Political theory as a subfield of political science

This essay was written in january as part of an exam in a course titled ”Social Studies of Science”.

My field of study would probably best be described as political theory, and more broadly, political science. The label of ‘political theory’, however, cover a very broad range of intellectual interests and pursuits, and one may even doubt that there exist enough commonality as to warrant one to speak of a “field” in any determinate manner. This vagueness of my field of study, and its rather insecure institutional place within academia, is actually part of what I would like to discuss in this paper.

Political theory is not science and the claims its practitioners make are rarely seen as claims to knowledge or truth. This puts me in difficulties with regard to the present exam question: much of the course material, concerned as it has been with science proper, will not be straightforwardly applicable to the field of political theory. But in this paper I will attempt an analysis of political theory as a field. By this I mean that I will not concern myself with describing prevalent theories and traditions in political theory and trying to explain them with reference to the social context. Rather, I will analyze political theory as a discipline — that is, its identity and place amongst other disciplines in academia.

This is not because I find the first set of questions unimportant. Indeed, in my view such reflections ought to be conducted by theorists themselves, so as to make the field in some sense more self-reflective. This would be the demand for what Bernard Williams calls ”reflective social understanding”:

[T]he education of political philosophers should include such epistemological materials as will help them to get some measure of the varying claims of the sociology of knowledge. As it has been said that metaphysicians and philosophers of language should not be verificationists, but should have a verificationist conscience, so political philosophers should have a readiness to be embarrassed by the possibility of reflexion on the formation and direction of their views (Williams 2006: 160).

Yet I will not pursue such reflections in the present paper. Partly because I find it difficult that to do to in as brief a space as this. Partly because very little of the course material seem relevant to such a task. Choosing instead to analyze political theory more broadly as a discipline it will be possible to keep this paper more in line with the themes, if not the specific theories, addressed in the course material.

As I said before, political theory is not a science. Yet it is currently a subfield of political science. This fact causes some tension within the discipline. It is not surprising, therefore, that calls are sometimes made for the separation of political theory from political science. I will now point to one such case of late, and make a suggestion of what kind of institutional or economic logic may account for such calls for separation.

In 2007 the political science department at Pennsylvania State University decided to no longer offer political theory as a main field of study for graduate and Phd students. The debate that this decision sparked recently reached the scholarly journals (Brown 2010; Gunnell 2010; Kasza 2010; Kaufman-Osborn 2010; Rehfeld 2010). I will draw on some of the arguments in this debate, but first I would like to pick up on some themes of the course that I think may help to explain the temptation to exclude political theory from the discipline of political science.

(1) There is within science always a struggle for economic resources, and this struggle determines what kind of research gets done. Thus there is a vital need to position and frame one’s research and discipline as highly important and useful.

(2) The prestige and status of science is unique in contemporary society.

Both these themes have often been subject for discussion in the lectures of this course, and is also discussed in the course literature (primarily Bucchi 2004; Ravetz 2006). They are of course the basic starting points that make the social study of science important and interesting. I will now try to build on these two ideas and analyse political theory’s position as a subfield of political science.

If (1) covers not only the practise of the natural sciences, but also every other kind of intellectual and academic activity, then, if we combine it with the fact (2) that science is highly esteemed, we get the formula: (3) There is an incentive for all academic disciplines to present themselves as constituting “science”.

Well then, what distinguishes political theory as a subfield in political science? Wendy Brown supplies an answer: “[P]olitical theory is the sole outpost of nonscience in an ever more scientized field” (Brown 2010: 681). While political theory cannot plausible dress itself in the robes of science, as Brown puts it, the other subfields of political science potentially can. Then, to the extent that political theory asks ‘the big questions’ about the study of politics, of its methodology and of social ontology, political theory makes itself an annoyance to its subfield neighbours. Not simply because it, through its existence, take up a proportion of the existing resources allotted to the discipline — and therefore annoys those who simply deem it a worthless practise — but because political theory may then be regarded as undermining a key factor determining the size of those resources, namely the possibility to present the discipline — to policy makers as well as the public — as a hard science. (This reaction is quite understandable, since, after all is said and done, who would wish to suffer the fate of the humanities?)

This partly explains, I think, the existence within social science of quite naïve and outdated ideas about science. If we combine the formula (3) with the fact that in the society at large “science” is still generally understood in a rather narrow positivistic fashion, then we need not be surprised that the very same conception of science is still entertained and propagated by scientists. After all, they themselves will benefit from presenting their discipline as in accordance with these conceptions of science. And hence, what Gregory Kasza describes as “the marginalization of political philosophy”, ought not to surprise us.

Make no mistake: political philosophy presents a threat to today’s mainstream political science. Contemporary research in the philosophy of science offers little justification for the neo-positivist template that still dominates empirical research in political science. To ask graduate students to probe the basic ontological, episte- mological, and normative questions of philosophy and apply what they learn to contemporary research in political science is to give away the store. The only way to stop philosophical inquiry from undermining the status quo is to exorcise it from graduate education. That is why philosophy requirements have disappeared from the curriculum. (Kasza 2010: 699)

Naturally, they are opposed to including in their discipline any intellectual enterprise asking the kind of questions Kasza sees as characteristic of political philosophy (he prefers the term ‘philosophy’ over ‘theory’ but treat them as interchangable):

What is the character of the human being and human society? What is politics and what should be the proper scope and objectives of political research? What sort of knowledge about politics is possible? What is science? What is a good society? (Kasza 2010: 697)

On the contrary, these scientists are rather happy in a state of affairs in which ”most graduate students are no longer taking courses that would problematize the correspondence between the social and natural sciences” (Kasza 2010: 699).

I will now expand on this issue of the distinctiveness of the social sciences. Kasza speaks of the ‘neo-positivists’. But let us return to the earlier proponents — or rather, to one of their critics. Isaiah Berlin was moving in the circles of British positivist philosophers, but became a staunch critic. In ‘Does Political Theory Still Exist?’ he discussed the scientistic ambitions of an even earlier age, the ambitions of those who, in the wake of Newton, had believed that the “monstrous muddle” of social and political doctrines could be cleared away “by the strong new broom of scientific method” (Berlin 1999: 162). Here is Berlin’s estimation of that project:

Nevertheless, attempts made by the philosophes of the eighteenth century to turn philosophy, and particularly moral and political philosophy, into an empirical science, into individual and social psychology, did not succeed. They failed over politics because our political notions are part of our conception of what is to be human, and this is not solely a question of fact, as facts are conceived by the natural sciences; nor the product of conscious reflection upon the specific discoveries of anthropology or sociology or psychology, although all these are relevant and indeed indispensable to an adequate notion of the nature of man in general, or of particular groups of men in particular circumstances. Our conscious idea of man – of how men differ from other entities, of what is human and what is not human or inhuman – involves the use of some among the basic categories in terms of which we perceive and order and interpret data. To analyze the concept of man is to recognize these categories for what they are. To do this is to realize that they are categories, that is, that they are not themselves subjects for scientific hypothesis about the data which they order. (Berlin 1999: 162-63)

The first part of this paragraph may simply express the thought that there are inevitably normative questions that can never be ‘solved’ by greater scientific knowledge in social and political matters. The second part, however, have more far-reaching consequences. For these concepts and categories, these models and presupposition of which Berlin speaks, are not simply something that we use to make sense of our experience, they form that experience. As Bernard Williams says, the understanding of historically and culturally different concepts and categories, and “the self-understanding of our own”, is then a prime task of philosophy (Williams 1999: xv). And since these models determine the actions and beliefs of individuals, there is a case to be made that an understanding of the social world depend on understanding such models and modes of thinking. “No amount of careful empirical observation and bold and fruitful hypothesis will explain to us what those men see who see the state as a divine institution” (Berlin 1999: 167-68). Political theory does exist, Berlin says, and its task is to bring, “by an effort of imaginative insight”, understanding of the concepts and categories that have dominated societies; insights without which these societies “will remain opaque to us” (1999: 168).

Still, it might be argued that this would be a humanistic enterprise, and that though it may supplement political science it has no place in that science. In reply to this argument, we may highlight the question of “the self-understanding of our own” concepts and categories. Then it will be seen that political theory, “the reflective dimension of political science” as Gunnell calls it (2010: 678), is integral to the discipline. For if there is no reflection on the categories and concepts “in terms of which we perceive and order and interpret data”, then we would not be able to make conscious choices about crucial methodological questions, and we would pursue our work unconscious of the presuppositions and social ontology that by necessity direct it. One does not simply by an empirical study discover what kinds of entities exist in the social world. On the contrary, a social ontology is conceptually prior to the study of that world — though the result of empirical work may then influence us to change our model and basic concepts of society. My point is: Either you try to be explicit about this ontology and try to understand the historical and sociological causes of these preconceptions, so as to make informed choices. Or you don’t.

What I am saying here could perhaps be understood as the claim that one task of political theorists is actually to conduct sociology of knowledge in relation to the field of political science. And, secondly, that the nature of political science is such that the discipline would fare less well as a science did it not make room for intellectual work of that kind. But I don’t mean to say that each and every political scientist must spend a whole lot of energy on these issues. As Bernard Williams told the philosophers: while there ought to be a sensitivity to these issues, this sensitivity may sometimes rightly take the form of simply looking the difficulty in the face “and getting on with something one actually believes in” (Williams 2006: 160). However, at the level of the whole discipline and the departments (such as Penn State), such an attitude is a different matter completely.

I have in this paper suggested that a certain amount of political theory and sociology of knowledge would make political science better off. Better off epistemologically speaking, I must stress again. For as I have also suggested, there seem to exist a kind of institutional and economical logic that threaten to make the discipline worse off in terms of resources, if it were to acknowledge precisely that view. This social analysis explains why my field of study seem to have an uncertain disciplinary home.[1] As long as the ‘distinctiveness’ of social science of which I have spoken is not broadly understood in the rest of society, then this state of affairs is likely to remain. For the existence of a profession of political science depend on the willingness of the rest of society to financially support it. And the extent of this willingness is crucially dependent on whether the profession is regarded as “science”. So, whether due to an adaption process, or to a selection effect, it is no surprise that there is tendency in the profession to propagate the same conception of science as that which is held by its financiers. This perhaps explains the prevalence of philosophically disreputed ‘neo-positivist’ views of science, and why a department of the discipline decided to give an entire subfield the boot.


[1] The situation of course varies between different regions. Kasza complains of “America’s overspecialized academic structure”, and the “ill influence” it has had in the United Kingdom and Germany (Kasza 2010: 698). My view regarding Sweden is that Kasza would have less cause for concern in this case.


  • Berlin, Isaiah (1999), Concepts and Categories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
  • Brown, Wendy (2010), ‘Political Theory Is Not a Luxury: A Response to Timothy Kaufman-Osborn’s ‘Political Theory as a Profession”, Political Research Quarterly, 63 (3), 680-85.
  • Bucchi, Massimiano (2004), Science in Society (London & New York: Routledge).
  • Gunnell, John G. (2010), ‘Professing Political Theory’, Political Research Quarterly, 63 (3), 674-79.
  • Kasza, Gregory J. (2010), ‘The Marginalization of Political Philosophy and Its Effects on the Rest of the Discipline’, Political Research Quarterly, 63 (3), 697-701.
  • Kaufman-Osborn, Timothy V. (2010), ‘Political Theory as Profession and as Subfield?’, Political Research Quarterly, 63 (3), 655-73.
  • Ravetz, Jerome (2006), The No-Nonsense Guide to Science (Oxford: New Internationalist).
  • Rehfeld, Andrew (2010), ‘Offensive Political Theory’, Perspectives on Politics, 8 (02), 465-86.
  • Williams, Bernard (1999), ‘Introduction’, in Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
  • Williams, Bernard (2006), Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

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