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This unit examines the Behavioural Approach to the study of the Political Science. Behaviorism was developed by American Political Scientists as an alternative to the traditional approaches in the 1940s and 1950s. This approach concentrates on careful observation of individual behaviour in the political process and less on state political institutions. The objective of the behavioural approach is to make the study of politics more scientific.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1.  explain the features of Political Science in the pre-behavioural period 
  2. discuss the factors which contributed to the emergence of the Behavioural Approach 
  3. explain the main features of the Behavioural Approach 
  4.  discuss the criticisms of the Behavioural Approach. 


3.1 The Features of Political Science in the Pre-behavioral Period

The method of studying Political Science before the World War II was largely unscientific and largely descriptive. According to Truman, Political Science as a discipline before behaviouralism was characterized by six features:
1. A lack of concern with political system as such, including the American Political System which amounted in most cases to taking their properties and requirement for granted.
2. The absence of an explicit conception of political change and development that was blindly optimistic and unreflectively reformist.
3. The almost total neglect of theory in any meaningful sense of the term.
4. The consequent enthusiasm for a conception of science that rarely went beyond raw empiricism. 

5. A strongly parochial preoccupation with things American that stunted the development of an effective comparative method, and 
 The establishment of a continuity commitment to concrete description (Truman, 1951)

This was how most American Political Scientists viewed the method of studying the subject before World War II. However, the events and the consequence of World War II acted as a wakeup call that made American Political Scientists more critical of political science methodology as their research methodology could not find answers to most of the emerging problems thrown up by the War.

According to Davies and Lewis (1971) there was: A great dissatisfaction with methods of investigation with the working of the political system once characteristic mainly of British and European Political Scientist. In fact we are often told there was little concern with what is now called the political system but more with the study of the State. And the study of the State meant analyses of the articles of constitutions, legislations passed by governments and the institutions to which the constitutions made provision. The emphasis on the analysis of the State, law and constitution relegated the study of the general social framework of the state to the background.
One problem which is associated with the concentration of the study on the state and its institutions is that such institutions may be outdated, but the study may not reflect such changes. Furthermore, the emphasis on the state and its institution may not provide an objective criterion for comparing different states.

The problems which necessitated the re-orientation of the study of Political Science include according to Davies and Lewis (1977):

  1. The need to explain the failure of democracy and the emergence of authoritarian political institutions in Germany and Italy before and during the War. 
  2.  The need to explain the political processes of the post-colonial states in Africa and Asia.
  3. explain the development of different kinds of political institutions. 
  4. The need to develop models which could be used in comparative politics. 

According to Somit and Tenehaus the problems with the traditional approach in America were centred around five major issues:

  1. The discovery that the talents and skills of political scientists were not highly valued by government bureaucrat or officials.
  2.  The inability of traditional political science to account to the rise of Fascism, National Socialism (Naziscism) and Communism
  3.  A growing sensitivity to and unhappiness with the basically descriptive nature of the discipline. 
  4. The knowledge of advances in other social sciences. 
  5.  The fear that political science was lagging behind its sister professions and disciplines. 


What are the features of Political Science in Pre-behavioural period?

3.2 Factors which contributed to the emergence of the Behavioural approach in Political Science 

There were a number of factors which contributed to the emergence of the behavioural approach. We now discuss some of them below:

3.3 The Chicago School

The birth place of the Behavioural School is the Department of Political Science, University of Chicago, USA. It was there that few political scientists under the leadership of Charles E. Merriam, pioneered the study of what we now know as the Behavioural Approach. Other pioneering personalities in the Chicago School included Harold Lasswell, V. O. Key Jr., David Truman, Herbert Simon and Gabriel Almond and others.

3.4 The Princeton School

The Princeton School was located at the Department of Political Science, University of Princeton, USA. Its research methodology is based on the behavioural approach. Its field of specialization was cross-cultural studies. Those associated with the Princeton School included James S. Coleman, Lucian Pye, Sydney Verba, Myro Weiner, Dankwart A. Roston and George I. Blankstern.

3.5 Foundations Fund Support

The re-orientation of Political Science methodology was assisted by an unprecedented flow of foundation funds. Those foundations active in providing funds for research on political science were the Ford, the Rockefeller and the Carnegie Foundations.

3.6 The Immigration of European Scholars into the USA

The policies pursued by the Nazi Government in Germany made many German Scholars to migrate to the US during the War. Scholars from other European Universities also moved to America during and after the War. These scholars arrived in America with intellectual techniques/methods, which helped behaviouralism to develop as a methodology.
Other factors that helped boosted the Behavioural approach included the encouragement of the American Political Science Association and the Social Science Research Council, the growth of survey methods, especially at the Survey Research Centre of the University of Michigan and the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University.

3.7 The Main Features of the Behavioural Approach

The main features of the Behavioural approach are as follows:

  1. The objective is to make the study of political science scientific thus capable of explanations and predictions. 
  2. The focus of study is on observable behaviour of individuals and groups in the political process. 
  3. The use of quantitative method is encouraged since this would assist in accurate measurement of data. 
  4. Research is aimed at developing theories which could provide acceptable explanation for political behaviour. 
  5.  Research is, also, aimed at providing solutions to immediate social problems. 
  6. Political Science is to be made more inter-disciplinary, embracing other social sciences. 
  7.  Research should employ statistical techniques such as multivariate analysis, sample surveys, mathematical models and simulation. 

With the increasing use of the behavioural approach in Political Science, major changes were noticed in the vocabulary of politics. Such words includes boundary maintenance, bargaining, conceptual framework, decision-making, functionalism, factor analysis, feedback, model, game theory, input/output, political socialization, political culture, political system, etc. This behaviouralism has made political science an inter-disciplinary subject and fully integrated it into other social sciences.

3.8 Criticism of the Behavioural Approach

Major critics of the approach included William Yandell Elliot, Edward S. Corwan, Luther Gullick, Walter J. Sheperd, James Hart, H. Mark Jacobson and Charles A. Bear (Gullick, 1956). The main contention of these critics of the Behavioural Approach were:

  1.  Political Science is not, nor is it ever likely to become a science in any realistic sense of the term. 
  2. Overt political behaviour tells only part of the story. Different individuals may perform the same act for quite different reasons. To understand what they do, one must go beyond or behind, observable behaviour. The anti-behaviouralist holds that the larger part of political life lies beneath the surface of human action and cannot be directly apprehended. 
  3.  Because Political Berhaviour is not quantifiable whatever the theoretical merits of quantification, it cannot make political science scientific. 
  4.  The pre-occupation with general theory tends to block less ambitious prospects but in the long run is more productive inquiry. At best, it has led to the proliferation of concepts which cannot be operationalised. 
  5. Significant political issues involve moral and ethical issues. Political Science has historically been, and must continue to be more concerned with questions of right and wrong even if these cannot be scientifically resolved. 
  6. There has been indiscriminate borrowing of concepts and techniques which are simply inappropriate for political inquiry. 
  7. As for ‘Scientific Objectivity’, there is almost universal skepticism among the anti-behaviouralist that it is attainable and considerable doubt that it is inherently desirable. (Somit and Tenenhaus, 1968). 


Discuss various criticisms, the anti-Behaviouralist approach leveled against behaviouralism as a method in Political Science.


We have tried to look at the features of the pre-behavioural approach to the study of politics and the factors that led to the emergence of the behavioural approach. The basic tenets of behaviouralsim and its weaknesses have also been examined.


The period 1945 – 1965 was a period of transformation of political science. The period witnessed a revolutionary change in political science methodology. The University of Chicago pioneered a new method of studying politics – the Behavioural Approach – which challenged the Historical and the Institutional Approaches in Political science. The main focus of Behaviorism is to make the study of Political Science Scientific. While behaviorism has been acted and applied in research by many scholars, there are number of scholars who doubt the usefulness of behaviourism.


i. Discuss the emergence of the Behavioural Approach in the study of Politics.
ii. Identify and discuss the main features of the Behavioural Approach.
iii. Write a critique of the Behavioural Approach.


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