Politics and the Political

“Politics is not defined by the locus of its operations but by its nature as a process.”

This statement of Colin Hay is related to his discussion on whether politics, or the political, is centred on or defined by the locus of its operations, that is politics as an arena, or by its nature as a process, that is politics as a process. Politics, or more specifically the ‘political,’ is a concept in our discipline, which is the core of it, but the most contentious one. Different political scientists have different notion or conception of the ‘political’. In this essay, I will discuss the ‘political’ as a concept in the context of the statement above by Hay. Also, I will inquire on the ‘science’ in political analysis and the boundaries and scope of political analysis. Particularly, I will focus on the issues concerning the ‘state’ as I discuss the ‘political’.

Politics: Arena vs Process
As mentioned above, politics or the political can either be viewed as an arena or as a process. Politics as an arena views the ‘political’ within a particular location, that is, the state. This view of the political considers what is political as limited to the activities revolving and operating within the institution of the state. This gives us a view that anything outside the state, the government and the institutions has no political value or has no politics in it.

This is contrary to the view of those who understand politics as a process. More than the activities of those in the formal institutions of the state, politics is a process on how people interact with each other, inside and outside a particular arena, in this case, the state. Essential in the understanding of politics as a process is the notion that politics is about power relations: it is how power is distributed in the society and how agents with different levels and amounts of power interact.

Following the above notion of politics, it becomes clear now that politics should not be limited to a particular arena. I will discuss this idea further below. But for now, with politics viewed as a process, there has been an expansion of the scope of what is political, one that is not limited to the functioning of the state or the government. Instead of focusing in the institutions, politics is seen to focus on the dynamics of these institutions, the actors, both state and non-state.

‘Science’ in Political Analysis
Given the idea above the politics is a process, I now look into political analysis and how it can be considered a ‘science’.

It may seem that ‘science’ or the determination of what scientific or pseudo-scientific (see Popper) is under the monopoly of the natural science. This is not an attempt to pit the two sciences, natural and social. The point is that more often than not, in order to be regarded as a science or scientific, one must follow the rules or procedures of the natural sciences.

Political analysis, a social science endeavour, is not excluded from consideration of being a science. The book of King, Keohane and Verba talks about how a social scientist can be scientific as well. They defined the scientific nature of a research by following four guidelines. First, the goal must be inference. When we do research, or political analysis, we follow the established rulers of inference and logic in order to arrive at a sound and logical arguments. Second, we make our methods available to public. This gives us credibility by showing the public how we arrived at our particular conclusions. Third, conclusions are uncertain. Uncertainty is part of knowledge generation. A researcher or an analyst cannot claim full knowledge of everything. At one point in time, one’s output can be deemed false or wrong. Lastly, and I believe more importantly, the focus is on the method and not the material. The material various from one discipline to another, but in order to maintain a scientific culture, there must me consistency on the method.

The focus on the political as a process, therefore, does not reduce political analysis in particular and political science in general as a pseudo-science. As political scientists, we follow particular rules and processes, a methodology in producing or generating knowledge. That is scientific.

Boundaries and Scope of ‘Political’
Earlier, I have already hinted on the boundaries and scope of the political by saying that more often than not, the political is restricted or limited to the workings of the state. This old institutionalist view of the political also recognized that politics is a process, albeit it gives greater emphasis on the locus of the action rather than the process itself. This is why it is limited and restricted.

However, as argued by Heywood, politics is everywhere. This does not mean that “everywhere” is an arena of politics, which may be true but make the notion of politics diluted. Instead this should be understood such that “everywhere” is an opportunity for social, and therefore political, interaction. The political is expanded and goes beyond the state, the government and the institutions.

Conversely, the expansion of the political does not emasculate the position of the state in the discipline. The state remains to be the authority but now there is a shift in the interest to include non-state actors as well. This is demonstrated by the shift from the institutionalist to a behaviouralist and rational choice approaches to the study of the state of the political. Later in the century, the study of the state re-emerges, this time acknowledging the need to include the non-state actors in the political. More interestingly, researches in the discipline have focused not only on election, voting and other related topics but also researches have branched to study social movements, civil society and state-society interactions.

Politics or the political as studied by political scientists and scholars traverses a wide array of topics, from states to non-state actors. The statement of Hay provides an explanation of the existing trend in the discipline of political science in terms of research interests and output. Political analysis, while still largely focused on the state, has gone beyond its limitations. Besides, as pointed out by King, Keohane and Verba, the methods and the processes by which we generate new knowledge makes our endeavour scientific.

Politics and the Political

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