Chapter 3. Political Science: Components, Tasks, and Controversies


This chapter addresses the key question of how we can usefully define the discipline of political science. We begin by focusing on three subjects of great interest to political scientists: political philosophy and ethics, the empirical and behavioral study of politics, and public policy. We can think of these interests as the ethical, empirical, and prudential components of political science.

The discipline of political science has traditionally included the following four subfields:

  1. American Government -- the study of how government and politics works in the United States
  2. International Relations -- the study of how countries and other major political actors interact in the international system.
  3. Comparative Politics -- study of political and governance processes in countries around the world.
  4. Political Theory -- what are the best and most just forms of governance.

Beyond the four traditional fields, political science is concerned with worthy political values, or ethics, with what ought to be in politics. Every community adheres to certain values, is inspired by certain purposes, is dedicated to certain goals, and is committed to certain conceptions of the good life. Critical examination of these norms is a central concern of the discipline.

Students of politics are also concerned with understanding political phenomena--political realities--in the community: events and their causes, conditions of well-being, patterns of conflict and accommodation, institutions, and public policies. In short, political scientists are concerned with political empiricism--what has been, what is, and what will be. Empirical, or scientific, method is used to objectively uncover the facts of political phenomena and then to test hypotheses and arrive at supportable generalizations about the political world.

Political scientists are also concerned with political prudence--what can be, that is, with workable public policies and a host of practical judgments. The prudential component refers to wise judgment about the practical tasks of politics.

With these basic concerns of political science providing context, we note that there are four major tasks of the discipline:

1. the concern for what is right or wrong in politics leads, initially, to the task of ethical recommendation.

2. the concern for political phenomena--facts, circumstances, experiences--leads to the task of empirical understanding.

3. the concern for what can sensibly be done leads to the task of prudential, or wise, judgment or action.

Although political scientists may specialize in any one of the three primary realms--ethical, empirical, or prudential--they must still appreciate how these components interrelate in a unified and coherent discipline, thus leading to the fourth task:

4. the theoretical integration of these ethical, empirical, and prudential concerns. One way to facilitate this integration is through the concept of political health.

The latter part of Chapter 3 discusses several of the continuing controversies in political science, including what priority the quest for the good political life should receive, whether a genuine science of politics can be achieved, the responsibility of the discipline to provide guidance for citizens and leaders of state, and the importance of establishing a unified discipline.

In thinking about how to integrate the field of political science, we can never lose sight of the scientific aspect of the discipline. Many of the debates in the discipline center on the best way to objectively investigate the world of political phenomena. One of the most important approaches to the study of politics is called behavioralism.

Chapter Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should... 

  • have an understanding of the major components of political science--ethical, empirical, and prudential.
  • have an understanding of the interrelationship of the three major components.
  • have an understanding of the four major tasks of political science--making ethical recommendations, ensuring empirical understanding, making prudent judgments, and integrating the discipline.
  • be able to discuss the concept of political health.
  • be able to discuss the four continuing controversies in political science: (1) What is the best way to pursue the good political life? (2) Can we achieve a science of politics? (3) How best can political science provide guidance for leaders and citizens? (4) Can the various components and approaches to political science be integrated into a unified discipline?