In this article, I draw on recent scholarship in the history of political science to trace the
discursive evolution of the concept of "political theory" after the behavioral revolution. Today's
situation of eclecticism and diversity can be traced to the 1950s and early 1960s, when early
behavioralists such as Heinz Eulau, Robert Dahl, and David Easton, defined a new form of
"empirical" theory in opposition to what they called "traditional" theory. This was the beginning
of the mid-twentieth century revision of political theory. I find that although there was a
temporary narrowing of the kinds of practices in political theory during the behavioral era, the
net effect was a rejuvenation and proliferation of approaches to political theory after the
behavioral revolution.

[It] became destructive as it came to an end – to say nothing
of the confusion and helplessness which came after
the tradition ended and in which we live today.1

Living in the shadow of the behavioral revolution today, contemporary political theorists
are confronted with the question “what is political theory?” (Nelson 1983; Ball 1991; White and
Moon 2004). In this article, I focus on the rise of a new form of political theory in the 1950s
known as “empirical political theory.” Although the tradition of empirical political theory as
David Easton imagined it – as a form of general and causal theory – is only one among many
forms of political theory today, the efforts of early behavioralists to create a general theory of
politics still casts a shadow on the discipline. The shadow metaphor is apt in suggesting that we
in the present continue to live with the legacy of the behavioral revolution of the 1950s and

1960s. At all points its crucial to keep in mind the idea of multiple traditions and recognize that
at any given time there is never a monolithic “political theory.” Instead, I approach the question
of political theory in contemporary political science by recognizing multiple and often
conflicting traditions of political theory. My goal is to clarify the origins of the historical
division of political theory into two competing traditions, which then makes it possible to
understand the contemporary situation of diversity and multiple meanings of political theory
I draw on contemporary work in disciplinary history to better understand the changing
meanings of political theory after the behavioral revolution of the 1950s and 1960s.
Contemporary work on the history of political science has recovered many vital components
central to the genealogy of the discipline of political science and the subfield of political theory.
I focus on historical narratives about the rise of a particular tradition of political theory,
behavioral or “empirical political theory,” and I highlight how this original dichotomy of
empirical-traditional later became an empirical-normative one. Authors discussing the history of
political science are not immune and they routinely juxtapose the “empirical” and the
“normative” as distinct and mutually exclusive forms of political theory.2 Today, the scope of
activity at work in contemporary political theory is poorly described by the labels of “empirical,”
“normative,” or “traditional.” Surely the label “normative” is far too restrictive; and while the
label “traditional” once may have been adequate, its meaning can exclude many post-behavioral
developments in political theory (Miller 1989). Similarly, today it’s difficult to conceive of a
coherent tradition of “normative” political theory. For example, can the traditions of political
theory listed in Table 1 be reduced to the categories of “empirical” or “normative”?3


[Insert Table 1 Here]

Not only is “traditional” or “normative” political theory an amorphous concept referring to
different objects for different authors but the history of the concept is tied to its evolution as an
epistemological other for different emerging traditions like empirical or behavioral theory, epic
theory, and positive theory.
A rough dating of the behavioral period in political science might begin in the early
1950s, perhaps with David Easton’s 1953 The Political System and after a period of dominance
peaking in the late 1960s, perhaps with Easton’s 1968 APSA presidential address “The New
Revolution in Political Science.” In the beginning of the behavioral era, the new empirical
political theory was defined in opposition to what was termed “traditional” political theory.
“Traditional” political theory is often said to have consisted of legal and constitutional studies of
the formal kind, historical research, and reformist literature (e.g. Mahoney 2004; Adcock 2007).
I argue the behavioral revolution was and continues to be a major catalyst for conceptual
change with respect to the meaning of political theory and that a post-behavioral settlement
resulted in a plurality and a diffusion of types of political theory. In addition, I argue the legacy
of the conceptual distinction between traditional and empirical theory first articulated in the
behavioral era are still powerful today; especially in the linguistic distinction between
“empirical” and “normative” political theory. The behavioral revolution was and continues to be
a catalyst for conceptual change in the meaning of political theory. Today, one legacy of
behavioralism after the behavioral revolution is the empirical-normative dichotomy. This
linguistic legacy of the behavioral revolution is particularly evident in the vocabulary of the
contemporary discipline, which is highly prone to making a distinction between “normative” and


“empirical” statements and theories as well as in the commonsense belief that political and social
scientists ought to ground their work in empirical evidence. The seeds of the empiricalnormative dichotomy were sown in the early history of academic political science. The strong
distinction between empirical and normative still active today, however, first passed through a
positivist phase whereby facts were juxtaposed to values and behavioral political science defined
itself in opposition to any approaches relying on value analysis, including many forms of what
came to be called “traditional” political theory (Barrow 2008; Gunnell 2010).

The conceptual distinction between “empirical” and “traditional” political theory has a
history. One can detect a widespread questioning of the nature and scope of political theory after
the World Wars when political scientists began to wonder about the meaning and identity of
political theory. David Easton is often credited with being a founder of behavioralism and for
being a driving force behind the introduction of the idea of empirical political theory (Graziano
2014; Gunnell 2013; Gunnell 1993). In his 1965 A Systems Analysis of Political Life Easton
discusses the emergence of a new vision of theory in political science, which “now rises to
shatter the old image of the nature and tasks of theory [and] may be described as descriptive,
empirically-oriented, behavioral, operational or causal theory” (5; emphasis added). Easton
adds that for “all intents and purposes, the terms are synonymous” (5). Easton is rebelling
against his training and experience with mainstream political theory of the 1940s and early
1950s, which he refers to as “traditional” political theory and explicitly equates with “political
philosophy.” The problem with traditional theory as political and moral philosophy is it narrows
the range of inquiry and makes it hard for political scientists to grasp the importance of the new


type of theory Easton is advocating (5-6). Similarly, in his 1965 A Framework for Political
Analysis, Easton says “empirically oriented political theory is often referred to as behavioral
theory” (3), which was a “movement of a diffuse and informal group of academic rebels against
traditions” (10). In the closing section of Chapter One, titled “Historical Perspective,” Easton
mentions the “behavioral movement” three times and defines empirical theory in opposition to
traditional political theory: “Unlike the great traditional theories of past political thought, new
theory tends to be analytic, not substantive, explanatory rather than ethical, more general and less
particular” (22). In his 1968 contribution to the International Encyclopedia of the Social
Sciences, titled “Political Science,” Easton is explicit about the impact of the behavioral
revolution and how it helped “throw off the yoke of the Greek classical tradition” (296).4
For their part, political theorists of the traditional mold rebelled in turn to what they saw
as a threat to their vocation. For example, the disciplinary historian John Gunnell discusses the
“estrangement” or “alienation” of the subfield of political theory from the mainstream and
increasingly behavioral political science in the late-1960s and beyond (Gunnell 1993).5 Another
part of the story is highlighted by Gunnell in his 1993 The Descent of Political Theory. Here,
Gunnell crafts a narrative of decline, in which the strictly political vocation of traditional theory
was lost among many news strands of behavioral and postbehavioral theory. During the
behavioral period, traditionalists responded to the rise of behavioralism by first strongly
critiquing it; and then in the postbehavioral era, by walling itself off from the new behavioral
mainstream; effectively creating an enclave within the discipline. After the behavioral
revolution, as Gunnell puts the matter, the subfield of “political theory began to manifest a
number of latent tensions and fractured into a number of parochial professionally and
intellectually inspired discursive enclaves” (268). Gunnell sees in these developments, an


academic political theory increasingly alienated from the mainstream in political science and,
crucially, estranged from itself as a discourse speaking to and about the political world.6
In a 2013 article, “The Reconstruction of Political Theory: David Easton, Behavioralism,
and the Long Road to System,” Gunnell highlights the narrative of “decline” of political theory
in the 1950s’s as well as its association with the founders of behavioral political science. Thus,
Easton’s 1951 essay “The Decline of Modern Political Theory” is cited by Gunnell to highlight
the decline of political theory narrative in the early 1950s (191). Robert Dahl and his canonical
1961 APSR article “Epitaph for a Monument to a Successful Protest” is also cited which,
according to Gunnell, rejected “the work of speculative theorists, historians, legalists, and
moralists” or traditional political theory (191).
Gunnell reinforces the connection between the rise of behavioralism and empirical
political theory in opposition to traditional political theory. For example, while discussing
Easton’s 1953 classic, The Political System, Gunnell takes a moment to register his skepticism
about the “revolutionary” nature of the behavioral movement. Even though The Political System
“has been considered a central element in the ‘behavioral revolution,’ that revolution was
actually in many respects a counter-revolution against these new directions in political theory”
(199; Farr 1995). This “counter-revolution” is directed by the mainstream of political science
against the perceived threat of the many anti-behavioral European émigré philosophers who
often defended traditional political theory. Gunnell primarily has in mind for traditional political
theory Continental thinkers and émigré scholars like Hannah Arendt, Theodore Adorno, and Leo
Strauss. Thus, the initial conflict between “traditional” and “empirical” political theory, led “to
the official disciplinary fracturing of political theory into empirical, historical, and normative
components” (199). Each camp, of course, defined themselves in opposition to the other.


Whereas anti-behavioralists often defined themselves in terms of tradition against the new
empirical and/or behavioral theory; members of the behavioral mainstream persistently defended
an image of a new form of theory called empirical, behavioral, or scientific theory defined, once
again, against these traditional forms.7
Here Gunnell’s historical narrative ends in the late 1960s, with the fracturing of political
theory into three exclusive traditions and the effective estrangement of both historical and
normative or “traditional” forms of political theory from the mainstream. Many of the accounts
in disciplinary history are focused on the period of behavioral ascendency in the 1950s and
1960s. The disciplinary historian and political theorist Robert Adcock’s (2007) “Interpreting
Behavioralism” begins to provide insight into the discursive evolution and conceptual opposition
between empirical and traditional/normative political theory. “In its first twenty years the image
of a behavioral revolution thus evolved from a rallying cry of young behavioralists looking
confidently to the future, into the feared other of antibehavioral scholars bemoaning the present”
Adcock appeals to difference by insisting “our image of behavioralism’s place in the
evolution of American political science should take on varying characteristics depending on
whether we attend to the topics the movement wished the discipline to research, the empirical
techniques it promoted, or the kind of theory it sought to develop and bring into interplay with
empirical research” (207; see also Adcock 2010; Hauptmann 2012). Many of the topics now
considered to be “behavioral” were already being studied by political scientists prior to the 1950s
(e.g. public opinion and interest groups).8 The empirical techniques, however, were “genuinely
revolutionary” and “it is thus unsurprising that when political scientists today envision


behavioralism as a turning point in the history of the discipline, they most commonly have in
mind research employing quantitative and statistical techniques” (207; Easton 1965b).
This “common association” between the behavioral revolution and the rise of
quantification and statistics often makes it hard to appreciate the other great contribution of
behaivoralism or the transformation of theory in political science (207). During the behavioral
revolution a new “conception of theory centered on the use of self-conscious abstraction to
produce analytic frameworks” arose; which is important to the project of empirical theory, i.e.,
the “interactive refinement between such theory and systematic empirical research” (207, 208).
Behavioralists success transforming the dominant techniques in the discipline was possible
because, as Adcock puts the matter, “behavioralism promulgated a transformed conception of
what it meant to be scientific,” often but not always including a “preference for quantification
and statistics” (191; Adcock discusses Dahl 1961 essay’s focus on the survey method).
Although the image of political theory as “empirical theory” in the fashion championed
by Easton has been overshadowed by other developments in the discipline, there still lingers a
need to understand the present institutional and intellectual configuration of the discipline in
terms of its behavioral past. While Easton’s contribution to “empirical theory” and “systems
theory” were less enduring, Adcock finds, “the systematic collection and analysis of data was far
more successful. It lies, as a result, at the core of most retrospective images of behavioralism”
(190). As we’ve seen once again, in the 1950s and 1960s, an image of a new form of
“empirical” political theory challenged and in many respects replaced the old “traditional”
political theory. This story is central to understanding the ongoing legacy of the behavioral
revolution today.


In “The Remaking of Political Theory,” Adcock and Bevir (2007) also see questions
about the meaning and identity of political theory taking on a new sense of urgency in the wake
of the behavioral revolution.9 In the 1950s and 1960s, say Adcock and Bevir, behavioralists
began “to articulate a new vision of what political theory should be” and early behavioralists
such as Harold Lasswell and later David Easton “charged theorists with failing to provide an
adequate conceptual framework for empirical research and called for a new kind of theory –
‘empirical theory’” (214).10 Adcock and Bevir discuss how prior to the behavioral revolution,
the tradition of political theory was characterized by at least three inter-related traditions in
Europe and the U.S.: moral philosophy, ideas and institutions, and state/constitutional theory.
These traditional approaches to political theory continue to predominate in the discipline until
WWII (213). Until this time, the authors maintain, there are few signs of a significant
redefinition of political science characterized by a behavioral mainstream defined in opposition
to traditional political theory.
What is “empirical theory” and how was political theory “remade”? Adcock and Bevir
offer three characteristics of “empirical theory” as it was advocated by its champions in the
1950s and 1960s.11 First, empirical or behavioral theory was defined in opposition to the
traditional institution and ideas approach and the history of political thought which were deemed
“irrelevant ‘historicist’ preoccupations and even as active obstacles to a proper ‘scientific’
theory” (215). Second, behavioralists were inspired by logical and empirical positivism and
sought to model their understanding of theory on the scientific method of the natural sciences.
Finally, there was a widespread rejection of the “normative” concerns of earlier traditions of
political theory (215). Through a process of definition by opposition, political scientists who
advocated for empirical theory “increasingly contrasted the empirical theory they sought over


against normative theory – an amorphous category that encompassed pretty much every form of
theorizing that they saw as irrelevant or hostile to behavioral political science” (216). In the
1950s and 1960s, however, the majority of those who sought to advance empirical theory
“worked outside the subfield of political theory” and it consequently “made little impact on the
subfield of political theory” (216).
Although the calls for a more rigorously scientific political science at the University of
Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s are reminiscent of “the behavioral revolution, Adcock and Bevir
argue, it did not provoke a split between political theorists and political scientists” at that time
(214). The remaking of political theory began later, in the 1950s and 1960s, when political
scientists at the University of Chicago like Harold Lasswell and David Easton, began to
explicitly call for a new type of theory in political science. Once again the new was defined in
opposition to the old political theory, i.e. traditional, moral, state and constitutional theories.12
Adcock and Bevir argue, finally, the “division between the two camps was complete” by the end
of the 1960s as symbolized by the publication of the political theorist Sheldon Wolin’s classic
1969 APSR article “Political Theory as a Vocation” (216).13

In all the accounts above, the story of political theory ends in the late 1960s, with the
differentiation of empirical from traditional forms of political theory. What happened to images
of political theory after the behavioral revolution of the 1950s and 1960s? How can we account
for the rise of multiple traditions of political theory after the revolution? Indeed, how did a
conflict between “empirical” and “traditional” political theory result in a situation of diversity,
multiple traditions, and a “normative” – “empirical” dichotomy? An article by the political


theorist and disciplinary historian James Farr helps shed some light on this question. In his 1995
chapter “Remembering the Revolution: Behavioralism in American Political Science,” Farr
begins with changes in the meaning of political theory during the behavioral revolution before he
turns to discussing developments after 1970.14 The behavioral revolution began as “an initial
protest against tradition [and] soon became a movement of widespread change” (198). Farr
recounts the critical attitude of behavioralists toward traditional political science which “had long
made much ado over the formalities of the state, constitutions, and law, as well as the normative
ideals of the great political philosophers like Plato, Locke, and Mill” (202).
Political scientists like Easton and Heinz Eulau are “behavioral revolutionaries” who
worked to reshape research in political science. No longer was “theory” in political science “to
be theoretical in a normative sense or in a sense allied to the history of political thought” (203).15
In terms of research techniques, behavioralists sought to model their methods on the natural
sciences, the scientific method, and “factual or empirical inquiry” (203; 213). As we’ve seen in
Farr’s historical narrative, one feature of traditional political theory that was rejected was its
“normativity” or its failure to separate facts and values bracketing the latter in the process of
scientific analysis. The new theory in political science, Farr continues, was to be “empirical and
explanatory,” “value-free and objective,” and understood in opposition to traditional political
theory (204). Champions of behavioralism in political science like Heinz Eulau thought
“‘traditional’ political scientists not only studied the wrong things, the behavioralists proclaimed;
they did so in the wrong way, whether by prescribing what it was to be a good citizen or a just
state” (204).16 Thus, Farr concludes, “these three proclamations – about behavior, science, and
liberal pluralism – were sufficiently precise to galvanize many political scientists into a
behavioral movement conjured against a ‘traditional’ political science” (205).


Farr’s historical narrative recounts how after the behavioral revolution “a new generation
of students were to emerge with increasingly sophisticated methodological skills and a
behavioral self-understanding” – even though as Farr concedes, it was “without much of an
informed judgment or historical memory about the deficiencies of traditional political science or
about what occasioned the revolution in the first place” (216). Here the story shifts to the
transition to a post-behavioral era and the way the behavioral revolution continues to influence
debates in the discipline as it began a period of diversification. After the behavioral revolution,
the study of politics had come to mean a lot of things (Farr mentions “intentional actions,
deliberate decisions, procedural rules, negotiated bargains, role playing … as well as inputs and
outputs of whole systems”); but one thing these diverse strands had in common was their
ongoing and resounding dismissal of the “traditional” in modern political science (216).
Farr turns to the role of the anti-behavioralists in the late-1960s, many of whom “had
been stigmatized as ‘traditionalist,’” as well as others who saw behavioralism as too promainstream and not sufficiently reform-minded (216). The critics of behavioralism singled-out
for approbation the repeated behavioralist claim that the “‘traditional’ study of institutions,
ideals, and legal formalities” was replaced by a “‘positivist’ conception of science” (216). These
critiques focused on what was assumed to be the impossibility of explaining political outcomes
“in value-free terms” or of “try[ing] to remain value-neutral about the political world” (216; Farr
cites Sibley 1962, Taylor 1967, McCoy and Playford 1967). With the upheavals of the long1960s, anti-behavioralists were emboldened to rebel once more, leading eventually to the
establishment of the Caucus for a New Political Science in 1967 (218). Two years later in his
1969 APSA presidential address, Easton proclaims the onset of a new revolution in political
science, a “post-behavioral revolution” (218).17 Despite Easton’s straightforward concessions to


the antibehavioralists (in particular for critics of “a neopostivist conception of natural science,
especially its claims to be value-free”), the behavioral revolution was still “remembered as
giving to the discipline of political science in the United States its principal identity and enduring
denomination” (219). In other words, the behavioral revolution is still remembered for
transforming political science from to traditional and backward to a scientific and progressive
discipline under the unified banner of behavioralism.
After Easton’s 1969 presidential address, however, the mainstream of the discipline
increasingly came to view itself in “post-behavioral” terms. Importantly, this image of postbehavioral political science included the widespread abandonment of the so-called “fact-value”
dichotomy and the related positivist admonition for “value-free” social science. This is a
positive development but at least one more idol remains to be toppled before the shadow of
behavioralism is dissipated by the light of a new day in the history of political science. In other
words, the vocabulary of “empirical” and “normative” has stuck, despite the widespread
abandonment of “value-free” science in political science. Farr summarizes the continuing
importance of the behavioral revolution to the image and identity of contemporary political
science. The many “remembrancers” of the discipline’s history teach us “that our interests in the
behavioral revolution and its proclamations are not contingent or antiquarian ones” (221).
Today, in a post-behavioral era, Farr concludes, it is equally important to remember how “our
interpretations of the behavioral revolution are necessarily bound up with our search for present
and future identity” (221).18
Farr’s account serves as a reminder of why it’s important to recognize the lasting
influence of the behavioral revolution, its role as a catalyst for conceptual change in the meaning
of political theory, and as an event ultimately producing multiple traditions of political theory.


The political theorist and disciplinary historian Emily Hauptmann’s 2005 chapter titled,
“Defining ‘Theory’ in Postwar Political Science” sheds further light on the diversification of
political theory after the behavioral revolution. In her chapter, Hauptmann identifies three
distinct traditions of political theory: (1) behavioral or “empirical” theory championed by David
Easton, (2) traditional or “epic” theory led by Sheldon Wolin, and (3) rational choice or
“positive” theory spearheaded by the work of William Riker. Importantly, mainstream
behavioralists were not alone in defining theory in opposition to “traditional political theory.”
As Hauptmann points out, radical or “epic” political theorists like Wolin, as well as “positive”
rational choice theorists like Riker, also defined their preferred form of theory in opposition to
“traditional political theory.” Hauptmann points out, Easton, Wolin, and Riker all received their
Ph.Ds. from Harvard University at about the same time, and all three “rebelled” in their own way
against the “‘ideas and institutions’ approach to political theory” (208).19 All three theorists
crafted a unique take on the meaning and practice of political theory, and as Hauptmann points
out, “each creating his own conception of political theory in opposition to what each saw as the
kind of theory in which he had been trained” (208).
What was traditional political theory before the behavioral revolution? Hauptmann
explains the meaning and limitations of the “traditional” theory construct in a footnote:
The adjective ‘traditional’ in the label ‘traditional political theorist’ indicates
an approach to political theory that emphasizes a tradition of theorizing from
ancient Greece up until the present. Although the label helps distinguish
among different approaches to political theory in the 1950s and 1960s, people
in the subfield of political theory no longer use it of themselves (230).20


Drawing on Gunnell (1993), Hauptmann briefly discusses the empirical theory of Easton and
other behavioralist political scientists. Hauptmann recounts how empirical political theory in the
form of Easton’s general-systems theory was dominant for a time, how this position of
dominance afforded behavioral scholars an opportunity to ignore traditional political theorists
who, and as we’ve seen above, were driven into the enclave of the subfield of political theory
Hauptmann’s chapter is not focused on empirical political theory. Instead, she shifts the
focus to one form of theory or “epic” political theory and to one of its main contenders in the
contemporary discipline, rational choice or “positive” political theory. Both epic and positive
political theory are defined in opposition to their epistemological other: Epic theory is defined
against behavioral theory and positive theory is defined against traditional political theory.
Drawing on Wolin’s famous 1969 APSR article “Political Theory as a Vocation,” Hauptmann
discusses how in its initial formulation epic theory is defined in opposition to
behavioral/empirical scientific theory (218).
In Wolin’s terms, political theory is a “creative act of vision” which is as radical as it was
critical in its stance toward the political world (218). During the behavioral period the “clash
between two rival conceptions of how to theorize about politics” was intense, and often turned
on statements of identity defined in opposition to the other camp (e.g. traditional/epic political
theory vs. behavioral/empirical political theory and positive/rational choice theory vs.
behavioral/empirical political theory). Unlike the new behavioral theory, Hauptmann points out,
Wolin argues for “political commitment” and an engagement with the past; two features of
theory that were anathema to behavioralists (211). Hauptmann summarizes Wolin’s vision of
political theory as the “image of the political theorist as one who sees form some intellectually


constructed distance and who by virtue of that sight critically reimagines that world” (218; cf.
Wiley 2006). For some in the subfield of political theory today, the image of epic political
theory put forward by Wolin still resonates with their own understanding of what political theory
is or can be.22 In this tradition, “epic” political theory is often defined in opposition to
“empirical” or “behavioral” political theory. For example, in his “Political Theory as a
Vocation,” Wolin discusses the rejection of the “tradition” of political theory by the mainstream
of the discipline: “There is a widely shared belief that the tradition was largely unscientific
where it was not antiscientific and that the defining characteristic of a scientific revolution is to
break with the past” (1969, 1068). On the contrary, epic political theory draws on the past to
speak to the present and to intervene in the political world.
In Hauptmann’s narrative, a third tradition of rational choice theory is hegemonic today
overcoming the influence of behavioralism some time ago (227). What is distinctive about
rational choice tradition or in the formulation of William Riker – “positive theory?” Drawing on
the work of Riker and others, Hauptmann describes positive and rational choice theory as
“formal” in the sense of being reliant on mathematical abstraction, “general” in the sense of
being both axiomatic and deductively driven, and highly prone to one form of formal-general
positive theory, game theoretic approaches (221).23 Riker’s work to establish positive political
theory was done in opposition to traditional political theory. Hauptmann quotes Riker (1962,
viii): “These traditional methods – i.e. history writing, the description of institutions, and legal
analysis – have been thoroughly exploited in the last two generations and …they can produce
only wisdom and neither science or knowledge” (223). Here several forms of political theory are
maligned as non-scientific and the intent is to promote one type of political theory at the expense
of others. In sum, although the debate between behavioral and traditional theory may have


subsided, the legacy of the behavioral revolution lives on in the identity construction of both epic
and positive political theory.
Hauptmann concludes her essay by agreeing with Wendy Brown and other contemporary
political theorists who recognize diversity within contemporary political theory and recognize
how many forms of political theory no longer define themselves against behavioral or empirical
theory. Indeed, as Hauptmann puts the matter, “much of the relevant ‘outside’ for contemporary
political theorists now lies outside the discipline of political science itself” (230). Hauptmann
observes how the behavioral revolution “temporarily narrowed the way political theory could be
practiced” and that this was a momentary condition as this same “narrowing began to wane by
the early 1980s” (2005, 216; see Appendix I ). Thus, it’s as important to recognize the
transformation of political theory by the behavioral revolution as it is to recognize its
rejuvenation and the rise of multiple traditions making up an eclectic and diversifying subfield

Political scientists and political theorists from diverse backgrounds have inquired into the
scope and nature of political theory. Indeed, some early inquirers wondered aloud whether
political theory was not already “dead” (Laslett 1956, vii; see Miller 2014). In the introduction to
the Oxford Handbook of Political Theory (2006), the editors John Dryzek, Bonnie Honig, and
Anne Phillips discuss the many traditions in post-behavioral political theory.24 The subfield
diversified greatly since the 1950s, when the old tradition of political theory reputedly took a
“morbid” turn (Dryzek, Honig, & Phillips 2008, 13). A section titled “Relationship with
Political Science” begins as follows: “Political theory’s relationship to the discipline of political


science has not always been a happy one” (6). “The ‘soft’ other for the new science,” the editors
elaborate, “has sometimes been journalism, sometimes historical narrative, sometimes case-study
methods. It has also, very often, been political theory” (6).25 Traditional political theory became
the “‘soft’ other” of rational choice theory and aided in part by the work of Riker who explicitly
rejected “‘belles letters, criticism, and philosophic speculation’ along with ‘phenomenology and
hermeneutics’” (7; Riker 1982, p. 753). The editors observe, “for those driven by their scientific
aspirations, it has always been important to distinguish the ‘true’ scientific study of politics from
more humanistic approaches – and political theory has sometimes borne the brunt of this” (7). In
many respects, the project for a positive political theory was made possible by the original
contest between empirical and traditional political theory, and like the behavioralists, Riker finds
“traditional” political theory a convenient “other” to serve as the constitutive other of his
preferred form of theory. Even so, in a post-behavioral era, it’s important to recognize the
eclectic and diverse nature of contemporary political theory, which as Dryzek, Honig, and
Phillips memorable phrase “is an unapologetically mongrel sub-discipline with no dominant
methodology or approach” (5; 34).
In this article, I’ve focused on the evolution of different forms of political theory. Given
a situation of diversity and methodological pluralism in the discipline, how can we make sense of
the ongoing persistence of the empirical-normative dichotomy?26 We’ve seen how in the process
of constitution empirical political theory defined itself in opposition to traditional political
theory. I’ve also highlighted how in the vocabulary of the discipline this distinction has been
modified so that the “normative” now stands in for the “traditional.” The political theorist and
disciplinary historian Terrence Ball (1987) gives us some insight into these matters in his
introduction to Idioms of Inquiry: Critique and Renewal in Political Science. Playfully


comparing the discipline to a medical patient, Ball discusses the many ills that beset the
profession of political science in the late 1980s. Among the most acute ailments for Ball is
hypochondria or the repeated tendency to treat the discipline as an ailing body in need of some
super-cure. More importantly, however, is the amnesia that besets the profession whose memory
rarely extends further back than the contemporary period (1). Ball explains with a note of good
We cut ourselves off from our own history in any number of ways, one of them
being our penchant for dividing our past into two periods. The first, and by far
the longest, is the Dark Age before behavioralism, in which superstition
reigned, statistics had not yet been invented, empirical questions were
entangled with normative ones, and the state rewarded political inquirers by
giving them hemlock instead of research grants (1).
Referring to his playful but “foreshortened history,” Ball relates how “before the ‘Behavioral
Revolution’ of the late 1950s and early 1960s could be consolidated into a legitimate regime,
there occurred, not a counterrevolution launched by disgruntled traditionalists, but a revolution
within the revolution” (2). Finding themselves in positions of power and prestige in the wake of
the behavioral revolution, behavioralists no longer wanted to be revolutionary but wanted to get
down to the work of doing behavioral research, even as their critics now attacked them on the
level of the philosophy of science (2). The behavioralists’ strategy in the 1980s was one of “a
protectionist policy of intellectual isolationism” and they largely ignored the critics which they
could afford to ignore (2).27 “Much the same sort of thing happened earlier,” Ball continues,
“when the behavioralist revolutionaries dismissed their elders’ old-fashioned historical and
institutional approach to the study of politics” (2). Ball gives the example of how the concept of


the state was berated as unscientific and ought to be replaced by “structural-functionalism” and
general systems theory (2; Ball cites Easton 1953, 1965, 1981).
“The history of political thought,” Ball tells his readers, was one “in which the behavioral
revolution and its aftermath comprises only one of the more recent episodes – is the story of
older orthodoxies being criticized and replaced by revolutionary challengers” (2-3). For Ball, the
history of political thought demonstrates how intellectual change in the discipline is an ongoing
process constantly modifying the mainstream (3). So why is that political scientists seem unable
or unwilling to move beyond a time-bound movement in the mainstream occurring in the 1950s
and early 1960s? Political theory today is well-characterized by a situation of pluralism in which
many traditions of political thought vie for attention and address theoretical and practical issues
of the day in different ways. This idea of pluralism is widespread despite the fact that some
contemporary authors still write as though it is possible to bring unity to political science through
the adoption of a common way of thinking about (empirical or behavioral) political theory (e.g.
Kim Quaile Hill 2012).28
How is it possible that these two major interpretations of political theory – one eclectic,
the other hegemonic – can coexist at the same time and in the same academic discipline? Ball
offers three general reasons for the persistence of behavioralism and its image of (empirical)
political theory: (1) institutional inertia, (2) the nature of graduate education, and (3) the
allocation of research funding (3). Once an orthodoxy has set upon a mainstream and found
institutional support it is very hard to dislodge. More importantly, the orthodox views are passed
on from generation to generation through a process of matriculation. “Graduate education,” Ball
observes, “tends to be in the hands of yesterday’s revolutionaries [who are] still concerned to
keep the faith pure and to guard the memory of the revolution, they create the young in their own


image” (3). Finally, research funds are allocated to the mainstream and orthodox positions
within it.
As we’ve repeatedly seen, one reason for this enduring theme is the cognitive-linguistic
phenomenon whereby one entity is defined in opposition to another – or what some might call
social constructivism and the dynamics of identity construction.29 Thus, Ball might have also
mentioned the linguistic legacy of identity construction by different combinations of opposing
forms of political theory: “traditional,” “empirical,” “epic,” and “positive.” If part of the
behavioralists’ revolt was to define their movement in opposition to what they simply called
“traditional” and later “normative” political theory, today these conceptual distinctions between
opposing traditions of “empirical” and “traditional,” “epic” and “empirical,” and “positive” and
“traditional” is misleading.
In the language of contemporary political science, the concepts of “empirical” and
“normative” are often employed as adjectives describing different traditions of political theory.
These concepts have a history going back to the efforts of the founders of the behavioral tradition
to outline what was for political scientists like Easton a new form of “empirical” political theory.
Today the concept of “normative” theory is quite amorphous including within its boundaries a
number of distinct approaches including moral and ethical theory, classical and political
philosophy, and many others. In this article, I focus on the original contest between traditional
and empirical political theory and only hint at the later development of the empirical-normative
dichotomy. Eventually, the adjective “normative” would replace the adjective “traditional” as
the epistemological other for empirical and other forms of political theory. This change occurred
roughly at the same time as the so-called rebirth of political theory in the early 1970s. The label
of “normative” is more common today, but in the 1950s and 1960s this term was rarely used in


opposition to the new “empirical” theory. In the beginning, it was “traditional” political theory
which was invoked as the epistemological other to the new “empirical” political theory.
Today there are multiple traditions of political theory at work in the discipline and none
of them have any claim to hegemony. Following contemporary disciplinary historians, I’ve
traced the evolution of the meaning of political theory since the behavioral revolution of the
1950s and 1960s. I’ve found that the legacy of debates among political scientists and political
theorists about the meaning of theory in political science is still with us today, and the behavioral
tradition in political science continues to be an active catalyst for conceptual change with respect
to the meaning of political theory. The idea of theory in political science went through a
fundamental transformation in the wake of an ascendant behavioral tradition, and the behavioral
tradition created a new form of theory called “general,” “causal” or “empirical” theory opposed
to traditional and later positive forms of political theory. But this was just one of many traditions
of political theory that emerged after the behavioral revolution. We’ve also seen how the
behavioral revolution made it possible for epic theory and positive theory to emerge as forces in
the discipline today. In a post-behavioral era, it’s time to step out from the shadow of the
behavioral revolution and away from the sterile behavioral empirical-normative dichotomy. In
the history of political science there are and probably will be multiple traditions of political
theory and, I submit, this is a good thing.



[1] Arendt, Hannah (1961, 18) “Preface: The Gap Between Past and Future” in Between Past
and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. NY: Penguin Books. In the same volume see,
“What is Authority?”
[2] Encyclopedias, handbooks, and dictionaries are also a good place to find relevant historical
narratives where the history of the discipline hinges on a transition away from traditional
political science and political theory, a rejection of normativity as such, and the embrace of
empirical political theory as a new form of scientific or behavioral political theory. For example,
see Robert Adcock’s 2010 entry on “Behavioralism” in the Encyclopedia of Political Theory;
Gabriel Almond’s 1996 New Handbook of Political Science entry “Political Science: The
History of the Discipline;” and Jack Plano and Milton Greenberg’s 2002 American Political
Dictionary entry on “Political Science.”
[3] Table 1 is a list of current and past traditions of political theory I encountered doing research
for this paper. Of course, this list is not comprehensive and many of the categories overlap in
significant ways. In Appendix I, I break this list into the periods before, during, and after the
behavioral revolution. In appendix I, it is possible to discern a temporary narrowing of political
theory during the behavioral period, followed by an opening up and a proliferation in forms of
political theory. On this point see Hauptmann 2005 (discussed below).
[4] For recent assessments of the tradition of empirical political theory in political science, see
the 1997 collection of essays edited by Kristen Renwick Monroe, Contemporary Empirical
Political Theory.


[5] Political theorist of the “traditional” mold often mentioned in this context are the German
émigré scholars Hannah Arendt, Theodore Adorno, Leo Strauss, and the American Sheldon
[6] This is a different thematic focus than the triumphal mainstream narrative of the behavioral
revolution. The impact of the émigré scholars on the identity and practices associated with
postwar political theory and the discussion of the impact of the University of Chicago before the
Worlds Wars combine to form a counter-narrative with the implication of continuity with earlier
positivist and pluralist trends rather than rupture in the character of the discipline after the rise of
behavioralism in political science. See for example, Gunnell 2004 “The Real Revolution in
Political Science.” See also Dryzek (2006) “Revolutions without Enemies” who similarly
downplays the revolutionary nature of the behavioral movement which he characterizes as a
“selective radicalization of existing disciplinary tendencies” (490).
[7] In his 1993 The Descent of Political Theory, Gunnell discusses the 1968 official separation
of political theory into the three categories of “historical,” “normative,” and “empirical” (251;
261). As I’ll discuss more below, even this attempt at describing the scope of political theory
after the behavioral revolution is inadequate as it fails to include, for example, developments in
“positive” or rational choice theory. Also, where do political theorist of the Straussian
persuasion fall – are they historical, normative, or both? See also Gunnell’s discussion of the
state of the discipline and its subfields in a 1968 symposium in the Journal of Politics (264).
[8] James Farr and Raymond Seidelman report, the period between 1946 and 1966 witnessed the
decline of “traditional” political theory as well as the emergence of “the concepts of political
behavior, public opinion, pressure groups, and the political system” in the American profession
of political science (1993, 202). See also Box-Steffensmeir, Brady, and Collier’s (2008)


Introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Political Methodology titled, “Political Science
[9] Adcock and Bevir open their article by noting that the notion of the “death” of political
theory in the 1950s is “among the biggest clichés in the history of contemporary political theory”
(207). Political theorists often invoke Laslett (1956) or Isaiah Berlin’s 1961 “Does Political
Theory Still Exist?” and “these obituaries for political theory are involved most often as a
prelude to a celebration of its rebirth” (207).
[10] For an earlier example, see Lasswell (1947) “The Analysis of Political Behavior: An
Empirical Approach.”
[11] See also Adcock’s entry on “Empirical Theory” in the 2010 Encyclopedia of Political
Theory. It’s interesting that there is no entry on “normative” political theory.
[12] Easton received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1947 and taught at the University of
Chicago from 1947 until 1984; while Lasswell received his Ph.D. from the University of
Chicago in 1927 and taught at Yale University.
[13] See also Hauptmann (2004; 2005) on Wolin’s role in the development of a tradition of
“epic” political theory.
[14] This article appears in a volume of essays edited by Farr, John S. Dryzek, and Stephen T.
Leonard, titled Political Science in History: Research Programs and Political Traditions (1995).
Along with Raymond Seidelman, Farr also edited Discipline and History: Political Science in the
United States (1993).
[15] Here I think Farr is relying on his tacit knowledge of positivism in this use of “normative”
which means that it is value-laden – a feature which positivist behavioralists wanted to bracket in
their scientific theory.


[16] In his 1963 The Behavioral Persuasion in Politics, Eulau describes the “formal” aspects of
traditional political theory which many behavioralists found wanting: “Much traditional political
inquiry has been purely formal in the sense that it was limited to the observation of patterns and
took the meaning content of behavior for granted. Political institutions or constitutions were
described and their formal similarities and differences were noted, but what these patterns meant
to the people involved was not investigated. Rather meanings were ascribed, usually on the basis
of the observer’s culture understandings” (69).
[17] Earlier in his essay, Farr describes Easton’s 1953 The Political System: An Inquiry into the
State of Political Science as “the single-most important manifesto lodged against traditional
political science during the behavioral revolution” (207).
[18] In his 1988 “The History of Political Science,” Farr puts the matter this way: “What is or
should be scientific about political science? What is or should be political about political
science? The identity of political science depends upon the answers we give to these questions,
and since our answers ineluctably will involve judgments about the history of our discipline, we
can see in conclusion how our identity depends upon how we understand our history” (1194).
[19] On this point, see also John Gunnell 2013, pp. 192-193.
[20] Hauptmann also notes how “the subfield of political theory in political science departments
today is mostly made up of people who were trained by traditional political theorists rather than
empirical or rational choice theorists” (214). Interestingly, this tradition of political theory is
criticized by Gunnell for its mythological properties – see especially, Gunnell 1978 and 1986.
[21] Along these lines, Hauptmann also discusses Wolin’s unsuccessful efforts to form a new
department of political theory at the University of California, Berkeley (212-213).


[22] This is especially true for many of Wolin’s students – e.g. Wendy Brown, Nicholas Xenos,
Aryeh Botwinick, Kiristie M. McClure, etc. For a collection of essays by many of Wolin’s
students and other prominent “epic” political theorists, see Democracy and Vision: Sheldon
Wolin and the Vicissitudes of the Political (2001; Aryeh Botwinick and William E. Connolly,
[23] Since the time this article was written, Hauptmann has updated her views on positive
theory: “I would say that today, there’s more of an effort on the part of formal theorists to deepen
the empirical dimensions of their work. For example, there is a workshop called “Empirical
Implications of Theoretical Models (EITM) (personal communication, October 2014).
[24] Under the heading “Contemporary Themes and Developments” Dryzek, Honig, and
Phillips discuss a number of ideological traditions including liberalism, Marxism,
communitarianism, feminism, post-structuralism, as well as other contemporary traditions such
as “Democracy and Critical Theory,” and “Green Political Theory.”
[25] See the example of teaching theory to graduate students at Pennsylvania State University
described in notes two and three in Timothy Kaufman-Osborn’s (2010) “Political Theory as
Subfield and as Profession?”
[26] This way of constructing the empirical-normative dichotomy highlights the limited
usefulness of the construct. While the association of “behavioral” and “empirical” is relatively
straightforward (that is as long as one is willing to cede to behavioralists the label “empirical”
political theory) but the association of “traditional” with “normative” is rife with difficulties. For
one, where does Riker’s “positive” political theory fit in? “Positive” or rational choice theory, at
least initially, was neither “empirical” nor “normative” in its orientation to theory.


[27] This is an earlier iteration of the “Revolution without Enemies” theme (Dryzek 2006)
except that instead of an absence of opposition to the rise of behavioralism, Ball argues the
behavioralist, finding themselves in a position of dominance in the mainstream, ignored their
critiques thus making it appear, at least in the most widely distributed writing of the discipline,
there was no opposition (see also Dahl 1961).
[28] Kim Quaile Hill’s recent article in The Journal of Politics, “In Search of General Theory,”
represents another attempt to prod the discipline to adopt the path to rigorous, systematic, and
general scientific theory. Since before the behavioral revolution, modern political science has
been “in search of general theory” and there is nothing new to these admonitions to the discipline
and calls to refocus our efforts and work together to develop a general theory of political life.
For a classic example, see King, Keohane, and Verba (1994) Designing Social Inquiry; see also
Gunnell 1993, p. 262.
[29] For example, the political theorists Wendy Brown succinctly summarizes the construction
of identity via opposition I’ve highlighted in this essay: “The outside constructs the inside and
then hides this work of fabrication in an entity that appears to give birth to itself. Thus to inquire
“What is political theory?” is to ask about its constitutive outside as well as its techniques of
dissimulating this constitution” (Brown 2002, 556; see also Hauptmann 2005).

Analytic Philosophy
Classical Political Theory
Critical Theory
Democratic Theory
Empirical Theory
Epic Theory
Feminist Theory
History of Political Thought

Institutional Theory
Legal Theory
Literary Criticism
Political Philosophy
Positive Theory
Post Structural Theory
Race Theory
Rational Choice Theory


Before the Behavioral Revolution (1900 – 1950)
History of Political Thought
Institutions and Ideas
Legal Theory
Literary Criticism
Moral and Ethical Theory
Political Philosophy or Classical Political Theory
State Theory and Constitutional Theory
During the Behavioral Revolution (1950s and 1960s)
Empirical Theory
Epic Theory and the History of Political Thought
Democratic Theory
Structural-Functional Theory
Political Philosophy and/or Classical Political Theory
Systems Theory
After the Behavioral Revolution (1970s – present)
Analytic Philosophy
Critical Theory
Feminist Theory
Postmodern Theory
Post Structural Theory
Race Theory
Democratic Theory
Empirical Theory
Feminist Theory
History of Political Thought
Historical Theory
Neo-Institutional Theory
Neo-Marxist Theory
Moral and Ethical Theory
Political Philosophy and Classical Political Theory
Positive Theory
Rational Choice Theory
State Theory


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