A Perspective on Political Science

Does political science have a place in Knology’s research agenda? What is political science anyway?

by Johann Chacko
Jul 28, 2022

Prevailing attitudes and power structures — in other words, politics — shape not only the formal and informal rules by which things are done, but also what people imagine together in the public square. The common hope among social and behavioral scientists is that examining those structures and dynamics can help trace how we found ourselves in our present circumstances, and offer some ideas about how to face them.

Despite these shared goals, political science is not a field that other social and behavioral scientists often turn to for insights. For one thing, it suffers from perceptions that like economics, it is dominated by Rational Choice Theory (RCT). This approach — also known as “Public Choice Theory” within the discipline — assumes that outcomes are the result of masses of human beings each rationally calculating how to maximize their individual benefits.

Setting aside the strong empirical evidence from behavioral psychology that rationality is not the default mode of human decision-making, many also find RCT’s focus on individual choice — and the statistical tools used to analyze them — fundamentally inadequate in explaining why larger outcomes play out the way that they do (or often, don’t).

Fortunately, political science is big enough and diverse enough to offer a broad array of tools that go well beyond RCT. These range from the philosopher Michel Foucault’s work on how the construction of authoritative knowledge reshapes social reality, to Social Movement Theory’s sociological insights into how people come together to serve larger causes, and so on. It is in fact a constantly expanding list: If a method, paradigm or theory proves useful to people within political science, then the discipline’s boundaries will shift sooner or later to accommodate it.

This promiscuous borrowing from disciplines that also often address political questions themselves can lead some people to feel that they don’t need political science to make sense of the political. I would go even further and say that it is perfectly possible for researchers and scholars from other disciplines to find themselves doing political science even if they don’t call it by that name.

What distinguishes political science is not some official title, but the decision to explore a phenomenon within the context of political units, rather than that of society or the individual. When we treat political communities (whether city, province, nation-state, or the global order) as the unit of study or the key backdrop, we are better able to perceive how these communities and their systems interact with the individual behaviors of human beings located in and around them.

In Knology’s transdisciplinary approach, systems and behaviors matter as much as the biosphere, wellbeing, media and culture research domains. By investigating the political nature of systems and behaviors, we are able to grapple with the dimensions that influence our understanding of the domains where Knology works.

Photo by Alex Radelich on Unsplash

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