the real world since their guru was assassinated in 1940 (Callaghan, 1987, p.175), and have been reduced to Gnostic readings of Trotsky’s work in attempting to understand the present world situation (Callaghan, 1987, p.219).

Furthermore, these scientific pretensions have meant, in practice, that many Marxists have had very strong tendencies- although, of course, there is no law- towards intolerance and the persecution of those who do not see all the answers to political questions as having being correctly answered by their particular brand of “scientific socialism” (Callaghan, 1987, p.4).

Similarly, the lack of doubt amongst those who currently believe that “the market is always right” is another example of “scientific” certitude being used to legitimise particular behaviour in the political sphere. This attitude amongst self-proclaimed supporters of “free market” economics stems from a belief in liberal economics that humans are naturally egoistic, self-interested and selfish [which now I think is as much a distortion of the works of Adam Smith as, say, the average Marxist political programme is a distortion of Karl Marx’s vision of the future]. In making such claims “pro-free market” economists produce universalistic explanations of human behaviour that ignore other views of human nature (Trigg, 1985, p.130). The frequent inability of professed “free market” supporters to see that other people might have other views of human nature, and so different political outlooks, stems directly from a belief in “scientific” certainties and truths. It also pushes “free marketers” towards a tendency to be as intolerant of other viewpoints as the most dogmatic “scientific socialists”.

Evidence of this dogmatism comes from “free marketers” selective application of Karl Popper’s concept of “falsification” to real life, as well as their eagerness to proclaim “scientific laws” for behaviour in the political sphere. Popper laid great store on Marxism being “unscientific”, as it could not be subject to “falsification”. Marxism could not be disproved in the face f Marxists’ faith in their doctrine, although, according to Popper, all of Marx’s predictions had been disproved. “Free marketers”, however, will never accept that their theories are ever fundamentally wrong, in the same way that die-hard Trotskyites will never accept that their “scientific” world-view is wrong. Neither “free marketers” nor Trotskyites will ever accept that their theories could ever be wrong or disproved for similar reasons: both of their theories are value-laden (Trigg, 1985, p.109), and their strongly-held views are used to interpret all facts and events they encounter to further justify and reinforce their original views. There is nothing per se wrong with this, especially if one wants to confirm prejudices. To claim, however, that such a method is “scientific” is complete rubbish.

Popper, while disparaging Marx for wrongly predicting future historical events in a law-like manner- whether Marx did this is yet another matter- was quite prepared to embrace sociological laws and hypotheses that appear similar to those found in the natural sciences which back up his “pro-free market” viewpoint. For example, Popper says that full employment cannot occur without causing inflation, which his “free market” disciple Anthony Flew describes as “most persuasive” (Trigg, 1985, p.180). Flew, however, does not believe that all of Popper’s claims are true, as they conflict with Flew’s value system. For instance, Popper claimed “you cannot introduce a political reform without strengthening the opposing forces to a degree roughly in ratio to the scope of the reform.” Flew says this is “simply not true” (Trigg, 1985, p.182). To claim that “free-market” economics are “neutral”, “value-free” and “scientific”, when its leading intellectual gurus cannot agree on which “laws” make up its underpinning makes this particular analyst wonder why anyone takes the “truths” of “free market” economics seriously. Particularly when its methodology is considered, which is “An ahistorical theory, which sees an economy as the sum of the atomised actions of millions of individuals…preoccupied with supply and demand rather than production, which insists that the roles of capital and labour are equal…” (Milne, 1987, p.27)

Who can claim this to be “scientific” except, perhaps, to justify their material self-interest?


At best, I would say that “Mostly, what is called political science seems…a device invented…for avoiding politics, without achieving science” (Cobban, 1953, p.335).

At worst, the concept justifies the triumph of unthinking dogma over humanity’s unique gift of being able to pursue intellectual enquiry.


Ake, Claude (1972) ”The Scientific Status of Political Science”, British Journal of Political Science, Volume 2, Part 1, pp.109-15.

Allison, Lincoln (1973) “Politics and the Problem about ‘Science’”, British Journal of Political Science, Volume 3, Part 2, pp.250-2.

Allison, Lincoln (1984) Right Principles (Oxford: Blackwell).

Callaghan, John (1987) The Far Left in British Politics (Oxford: Blackwell).

Cobban, Alfred (1953) “The Decline of Political Theory”, Political Science Quarterly, Volume LXVIII, No.3, pp.321-37.

Gerth, H.H and Mills, C.Wright, eds., (1964) From Max Weber (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul).

Hughes, John (1980) The Philosophy of Social Research (London: Longman).

Leys, Colin (1989) Politics in Britain (London: Verso).

MacIntyre, Alasdair (1964) “A Mistake about Causality in Social Science” in Peter Laslett and W.G. Runciman, eds., Philosophy, Politics and Society Second Series (Oxford: Basil Blackwell), pp.48-70.

Milne, Seamus (1987) “The prophets who lost their touch”, The Guardian, January 14th, p.27.

Stretton, Hugh (1969) The Political Sciences: General principles of selection in social science and history (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul).

Taylor, Charles (1973) “Neutrality in Political Science” in Alan Ryan, ed., The Philosophy of Social Explanation (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp.139-70.

Thompson, E.P. (1985) The Heavy Dancers (London: Merlin).

Trigg, Roger (1985) Understanding Social Science: A Philosophical Introduction to the Social Sciences (Oxford: Blackwell).

PS Another problem with pretending that politics is a "science" is that political writers attempt to replicate the language used in natural science publications. That is, the prose produced is often dry as the proverbial bone. To quote John Gray ("How to dish the Whigs", New Statesman, 27/6/97, pp.45-6):

"Anyone who talks of the literature of political science risks being suspected of irony. Few political scientists write books that give their readers pleasure. Fewer yet have written anything that is likely to endure...Since the second world war the academic study of politics has been dominated by an effort to replicate the methods and success of the natural sciences. The chief result has been a new genre of unreadable books."

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