Home Introduction to Political Science THE NATURE AND SCOPE OF POLITICAL SCIENCE


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In this unit, you will be introduced to what Politics is all about. In your day to day activities, you must have heard of the word Politics without actually understanding its meaning. What do you think is Politics? This question has been asked many times in every age before the birth of Jesus Christ – when the Greeks first introduced the idea of the ‘polis’ meaning city-state. It is from ‘polis’ that we derive our modern word politics. Aristotle (384-322 BC) in his book POLITICS first used the term politics to refer to the affairs of a Greek city-state. Aristotle observed that ‘man by nature is a political animal’. By this he meant that the essence of social existence is politics and that two or more men interacting with one another are invariably involved in a political relationship.

Aristotle observed that whenever men seek to define their position in society or as they attempt to achieve personal security from available resources and as they try to influence others to accept their points of view, they find themselves engaged in politics. In this broad sense, every one is a politician.

Today, the word politics is an elastic one. To some authorities, politics is concerned with the ordinary day-to-day activities of the community in which we are all personally involved. To others, including Harold Lasswell, politics has been equated with the study of power or the study of influence and the influential. In fact, Lasswel went as far as to define politics as “who gets what, when how” which underlines the importance of power as the major ingredient of politics.


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

  1.  explain what politics is all about 
  2.  explain the development of political science as a subject of study and why political science is regarded as a science. 


3.1 Definitions/Explanations of Politics Generally speaking, 

it is difficult to define politics because there are many definitions by various scholars that conflict or sometimes complement one another. Ernest Baker (1962:1) stated that politics is the process of making and execution of governmental decisions or policies. Harold Lesswell and Abraham Kaplan (1950) defined politics as authoritative, allocation of values or who gets what, when and how. Austine Ranany (1975: 35-38) maintained that politics is a process of resolution of conflict in society.
For Max Weber, (1947:145-154) politics is the operation of the state and its institutions. Politics for him, means the sharing power to influence the distribution of power among individuals and groups within a state.
Lasswell suggests that politics is essentially the struggle for positions of power and influence by which those who succeed in monopolizing such positions in society are able to make decisions that affect the lives of every citizen within the country. More will be said about power later when we examine it as a topic on its own.

For our purpose, politics can simply be defined in three ways: First, it attempts to discover the general principles, formation and functioning of government. Secondly, it is concerned with people and the way in which they make decisions and the way those decisions are reached. Thirdly politics is that part of the social sciences which treats the foundations of the state and the principle of government, governmental, social and economic programmes, international relations, organizations and cooperation.
Politics goes beyond the activity of government, the political parties and the politicians. Politics is a universal phenomenon- that is, it is present in all human organization such as the family, trade unions, corporations, universities, etc. In all these organizations, politics is characterized by struggle for power and influence, conflict, bargaining, reconciliation, resolution and consensus.

Politics can be played at a national level or internationally. At the national level, the failure of the Nigerian political elite between 1962-66 gave the military the opportunity to intervene in our political process. History repeated itself in 1983 when the political elite again failed to settle their differences following the 1983 October general elections. Again, the military employing their monopoly over the use of force and the acquiescence of the Nigerian people swept the political elite off the political stage and ruled until 1999.
Similarly, it was politics at the international level when the Palestinian and the Israelites partly resolved their age-long military/ideological confrontation over Palestinian home land in Gaza. Also it was a political action/decision when ECOMOG troops were sent by West African States to war-torn Liberia for peace-keeping operations. This helped to stop the fighting from getting worse. Peace has now returned to Liberia after 15 years of fighting.

3.2 The Development of Political Science as a Field of Study

The Greeks as we have seen established a broad definition of politics. However, between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries, European political philosophers established a narrower definition of politics.

For example, Jean Bodin (1430-1596), a French political philosopher, who first used the term “political science” (science politique) was a lawyer. Because of his legal training, Bodin focused on the characteristics of the state more than any other aspect of the political process. He concentrated on analyzing the relationship between the organization of the state and how this relates to law.
Another French philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755) argued that the functions of government could be encompassed within the categories of legislation, execution, and the adjudication of law. Montesquieu categories found their way into the United States Constitution and other
Republican Constitutions with the assumption that liberty was best assured by separation of powers between the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary.
It was the work of these two philosophers that imposed a restricted definition of politics on political scientists. Political scientist for years concentrated almost exclusively on the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary as major concern until recently.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection began to exert a powerful influence upon political science. In fact, Biology came to reinforce history in the study of political institutions, which were seen as the product of historical change and, apparently organic evolution. The development of sociology after the 19th

century prompted political scientists to give more attention to the impact on government of social forces not defined with reference to the institutional outline of the state. The industrialization of previously agricultural societies and sharpening clash between the emergent working classes and their employers (industrialists) compelled a closer study of economic facts, forces and trends, as these produced political problems and helped to shape political behaviour.
The advent of World War II brought about a re-think by political scientist that Legislature, Executives, agencies, and the Courts did not exist by themselves and that they did not operate independently of one another or of the other political organizations in society. Political scientists in America and Europe embarked on new fields of study by examining the political parties, interest groups, trade unions, as well as corporations and church organizations. Ideologies have also commanded the attention of political scientists because of their (ideologies) role in the formation of Ultra-Right and Ultra-Left political parties and movements. It is all the above institutions of the state plus other political and social organization that constitute the political system.
What this mean is that politics is not just about government and politicians but a complex process involving everybody in a given society, attitudes to issues, interest groups, group organization, electioneering, as well as the formulation, implementation, and interpretation of law.


 Define politics and describe the development of political science as a field of study.

3.3 What is Science? What Makes Political Science a Science?

Pure science is concerned with obtaining accurate knowledge about the structure and behaviour of the physical universe. It deals with universal and with rational analysis of known facts. It is fact seeking as well as fact-using. The ultimate goal of a science is the classification of facts, and on the basis of such classification, the formulation of a body of general rules and logically consistent and universally valid statement about the universe. Science has been described as an “adventure of the human spirit”.
The scientific method entails vigorous procedures starting from selection of problems to be solved or analysed, followed by formulation of hypothesis, gathering of data and testing of hypothesis, and finally, the use of findings to refute, modify or support existing theories. To evaluate the findings of their own studies and of others, scientists employ a number of knowledge, to be scientific it must be characterized by verifiability; it must be systematic and must, have general applicability.
3.4 The Meaning of Verifiability A proposition is said to be verified when it has been checked or tested by many specialists in the relevant field of study and when they all agree that other scientists and the general public can believe it to be true. However, there are no certainties in anything but probabilities. The probability that some propositions will hold true, is so great that they can be treated as certainties, but in the social sciences, this is not the case.

If scientific knowledge is to be verifiable, science must be empirical, that is, scientific statements must be descriptive of the empirical world. Similarly, if scientific knowledge is to be verifiable, the desire for reliability and, ultimately, for verifiability has been the chief factor leading to the adoption of quantitative methods.
3.5 The Meaning of Systematic Knowledge is said to be systematic when it is organized into an intelligible pattern, or structure, with significant relationships made clear. To achieve a system, scientists seek out similarities and differences putting things together. While looking for similarities and differences, scientists also look for relationship, whether correlations or causal relations. Concern for system means that scientists want to proceed from particular towards general facts, from knowledge of
isolated facts towards knowledge of connections between facts. Thus, “the ideal of science is to achieve a systematic inter-connection of facts”.

3.6 The Meaning of Generality or Universality The knowledge provided by a telephone directory anywhere in the world is verifiable, and it is presented in an orderly and systematic way. However, it lacks generality or universality in the sense that a New York Telephone Directory is useless in the City of Lagos. The object in science is to develop generalizations so that explanation and prediction can occur to the maximum possible extent.

Scientific knowledge on any subject, designed to facilitate explanation and prediction can be thought of as a pyramid rising from a base of specific bits of data up through more general facts to propositions, laws, and theories. Turning to the second part of our questions: Is political science really scientific? Political science may be defined as the study of politics using some scientific tools.

Political science is not and cannot be an exact science in the sense of the natural sciences like physics, chemistry, geology, etc. The reasons for this are that the subject matter which political scientists investigate is generally uncertain in forms – that is, people are generally unpredictable. Thus, the conclusions reached after investigations are dubious and the findings are not all of general or universal applicability.

Political science is not an exact science like the natural sciences because the material with which it deals is incapable of being treated exactly the same way as physics or chemistry. While physics and chemistry are natural or physical science, and deal with matter; the social sciences which include political science, sociology, economics, etc. deal with man in society. Man in society is not only unpredictable but also extremely cumbersome to observe accurately because he is ever-changing and his environment is difficult to control. Political science like other social sciences has a scientific character because of the scientific method it employ in examining phenomena. That is, it is a science to the extent that it accumulates facts that are verifiable, links these facts together in causal sequences (systematically) and from these, makes generalizations of fundamental principles and formulate theories.
The laboratory method of the natural science may be difficult for political scientists to adopt but they could observe historical facts and the facts of contemporary world as the basis for political analysis,
classify, connect and compare. However, political scientists do not agree on the appropriate categories for classifying the phenomena of politics. This disagreement reflects the difficulty of observing and the frequent impossibility of quantifying the variables that political scientists identify.

Finally, because political scientists deal with large numbers of people in an uncontrolled setting where each individual has many behavioural options open to him, it is near impossible to make generalization on observed facts. The most crucial fact is how one defines, much less measure, political power and influence the very substance of the political process. Our assessment of political power will be highlighted when we examine power, authority and influence in another unit.


Is Political Science a science or an art subject?


The development of Political science as a discipline shows its attempt in enhancing its scientific status. We are however informed that political science is not and cannot be an exact science in the sense of the natural sciences like physics, chemistry, geology, etc. The reasons for this are uncertainty and unpredictability of the subject matter which political scientists investigate.


In this unit, you have been exposed to what politics is about; the development of political science as a distinct field of study and its scientific status. We tried here to show you that although there is no universally acceptable definition of the word “politics”, however, there are some working definitions that will guide you as new “entrants” in the field.


  1.  Discuss what you understand by the term politics. 
  2.  Describe the development of political science over the years. iii. Why are the natural sciences more ‘scientific’ than political science? 


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