In practically all the disciplines, both in the natural and the social sciences, there is a set of theories propounded by their respective scholars that seek to explain, describe or understand the phenomena, which transpires within the province of their discipline. For political science, this set of theories, both normative and empirical, can be lumped into one sub-field called political theory. In this essay, I will explain how political theory in general “inform” political science. What is the utility of political theory to the discipline? This is followed by an enumeration of what I believe are the functions of political theory in political science.
In order to provide a clear understanding of the relationship between the two, it is necessary to provide a definition. What is political science?
David Easton defines political science as the study of the authoritative distribution of resources. The keyword here is authoritative. By this, it means that power is involved. This reminds us of Colin Hay’s perception of the political; that is the relationship between people with different degrees or amount of power. The literature is clear when it said that among the actors in the society the state has the monopoly of the use of coercive power. By saying that, we are placing the state as the powerful actor in the society and other actors have less or no power at all.
In any case, political science now can be deemed as the study of the power relations within the state, between the state and society, and within the society. I included “within the society” because the members of the society also have varying amounts of power and their interaction is an interaction between and among powers as well.
Given the above definition of political science, I will now turn to political theory. Theories, in general, are approximation of how reality works. This assertion is based on the assumption of uncertainty, even in the realm of [natural] science. Theories, therefore, are explanation of how a phenomenon works, transpires or occurs.
Using “political” as an adjective to “theories”, this make political theory to mean as a set of assumptions and approximations in order to understand or explain, depending on one’s epistemological position, the power relations in the society; that is the interaction of the state and the society and within their respective spheres.
Informing Political Science
Political theory is the lens we use in the course of our work in political science. Whether normative or empirical, they provide perspectives and approaches for us to understand and explain political phenomena. The connection, therefore, is inviolable.
Why do the voters vote for a particular candidate? What could be the explanations for a shift in party alignments among the electorate? These questions which concern political science can be best understood using the behavioural and rational choice theories.
In the normative theories, we are guided on how should politics and political science be done. How does one form a society? What are the origin and nature of state? What form of government must be used and established?
In this sense, political theory serves as the backbone of political science. There is no political science without political theory. It would be hard to distinguish power relations between society and state if there are no theories concerning their existence and their interaction. There would be also no idea of what powers can be granted to the state, to the rules, to the individuals, without political theory in political science.
Functions of political theory
In my reading of the literature, political theory can be said to have two major functions: first, it guides researches, and second, it motivates further theorizing in political science.
Researches, in and out of political science, are guided by theories. In a research proposal, for example, there is a part dedicated to theoretical and conceptual framework. Theoretical framework provides the theories, which will be used in understanding or explaining the answers to the problem. Conceptual framework provides how the variables in the researches are theoretically connected or related. Political theory performs the function as the guide in the researches in order to bring direction and identify how the particular phenomenon observed is going to be evaluated.
Political theory also motivates further theorizing. This is evident on how Plato motivated Aristotle to make his own set of theories. History will tell us that Aquinas got his ideas from the works of Aristotle. The prescriptive views of ancient and medieval political philosophers might have led Machiavelli to be realistic. The existing power structures influenced Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau to write their social contract theories. And the tradition lives on.
I have argued the importance of political theory in political science. However, it must be emphasized that this view is also limited. For example, we cannot discount the function of methodology in research. While theory provides a backbone, the methodology concretizes the research process. Without over emphasizing and exaggeration, this essay attempted to provide to political theory what is due to its utility in the discipline of political science.