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Is ʻpolitical scienceʼ an oxymoron?
ʻWhat is the nature and purpose of political science? Posed in such a direct and stark manner, this may well be a rather uncomfortable question to ask.ʼ (Hay, 2002, p.64) But as Hay subsequently explains: the answer to this questions deﬁnes the core features of political science. In assessing if ʻpolitical scienceʼ is an oxymoron we are essentially examining the core of the discipline of political analysis. While this question may lead us to the core features of political science, (Stoker, 1995, p.1) the answer to this question is still not widely agreed upon in academic circles. Hay subsequently analyses that ʻthose with the most narrow, restrictive and formal conceptions of politics are the most attached to the label ʻscienceʼʼ (2002, p.66) So by trying to keep ourselves from being or becoming overly attached to the label ʻscienceʼ we might be able to make our conceptions of politics wider, more unrestricted and less formal. This essay will start by taking a closer look at the ʻpoliticalʼ aspect of the posed question and its implications. Secondly, this essay will look at ʻscienceʼ and the requirements it presents for the ʻpoliticalʼ. As third, this essay will deﬁne what an oxymoron is. Finally, this essay will take a look at prominent or possible critiques and responses to the posed conclusion. And last, this essay will conclude that ʻpolitical scienceʼ is indeed an oxymoron, based on the notion that the prerequisite of impartiality, neutrality and autonomy can not be met in the study of the ʻpoliticalʼ for it is too concerned with the study of values, behavior and and the human nature in general. Or as Leftwich puts it: ʻshould the study of politics be undertaken as an essentially scientiﬁc and quantitative endeavor or does its very nature, as a complex human process, require a more qualitative approach?ʼ (2004, p.17) This essay will follow Leftwichʼs subtle suggestion in showing that the study of politics needs a more interpretative approach to
suit its nature as a complex human process instead of a more scientiﬁc and quantitative approach. Hayʼs assessment of the ʻpoliticalʼ versus ʻscienceʼ matter offers a clear framework for this essay to build on: In the philosophy of the social sciences, what we have thus far termed the political question is referred to as an ontological issue; what we have thus far termed the science question is referred to as an epistemological issue. Both, as we shall see, have methodological implications. (C. Hay, 2002, p.61)
To deﬁne what the ʻpoliticalʼ is we have to step into an array of confusing and contradicting deﬁnitions. No one really agrees on one speciﬁc deﬁnition or explanation. Or as Jean Elshtain puts it: ʻall we know is that [the world of the political] would not be what we currently have.ʼ (in Hauptmann, 2004, p.34) Admittedly, this does not have to be such a negative issue, since ʻfor many, this is a deeply worrying and depressing state of affairs; for just as many others, however, it is a sign of theoretical vibrancy and intellectual pluralism.ʼ (C. Hay, 2002, p.65) Furthermore, as Adrian Leftwich analyses about the deﬁning of ʻpoliticsʼ (2004, p.2): because it is such a highly contested subject, debates about its proper deﬁnition and the scope of its subject matter are themselves political, and that it is not likely that there will ever be universal agreement on either what politics, as an activity, is or what the appropriate composition of the discipline of Politics should be.
This essay sees a few basic features and characteristics that can be agreed upon to be at the core of the ʻpoliticalʼ. Most academicsʼ concerns seems to be ʻwith the analysis of the origins, forms, distribution and control over power.ʼ (Leftwich, 2004, p.2) rather than the widely accepted angle to politics that it is the involvement of human beings in the ʻstudy of inﬂuence and the inﬂuentialʼ (Lasswell in Leftwich, 2005, p.2). This essay argues that whenever one talks about politics or anything political, one always talks about human
relations and their perception of inﬂuence or power. It is this distinct emphasis on ʻhumanʼ that makes it unfeasible to consider anything political to be a science for it rests too heavily on human perception and philosophy as will be shown in the next section about science.
This second section will provide an analysis of what science entails and what aspects are essential when trying to link ʻpoliticalʼ to science. The public feeling seems to be that if political scientist were in the possession of anything even faintly resembling a science, they could tell the world something beyond what is in the daily news, could provide not just the known facts but general explanations that would make the political world more understandable. This goal has been elusive. Even when sophisticated statistics are brought to bear on politics, the numbers frequently only repeat facts that were obvious enough to uninformed observers without going to all that statistical trouble. (Lane, 1997, p.vii)
This essay acknowledges that there are many different angles to the problem that political science may or may not be ʻscientiﬁcʼ. This essay will elaborate a theory that shows politics and the ʻpoliticalʼ are missing a crucial pillar to be considered scientiﬁc in not complying with the prerequisite of science being value free. Hollis poses the following question about the philosophy of social science (1994, p.216): Could it be that our difﬁculties in settling on the correct analysis of, for instance, causation, explanation, understanding and knowledge stem from failure to realise that an element of value-judgement is always involved?
This essay will argue that it is exactly this ʻfailure to realise that an element of valuejudgement is always involvedʼ that makes it impossible for the ʻpoliticalʼ or ʻsocialʼ to mix with clean, objective and ʻscientiﬁcʼ science. ʻscience as value free represents a value of scientiﬁc practices and institutions.ʼ (Lacey, 2001, p.2) This essay acknowledges that there is a lively ongoing debate between academics about the question ʻCan science itself comply to the requirements it sets out?ʼ One of the most distinct requirements of science is that it needs to be value free. But this leads us directly to the question ʻIs science itself value free?ʼ Lacey set out to answer this
question and offers three components to dissect the discussion of ʻscience being value freeʼ: impartiality, neutrality and autonomy. This essay will use these ideas to show how the building blocks of the ʻpoliticalʼ make it impossible to build a foundation for science and how by considering politics to be a science we are moving further away from ʻpure scienceʼ on the account that we are making science less value free. First, impartiality leaves no space in science for ʻmoral, social and any other non-cognitive valuesʼ (Lacey, 2001, p.1). However, politics and the ʻpoliticalʼ are entirely based on humans and their social conventions and moral dimensions. Requiring politics to abandon their social and moral roots would imply stepping away from e.g. ʻthe study of inﬂuence and the inﬂuentialʼ (Lasswell in Leftwich, 2004, p.2), for the perception of inﬂuence is based on social aspects and conventions. Secondly, proper science needs to be neutral and not favor any views over others. Since we are studying human relations and their struggle for inﬂuence it is unlikely that we - as the researcher or observer - will remain neutral. The concepts of inﬂuence, power and authority are entirely based on favoring one over another. Or as Robert Dahl puts it ʻA has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise doʼ (1957, pp.202-203). The valuation, interpretation and perception of power, inﬂuence and success depend greatly on personal views, opinions and deﬁnitions and are therefore unlikely to be neutral. How can we assure that what B does in Dahlʼs deﬁnition is actually caused by A having power over B? The observer will need to base his answer on his personal qualitative explanation, rather than a general quantitative belief. Hence, the necessity for a more qualitative approach, rather than a more quantitative approach as marked by the scientiﬁc angle. The third requirement for science being value free is autonomy. Autonomy is explained by Lacey as ʻmethodologies should be unencumbered by political, religious and other noncognitive interests.ʼ (p.1) Besides the clear claim that research should be ʻunencumbered
by political … interestsʼ there is another angle to autonomy. Autonomy is closely related to terms like independence, external observation and unconnectedness. Science is done by humans and political science would thus imply having humans ʻstudyʼ human relations. So with these parties being too similar, dependent and connected, the ʻpoliticalʼ can never be autonomous. The premise used by Lacey to address the need for science to be value free hands us clear arguments to show that ʻpolitical scienceʼ is an oxymoron. Based on perception, interpretation and valuation. Or as Meehan explains in respect to Karl Popperʼs views: ʻThe meaning of concepts is not grounded in observation but somehow excogitated from unstated philosophic premises.ʼ (1982, p.255)
This third part of the essay will elaborate on what an oxymoron is and how it is used in this essay. One dictionary deﬁnes ʻoxymoronʼ as follows: ʻa combination of contradictory or incongruous words (as cruel kindness)ʼ (Websterʼs New Collegiate Dictionary, 1973, p.821) Another example of an oxymoron would be ʻbittersweetʼ, where these apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction. This essay argues that the terms ʻpoliticalʼ and ʻscienceʼ are indeed an oxymoron on the grounds that they contradict but still appear in conjunction. This essay shows the contradiction in terms of impartiality, neutrality and autonomy. When it comes to the exact explanation of the terms involved in this question, one could argue that ʻscienceʼ simply refers to the ʻpossession of knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstandingʼ (Websterʼs New Collegiate Dictionary, p.1034). But this implies that almost anything that involves investigation or any form of knowledge can be seen as science, even e.g. washing the dishes: the ʻscience of washing the dishesʼ. This
essay though approaches science as the systematized and value free attained knowledge in academia, therefore abandoning washing the dishes as a science.
In conclusion, ʻpolitical scienceʼ is an oxymoron for the ʻpoliticalʼ is too concerned with complex human processes to meet the requirement of science to be value free. The ʻpoliticalʼ and politics is based on discourse, perception and interpretation and is thus in need of qualitative approaches, rather than quantitative approaches as suggested when focussing on the ʻscientiﬁcʼ side. By detaching the ʻpoliticalʼ from the ʻscienceʼ this essay expects to see a stronger focus on qualitative research that will create a stronger ontological premises for the discipline and that will thereby create stronger methodological tools and approaches: improving the discipline as a whole.
Word count: 1,816
Bibliography Dahl, Robert, ʻThe Concept of Powerʼ, (1957), Behavioral Science, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 202-210 Hauptmann, Emily, ʻA Local History of "The Political"ʼ, (2004), Political Theory, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 34-60, Sage Publications Hay, C., (2002), Political Analysis, Basingstoke: Palgrave Hollis, M., (1994), The Philosophy of Social Science, an Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Kitcher, Philip, (1993), The advancement of science : science without legend, objectivity without illusions, New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press Lacey, Hugh, (2001), Impartiality, Neutrality and Autonomy: Three components of the idea that science is value free, Swarthmore College www.swarthmore.edu/Humanities/hlacey1/value-free.doc Lane, Ruth, (1997), Political Science in Theory and Practice: The 'politics' Model, Danbury: M.E. Sharpe Leftwich, A. (ed.), (2004), What is Politics? Oxford: Blackwell Marsh, D. & Stoker, G. (eds.), (1995), Theory and methods in political science (1st ed.), Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan Marsh, D. & Stoker, G. (eds.), (2002), Theory and methods in political science (2nd ed.), Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan Meehan, Eugene, (1982), ʻNorms and Valuesʼ, International Political Science Review / Revue internationale de science politique, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 254-256, Sage Publications
Rule, John, (1997), Theory and Progress in Social Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Websterʼs New Collegiate Dictionary (8th ed.), (1973), London: Bell
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