Political Scientism

I’ve been haunted by the ghost of this topic for quite some time now. Having put up with the exigencies of my professors, I finally raise my hand to say what I think of political science. The paper below was written for a class which is no longer being taught (perhaps because it really seemed out of sync with the dogmas of the political science department), and although it adheres to a rather excessive diplomatic effort on my part – which I would have, perhaps, reconsidered under different circumstances – it nevertheless delivers the general idea.

Political Science Scientism

The transformation of the study of politics: a reflection on mainstream epistemology in the social sciences and some of its implications on political science

“… it seems to me that you over-simplify a question which lies outside the bounds of physiology. Physiology has courageously performed its task, dividing man into an infinity of acts and reactions and reducing him to a point of intersection, to a whirl of reflexes. Let it make room now for the sociologist to re-establish man’s wholeness. Sociology will snatch man from the anatomical amphitheater and return him to history.”


Alexander Herzen, letter to his son Alexander.

July, 1868.



In place of a Prologue


Although the study of politics is nothing new, and one can certainly find a continuous, substantial interest in state and political affairs throughout virtually all of human history, I cannot help but feel that the modern discipline of political science – the way it exists and is being taught in the present day – has something inevitably “different” to it, something, which makes it hard for me to understand it as part of that same continuity of thought, which I find flowing from Plato and Aristotle to Voltaire and Rousseau. And indeed, the first part of the last century were times of growing discontent with the traditional understanding and approach to political inquiry. Critics attacked its strong bonds with what they saw as abstract theory, history and philosophy, condemning it for being preoccupied mainly with problems of qualitative and normative nature (Ball 2007). With evident disapproval, David Easton wrote that the study of politics appeared to be “interested primarily in the history of ideas” (Easton 1953, 236 as cited in Ball 2007, 3). Needless to say, the scientific status of a practice which dealt predominately with ideas of the past, rather than studying the present by way of rigorous application of the fundamental principles of science, ought to be seriously questioned.

By the 1950s the protest against traditional political science[1] took the shape of clearly articulated movement known as the behavioralist revolution. The message it carried in the post-World War II period was loud and clear: Europe lay in ruins, tens of millions of lives had perished, the world was devastated; those were no times to read “old books” and study “the classics”, those times required immediate action. In the eyes of the behavioralists, the old methods and approaches had suffered a fiasco of tremendous proportions. They did not prevent, nor could explain, what had happened to the world in the first part of the 20th century (Dahl 1961,764). Moreover, some even believed that it was those “classics”, their authors and their ideas that were directly responsible for the horrors of the last centennial.[2] Thus, change could no longer be delayed: time had come for political science to break with its romantic past and become truly scientific “after the methodological assumptions of the natural sciences” (Easton 1965b, 8).[3] Ambitious and energetic, behaviouralists laid the building blocks for modern political science. Embracing the language of empiricism and positivism they established a discipline that aimed at discovering universal laws of human behavior (Ball 2007). In the words of one of the movement’s pioneers, David Easton, among behaviouralism’s primary concerns were the “discoverable uniformities of political behavior, quantification, and value-freedom” (1965a, 17). Thus, political science, once at large condemned as a broad, qualitative and normative study of a political grand-narrative, now emerged as a brand-new discipline under the custody of Science. Conceived after the model of the natural sciences, it demonstrated strict adherence to method and empirical research in conducting its inquiries.[4]

Although behaviouralists clearly sought to discredit traditional, theoretical political science, it would nevertheless be unfair to accuse them in total disregard of the latter. According to Terence Ball (2007, 7), the revolutionaries made an attempt to incorporate traditional political theory in their newly formed discipline, attributing to it “the task of clarifying and defining the terms of political analysis”.[5] Yet they felt no mercy against traditionalists’ preoccupation with the history of political thought as a whole: if political science was to be truly scientific after the model of the natural sciences, this concern with ideas and history must cease once and for all (ibid). For the behaviouralists, studying the classics may be interesting for its own sake, but to contemporary research and theorizing it was not only seen as a useless activity (Smith 1994, 84), but as an obstacle and an unnecessary distraction altogether (Ball 2007, 4).

Needless to say, the consolation prize reserved for the traditionalists was turned down. Thus the schism of the discipline became inevitable. On the one hand, there were the political scientists. Endorsing the principles of empiricist and positivist epistemology, soberly-minded they saw themselves addressing the important issues of the day. On the other hand, there were the traditionalists. In defense of the “great classics” and their teachings, they declared themselves against the scientism and “methodism” of the former (Wolin 1969). The disagreement eventually grew into an unbridgeable gulf. If for conventional political theorists the study of politics appeared as a vocation, as Sheldon Wolin (ibid) pointed out, then political scientists openly sought the professionalization of the discipline.[6]

Towards the end of the last century behaviouralist momentum slowed down and its positivist epistemology softened. In a way, what followed can be seen as behaviouralism’s response to itself: Robert Dahl, once at the frontline of the revolution, was now the key figure behind what became known as “neo-behaviouralism”. Neo-behaviouralism seemed to have confronted its predecessor in that it rejected value neutrality and opposed latter’s obsession with observable and qualitative phenomena, which had let political science become less relevant in studying the reality of the political world (Shafritz 2004, 20). Seemingly, behaviouralism had defeated itself. As it turned out, Charles Taylor (1985) was right in pointing out that all statements were bound with their own “value slope”. Furthermore, there were no laws of political behavior that could possibly be discovered. James Farr arrived at the conclusion that even the much celebrated Michel’s and Duverger’s laws could not be found under the microscope of positivism, regardless of how sophisticated that latter might be (Farr 1987 as cited in Ball 2007, 10). Hence, by the end of the 1970s positivist epistemology in political science appeared to have lost a substantial part of its credibility. The seeming overthrow of behaviouralism, however, represented merely a remonstration of the given form of inquiry and not the overall direction taken by the discipline. Contested was not the premise that man, his nature and environment, ought to be studied empirically, but merely the way in which one goes about doing just that. Criticism of the behaviouralist tradition and its epistemological assumptions derived from other, yet nevertheless “empirically-minded” schools of thought. Consequently, the above was still a debate within the empirical, or “methodist” (Wolin 1969) framework of the post-war period.[7]


The main effect that the behaviouralist revolution had on political science, consisted in that the latter, as its main technique of inquiry adopted the so called scientific method: if the study of politics claimed the name of political science, that naturally implied the application of the appropriate method. What did that entail? According to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (2004), the word “science” has its origin in the Latin scientia and means “having knowledge”. John R. Bond defined the modern meaning of the word as a “method of learning based on systematic observation” (2007, 897). Consequently, the above definition indispensably characterizes the process of acquiring knowledge as empirical in its very nature, by attributing it to the principles of immediate experience derived from one, or some combination of our senses, expressed here as “systematic observation”. Furthermore, Bond (2007, 899) goes on to identify the key elements of the scientific method and sort them in the following order: the fact/value dichotomy, systematic observation of empirical facts, quantification (i.e. systematically recording observation), and finally the “core goal of the scientific method – hypothesis testing and theory building”.[8] Hence, when applied to a social science, the above-described method advances a position in which all knowledge of social phenomena is tentative and can be determined to be true only through sense experience – after empirically examining the social world (Crovelli 2006). In other words, prior to drawing any conclusions about the political world, one ought to first observe empirical phenomena of some sort or other. Evidently, social sciences then must advance in a “manner exactly analogous” to the one found in the natural sciences (ibid).[9] Under this interpretation, attaining knowledge in political science must depend upon the indefinite process of hypothesis building and hypothesis testing: all assumptions are to be examined against constantly cumulative empirical data, that is to say – “evidence” – and only then either accepted as “true” or rejected altogether.

Following this line of thought, we arrive at the main purpose of the above-described technique. As argued by Bond (2007, 899), the “core goal” of the scientific method is essentially explanatory-predictive: “If we can explain how and why something varies, then we should be able to predict what will happen under certain conditions.” Similarly, Milton Friedman (1953, 8) judges the value and validity of hypotheses by their “predictive power”. He writes that “a hypothesis is important if it “explains” much by little, […] and permits valid predictions” (Friedman 1953, 14). At the same time, both Friedman (1953) and Bond (2007, 900), share the conviction that the theories must be “generalizable”, namely, their explanatory power must extend beyond the setting of a particular case. Hence we see that in adopting the scientific method, at the core of modern political science epistemology lies the principle of uniformity in nature. The latter, as explained by Clark et al. (2009, 43), not in a book on physics or botanical sciences, but in their Principles of Comparative Politics, holds that if X causes Y today, then it will also cause Y tomorrow. Therefore, at this point, it should perhaps not come as a surprise to us, that the well-known – to political science students in particular – Easton’s model, explained in his A Systems Analysis of Political Life, is nothing more than a variant of the German biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s general systems theory, which he conceived, although as an interdisciplinary approach, yet nevertheless to be applied predominately in the fields of biology (Miller 1971).


In the previous section political science appeared before us as a form of inquiry of strictly empirical nature. We were told that the discipline must advance and discover certain truths in its field analogically to the natural sciences, by applying the scientific method, at the core of which lay the principle of systematic observation (Bond 2007). Hence, the main premise of modern political science is that everything which enters its sphere of inquiry must be available for direct observation. For now, we shall limit ourselves by simply stating such conviction as a fact, and continue, in order to address some of the implications it has on the discipline.

Charles Lindbloom (as cited in Ollman 2000, 554) precisely identified that modern political science was almost entirely absorbed by the issue of method and “How to study?” while the logically precedent question “What to study?” remained “terribly neglected”. The continuous, exclusive preoccupation with the improvement of different approaches and techniques has led the discipline become less and less relevant, drawing it farther away from the real problems of politics (Smith 2010, 236). I have to agree with Sheldon Wolin (1969, 1063) here, who points out that this phenomenon is an inherent consequence of the behaviouralist revolution. A glimpse at Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba’s much celebrated work, The Civic Culture, would suffice to discover how far this tendency has gone: “One of the most significant recent developments in the social sciences is the revolution in data gathering and data evaluation. This revolution depends upon the developments in techniques by which data can be collected and analyzed.” (Almond and Verba 1963, 43 as cited in Wolin 1969, 1063). Indeed, that is such a “significant development”, that it would eventually lead to the destruction of science as such, for as it turns out “[m]ost important, perhaps, the criteria by which one accepts or rejects statements about social life are of special nature. The ultimate criterion is the method by which they are gathered.” (ibid).[10] Is it a coincidence, that having read those lines I am inevitably reminded of some sort of Kuhnian relativism? Ironically, the state in which we find political science after its behaviouralist transformation is perhaps less scientific than it has ever been, for it is “this pseudo-scientific methodology […] dictating the subject matter that is to be investigated rather than the subject matter dictating the approach.” (Poirier 2011, 217). Eventually, what we are left with is a discipline that has the tendency to narrow down the selection of topics it studies (and that is not to say that the success of these studies is not highly debatable) only to those that fit into one of its arbitrarily constructed methods, while those that do not are usually ignored (ibid). In essence, the study of politics is replaced by the study of method in the study of politics. Here, I recall a well-known suggestion – perhaps a quasi-Kantian one – but one, which I nevertheless find impossible and even outright nonsensical: “before thinking it is necessary to examine the instruments of thinking by some external analysis.” (Herzen 1956, 25).

This is a direct result of the contemporary understanding of political inquiry within the epistemological limits of empiricism. The etymological origins of the term empirical and empiricism are found in the Greek word ἐμπειρία which literally translates to “experience” (Encyclopedia Britannica 2013). Consequently, at the core of empiricist philosophy lies the assumption that “all knowledge is derived from sense experience” and that the latter must necessarily be the principle of all sciences (ibid). Adopting this way of thinking, political science then proceeds to reveal certain truths in its domain basing itself exclusively on gathering, documenting and analyzing different forms of sense-data as experience. An immediate consequence of the above perception is that it limits science to studying only that which is sensory-given at the expense of scientific interest in all things that are not objects of experience. Hence, as we have already seen, political science is preoccupied with the question “How to study?” the constantly growing pile of data and evidence. Yet, the question “What to study?” receives less or no attention at all, for it is not possible to deal with it through observation or experience. It would be hardly an exaggeration to say that this process of improving the methods of political inquiry has gone almost in complete abstraction from the question what really constitutes its object of investigation. To understand this and other challenges that the discipline faces today, we must address the question how is knowledge attainable in political science.


Behaviouralists have declared political science to be an empirical science. As such, at its core we find the principle of empirical philosophy which claims that true is only that which is found in actuality and is available for observation. If we accept such premise, then we must also agree that truly exists only that, which is perceivable by our senses, and “if experience alone can pronounce a final decision in every case, nothing but what is actually perceived can be accepted as real object” (Fischer 1857, 411). In accordance to such view, the existence of universal and generic ideas must then be rejected, for they are not objects available for our immediate observation. Furthermore, if we deny the existence of such ideas, if we cannot think by means of thought alone, then “nothing is left for us but to think by the means of the senses” (ibid) and thus we must agree with the empiricists that all knowledge is possible only via sensory experience. Yet, the very practice of what is believed to be empirical political science contradicts such understanding. To find out why, let us consider the following example.

One of the more famous theories in comparative politics is Seymor Lipset’s modernization theory. Simplified, it may be summarized in the following way: because of an apparent strong correlation between income levels and levels of democratic practices (which Lipset was able to confirm via empirical evidence), he came to the conclusion that strong economic development is a necessary precondition for the occurrence of democracy (Gilman 2003, 63). In other words, improving socio-economic conditions also improves state’s chances for democracy and its sustainability. What is of interest to us here is that the style of the research appears to be in conformity with all principles of empirical inquiry. To cite Wucherpfenning and Deutsch (2009) “Lipset (1959, 1960) was able to confirm a suspected correlation between democracy [i.e. the dependent variable] and development [i.e. the independent variable] on empirical grounds in one of the earliest empirical comparative studies”. It is not of our primal concern here to analyze the theory’s plausibility. In fact, we must admit that the correlation between the two variables appears convincing and we have no intention to deny that levels of economic development must have some effect on democracy. Yet, can we agree that the above judgment was conceived entirely on empirical grounds? Let us delve into this issue for it is of key importance to us here.

As a philosophy, empiricism asserts that knowledge is only possible through experience.[11] Therefore, it rejects metaphysics and anything that has to do with it, as empirically unverifiable and thus non-existent. As A.J. Ayer (1960, 12) writes “Metaphysical assertions, […] are meaningless because they bear no relation to fact.” Yet, even though empiricism believes it has been emancipated of metaphysics, it inevitably employs the metaphysical notions of “one”, “many”, “infinite” and so forth, and guided by these categories, using and applying the forms of ratiocination it proceeds to draw conclusions about the phenomena it observes. But empiricism does so without realizing that it thereby contains metaphysics in itself, that it inevitably engages in it, and implements its categories uncritically. And so is in our case, as we shall discover in a moment. Perhaps nowhere else, is the empiricist desire to extract the human element from the knowing process, more unsuccessful, than in contemporary political science: nearly all of modern political science research deals, at some level or another, with democracy, economics, equality, etc., all of which essentially derive from the idea that man must be free and thus strives for and deserves freedom. In concentrating on the issue of disseminating democracy, Lipset (1959) departs not from the abstract desire to demonstrate a correlation between two, randomly selected variables, but from the concrete, metaphysical conviction that democracy is a good and necessary form of government which brings man closer to freedom. He writes:

“A basic premise of this book is that democracy is not only or even primarily a means through which different groups can attain their ends or seek the good society; it is the good society itself in operation. Only the give-and-take of a free society’s internal struggles offers some guarantee that the products of the society will not accumulate in the hands of a few power-holders, and that men may develop and bring up their children without fear of persecution.” (Lipset 1960, 403).

Denying the existence of such reasoning, asserting that research can or should be entirely “value-free” would mean attributing it to the arbitrariness of chance, and unrestrained science would be free to wonder aimlessly in the endless expanses of its own abstractions.[12]

Thus, while we can certainly say that experience and empirical phenomena enrich political science, we are now less likely to agree that the latter represent its main object of study. If in the above example Lipset (1959) establishes a casual relationship between democracy and economic development on the basis of observation, the study as a whole rests on metaphysical grounds that man must be free and thus seeks a free form of government. Not only, that the latter idea cannot be known to be true via any sensory experience, i.e. a posteriori, but essentially the notions of all operational terms employed in the study, originate in the form of transcendental concepts which are not attainable through immediate observation. Hence it is rather questionable if empiricism satisfies all aspirations to knowledge in political science.

We had already mentioned that the denial of metaphysics and the existence of generic and intellectual ideas is a natural consequence of empiricism. Consequently, modern social sciences, in their attempt to become “truly scientific” have endorsed empiricist philosophy and share a commitment to an ideology which rests on the presumption that there is no transcendental content, “no given meaning, no order, and no reality in the universe for man to interpret” to discover and to relate to (Poirier 2010, 212). Hence the scientific mind preoccupies itself with examining the “real world”, manifested in the infinite variety of its objects and empirically observable phenomena. And indeed, if our world carries no deeper content than the one we find on its surface, there would be nothing else to examine than what is observable by the senses…

In place of an Epilogue

The purpose of this paper is not to discredit empirical political science. Instead, my goal was to illustrate that while preoccupied with studying and analyzing only that which is observable, empirical political science nonetheless rests on philosophical grounds and is thus dependant on philosophy. It is indisputably true, that, in addressing the issue of gender equality, for instance, we will eventually have to turn to observation, data collection and analysis of some sort or another. Yet it is false to assert that our study begins, or relies solely on that observation. Instead, its origins are found in the a priori idea that people should be given equal opportunities regardless of their gender. But neither the truth of this statement, nor the notions of “gender” or “equality” can be known through experience. And although modern political scientists will probably agree with our objections, it is highly probable that with our questions on necessity and universality in mind, we might find ourselves in the departments of political philosophy or theory, viewed as entirely separate fields of the discipline as a whole (Ball 2007). This, however, would be a mistake, for such distinction does not exist. Empirical science too has no other goal. No empirical inquiry ceases its activity at the mere observation and description of its phenomena. Instead, it organizes them according to some criteria and proceeds to find in them the universal and necessary laws and causes for their existence. Categories, universality and necessity, however, do not have their origin in observation, but are rather a priori creations of the mind. If we consider a piece of chalk, for example, we might notice that it is white, hard, cylindrically shaped etc. We say that all these properties are united in this one object – the piece of chalk, yet this unity is not given in mere sensation: we cannot see, touch or smell this principle of unity, but can only arrive to know it via reflection upon what has been observed. Yet by doing so, we have inevitably gone far beyond mere observation and sense experience. Naturally, same applies to the causal relationship between two variables. The idea that economic growth is linked to democracy is not found in the immediate observation of socio-economic phenomena and democratic practices, but is rather a product of our mind. Hence experience alone has no value to us, and so is in political science, where observation, study and analysis of events are conducted not for their own sake, but only with their relation to an idea. Namely, the idea of democracy, the idea of fascism, the idea of equality, the idea of capitalism, and so forth. But how do we know which one is the true, the good, the necessary and universal idea worth our time in conducting all those studies, observations and analyses? The answer to this is philosophy, but philosophy not in its faceless, dull sense in which it exists today, but in a sense which resembles lot more to what we know as speculative philosophy. Depriving political science of the latter is then much like studying the mast, the deck, the rudder and the other, countless parts of a floating ship, while showing no interest in what a ship is, what winds are blowing in its sails and what its course is.


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——. 1965b. “The Mode of Analysis.” In A Systems Analysis of Political Life, 3-17. New York: Wiley.

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[1] Here, by “traditional political science” I mean the study of politics prior to its behaviouralist transformation. It is perhaps worth noting here, that only in the English language – as far as I am aware – is the word “science” employed in a sense which is somehow necessarily associated with positive science: it is far less unusual, for example, to speak of theology as theological sciences in French and German, than it is in English. On this note, I was once told by a college professor that philosophy is not a science at all.

[2] Most notably, the relationship between philosophical thought and the rise of 20th century ideologies was expressed by Karl Popper in his famous “The Open Society and Its Enemies”. This two volume work pointed to Plato, Marx and Hegel as the main culprits for the rise of totalitarianism in the last century.

[3] As simplistic as this might sound, witnessing the rapid expansion of the natural sciences throughout the 19th century, behaviouralists developed a belief that it would suffice to simply extract the method from the natural sciences and apply it to their discipline, so the study of politics can finally flourish in a similar way. On this note, I should perhaps clarify, that here by “method” we speak of that, which they – the behaviouralists – themselves not being natural scientists of any kind, came to identify as the “methodological assumptions of the natural sciences” (ibid). This point is well addressed by Eric Voegelin in his “The New Science of Politics” (1987).

[4] The behaviouralist revolution in political science is an extensive topic which without a doubt deserves a study of its own. The few sentences on behaviouralism here seek to only compliment the reader’s understanding of (and perhaps highlight) some of the origins of modern political inquiry.

[5] For now, I purposefully restrain myself from discussing the implications of the latter nomination – which reminds me rather closely of a certain quasi-etymology – and will limit myself by simply pointing out how representative the latter is of the behaviouralists’ narrow understanding of what political theory is or what it ought to be.

[6] Gabriel Almond sharply criticized then unprofessional nature of “the humanists” and declared their methods and approaches obsolete: “the humanists […] suffer from feelings of inadequacy in a word dominated by statistics and technology; and the radical and “critical” political theorists, like the ancient prophets, lay about them with anathemas against the behaviouralists and positivists, and the very notion of a political science professionalism that would separate knowledge from action. But their anti-professionalism must leave them in doubt as to whether they are scholars” (1988, 828-829).

[7] One can find multiple examples of the ongoing obsession over method in the discipline. For instance, Martin J. Smith pointed out in his preface to the Political Studies Journal’s special issue on Dialogue and Innovation in Contemporary Political Science (please take note of the theme), that “there is undoubtedly a need to refine and improve our methods” (Smith 2010, 236).

[8] Italics in the original.

[9] The bond between the two is also addressed by Ido Oren (2006, 76), who writes that “the commitment of contemporary political science to the unity of science doctrine is evident in explicit analogies that prominent scholars draw between natural scientists and their own research”.

[10] My emphasis.

[11] This dogma we find at the core of empirical philosophy. “Dogma”, if not even an outright self-refutation, for such claim cannot possibly be proven through experience. “By what experience is the principle of experience guaranteed?” Kuno Fischer (1857, 410) asks. Analyzing David Hume’s philosophical empiricism, for example, an inquisitive mind might raise the question of how is the principle of experience explained in the latter’s philosophy. Fischer (1857, 494) argued that in explaining experience as a pivotal point to all knowledge, Hume departed from the idea of causality, which he believed was a result of our connection of impressions. Consequently, causality he explained by oft repeated experience. Thus, in explaining experience by experience, Hume essentially “presupposes what he has to explain; he therefore thinks dogmatically, and commits the very fault which the skeptics of antiquity had remarked in the dogmatic philosophers;” (ibid).

[12] The genius of Leo Tolstoy formulated this idea in his preface to Edward Carpenter’s article “Modern Science”. “But the present men of science – wrote Tolstoy – recognizing no religion, and so having no grounds on which to pick out, according to their degree of importance, the subjects of study, and to separate them from less important subjects, and finally from that infinite number of subjects which, on account of the limitations of the human mind and the infinitude of these subjects, will always remain unstudied, have formulated for themselves a theory – ‘science for its own sake’ – according to which science does not study what men need, but everything” (Tolstoy 1905, 110).


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