Monday, October 4, 2010

What Is Politics?

Defining the different branches of social science is not easy.  They blend continuously into one another, and overlap, but even still there do exist general categories based on each one's respective object of scrutiny.  Economics generally looks at scarce resources.  Sociology and anthropology study culture.  Psychology is concerned with modeling individual behavior.  Political science... that's tricky.  Another classification scheme looks at the dominant methodologies used by each branch: sociologists use a lot of statistics, economists build mathematical models, psychologists run experiments, anthropologists do ethnographies, political scientists... hmm.

Because political science doesn't really have a dominant methodology, we'd better take another look at the object of study--politics.  But what is politics?  I've come across dozens of definitions, and the best one so far comes from William Riker (not the Star Trek character): politics is the authoritative allocation of value.  This definition is broad, but encompasses a lot: the study of government, the struggle for power, the realization of morals, and it even hints at the social process of deciding how value is allocated physically.

According to Riker, authoritative decisions can be made by either individuals (like dictators, or heirarchy situations) or groups.  Group decisions are made in either a quasi-mechanical way (like a market or price mechanism), or made by a conscious process.  The latter is by far the biggest category, and the one political science focuses most heavily on.  In the study of group decisions, if the group is larger than two individuals, outcomes are the result of coalitions.  Thus, much of political science focuses on the formation and maintenance of coalitions and their effect on outcomes.

Roughly speaking, political science is usually broken down into five categories:

1. national politics (studying political institutions, public policy, law, campaigns, demographics, positive political theory, etc.)
2. international relations (interactions between states, NGOs, warfare, diplomacy, etc.)
3. comparative politics (formation and evolution of governments)
4. political theory (philosophy of politics and government, critical theory)
5. methodology (studying the political science discipline itself)

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