As a political science major, one of the frustrating assumptions I face is that I am interested in going into politics. However, political science is not a preprofessional program. It does not train me to be a politician, and it does not reflect an interest in being a politician. Political Science is a social science, the same way sociology and economics is (despite the elitist pretentions of economists). Here are five points on what political science is, and what it contributes.
1. Political Science does not prepare you to be a politician. At least, not more so than any other social science degree. Politics is a different game that requires different skills. It demands political manipulation, maneuvering public relations, and an understanding of how to engage in power play. Political Science however, deals with analysis and policy implications through critical and empirical methods. It differs from politics the same way economics differs from business. Rather, Political Science views the political scene from the ivory tower, so that it can systematically study political actors, opinions, and institutions. What it does not do however, is teach you relevant skills to work directly in politics – thought nothing is stopping you from pursuing politics. And as senator Coburn’s amendment, which removed NSF funding for Political Science, shows, politicians aren’t too fond of Political Science anyway.
2. Political Science improves government (and by association, your life). Georgetown Political Scientist Hans Noel puts it best, saying “If you think everything in Washington is just dandy, then maybe we don’t need to find a cure for anything. But if you think the system is “broken,” or if any way not working right, then we need to know more. Urgently.” Quite frankly, considering that the world, including America, still faces government corruption, societal inequality, and political conflicts, the job of Political Science is far from over. These are issues that political scientists seek to solve, and these are issues that affect your well-being. By advancing these studies, Political Science can address problems such as how to make the government more accountable, how to more efficiently tell politicians the demands of their constituents, how to reduce bureaucracy while maintaining ability, and how to reform the system to make it more democratic. An example of such work is Blattman, Jamison, and Sheridan’s study on the connection between poverty and violence . Many intuitively agree that those in poverty are more prone to violence, but wouldn’t it be helpful to know why? By knowing why, effective policies can be implemented to counter the effects.
3. Political Science studies more than just formal governments. As Aristotle wrote, “man is by nature a political animal.” As such, we form political systems and ideas in more than just the nation-state setting. We form them in our daily lives, informally. For example, office politics or corporate negotiations are all political relationships – relationships involving power. It is power that Political Science is interested in, and wherever power is a factor, Political Science will be involved. An example of an important field political scientists are interested in is in-group/out-group dynamics, which form the basis of ethnic and group conflicts. The hope is that by studying conflicts, we can reduce it. This kind of research can benefit you as well, especially in terms of national security (an example is Robert Pape’s research on the causes of suicide terrorism).
4. Political Science is systematic and rigorous. It seems many people think that Political Science is a circle of agenda-pushing academics, who spout nonsense based on their beliefs or attitudes. This is false. Although many political scientists have normative goals, they still employ rigorous empirical and statistical methods, just as any social science does. And although, like any social science, it is impossible to remove personal views from research, the level of bias is not inherently as high as critics claim. These methods are especially important in Positivist Political Science, in which it aims to explain “what is,” as opposed to “what should be,” because it allows relevant parties to judge the state of the world accurately and to compare aspects of the political scene. Examples include the data Transparency International gathers on levels of political corruption, which is highly valuable to businesses, as well as The Human Rights Data Project, which records global human rights violations. Though the immediate effects of Positivist research isn’t salient, it benefits everyone by letting them know why things happen the way they do.
5. Political Science is eclectic. Unlike the hard sciences, Political Science employs a variety of methodology; the aforementioned empirical-method is just one, albeit one of the main, approaches that political scientists employ. For example, many political scientists use humanistic methods, such as in political philosophy or political literary criticism (which uses political theories to analyze literature). This is particularly important for normative claims, since it is through philosophy that we can understand how we should design political systems (where should power go, what are ethical political acts, etc.) Another method used is psychology, which is important in the Behaviorist school and in political psychology. Here, political scientists use personality psychology to analyze the nature and behavior of leaders, such as determining their tendency towards authoritarian rule by using the F-Scale or the RWA-Scale. Political psychologists also employ social psychology so they can understand public-government relationships and tension reduction. Even math and economics, though contentious (see Perestroika Movement), are used by political scientists, especially within Political Economy and Rational-Choice Theory. Mathematical methods are used to model the political scene in the same way economics tries to model the economic scene, which means heavy use of probabilities equations and game theory. And it has been somewhat successful, such as political scientist Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize-winning research on how to govern ecological resources locally, without the use of government institutions.
To be fair, Political Science as a field still has a long way to go. For example, it needs to resolve the ongoing “methodology debate” so that there is greater consensus. The potential however, is promising. But it can only succeed if people understand Political Science for what it is: an analytical and policy-relevant field, not a wish-washy training program for wannabe politicians.