Mass Communication, Living in a Media World

Chapter 2. The Empirical Approach to Political Science


Chapter Summary

  • The scientific method, in which findings are based on objective, systematic observation and verified through public inspection of methods and results, is the dominant methodological approach in political science. The ultimate goal of science, which is not always attained, is to use verifiable results to construct causal theories that explain why phenomena behave the way they do.

  • Scientific knowledge exhibits several characteristics, nine of which are particularly noteworthy:
    • Science depends on empirical verification to confirm that statements are true through objective observation.

    • Statements or hypotheses must be falsifiable, meaning that the statements or hypotheses can be refuted through contravening empirical evidence.

    • While political scientists sometimes produce normative knowledge, that which is concerned with evaluation or prescription about what should be, most scientists would agree that the goal of science is non-normative knowledge, or, the factual or objective determinations of what is.

    • Scientific knowledge must be transmissible—the methods used in making scientific discoveries must be made explicit so that others can analyze and replicate findings.

    • Scientific knowledge is cumulative because scientists build upon the research techniques and results of previous work in advancing the scientific enterprise.
    • Science summarizes relationships between two or more individual facts through the use of empirical generalization.

    • Scientific knowledge is explanatory because it answers “why” and “how” questions through a logically derived set of propositions about the relationship between two or more components. Causal relationships, more so than correlation, are especially important in establishing informative and useful explanations of political phenomena.

    • Science seeks to explain through the power of prediction by offering systematic, reasoned anticipation of future events, that once confirmed, provide evidence that the scientific knowledge responsible for generating the prediction is correct.

    • Most scientists accept probabilistic explanation—that 100-percent accuracy in prediction is not necessary to understand a phenomenon.

    • Science relies on parsimony, or simplicity and elegance, to choose between alternate explanations. The explanation that explains the most about a phenomenon with the fewest parameters will be preferred.

  • A theory is a body of statements that synthesize knowledge of and explain phenomena. A theory leads to specific and testable predictions about empirical reality—the more observations support these predictions, the more the theory is confirmed.

  • There is no single prescription for finding scientific truth—research taking many different approaches can reach the same goal of being labeled “scientific.” The ideal construction of a research project would begin with a well-defined research question. Next the researcher will explicitly specify hypotheses, or the terms to be tested through the collection and analysis of empirical data. The final steps include making conclusions about whether the data support the hypotheses or whether the hypotheses must be abandoned or modified.

  • Scientific research need not be deductive. Deductive arguments are proven to be true through the use of several logical statements in which a conclusion is true because the underlying premises are true. While deductive reasoning is used in the study of political science, inductive reasoning, in which one draws an inference from a set of propositions and observations, is much more prevalent.

  • There are two general objections to classifying political science as a science:
    • Practical objections: political behavior is very complex, people can intentionally mislead researchers, and data can be difficult or impossible to attain.

    • Philosophical objections: human reasoning cannot be objectively measured and “factsrdquo; are conditioned by the observer’s perceptions and opinions.

  • The definition of political science has changed over time as scholars have approached the study of politics in different ways. Political science began as a largely descriptive discipline and only turned to empirical analysis in the late 1950s. The increasing reliance on statistical methods has been somewhat controversial within the discipline.