Political Science | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Political Science

Political Science

Political science has been defined as the systematic study of government processes by the application of scientific methods to political events, but this rather narrow definition has been questioned by those who believe that power and its organization in human relations is the subject matter of political science, and that power is a phenomenon that may be studied in forms of human association other than the state. Toward the middle of the 20th century, a narrower interpretation of power - that it leads to control over processes through which public decisions are made - gained popularity, although it is important to distinguish political from other kinds of decisions, eg, those in corporations.

Another fundamental starting point for political analysis is the study of how scarce resources are allocated among competing groups of persons, how support is acquired and maintained for human projects. Politics exists because people do not always agree about what the community should be doing, or about how things should be done; politics is about the rules that are agreed upon for resolving conflict and about how these rules are accepted, even by those who disagree with the decisions made. It can also be about the breakdown of these rules and about revolutionary changes in political organization.

Political science is the systematic development of our knowledge and understanding of politics. Before the 20th century, what we now call political science tended to be philosophy, political history or the study of constitutional law - the latter 2 involving the description of political institutions. These 3 areas continue as aspects of modern political science, but they have evolved together into a separate, specialized, academic discipline.

Political philosophy is primarily concerned with the study of political ideas, eg, the place and order of values, the meaning of terms such as "right," "justice" and "freedom", often in the context of their times. Written political philosophy originated with the Greeks (philosophy meaning "love of wisdom," and politics, referring to the activity of the city). Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were primarily interested in the nature of justice.

Plato applied philosophy to the question of what is best, or what ought to be done in politics. Aristotle, comparing and classifying different forms of government, asked as well: "How does politics actually work?" Plato's question led to the tradition of political philosophy or political theory, and political philosophers are still concerned with political values. Aristotle's question led to the tradition of the scientific or empirical investigation of politics, which is concerned first of all with facts and with how to draw useful conclusions from factual observations about how political institutions actually function.

If philosophy began with the Greeks, medieval and more modern notions of law derive from the Romans and the more ancient Hebrew tradition of a covenant. In 1159, in Policratus, John of Salisbury compared the physiology of the body to that of the state; in Summa Theologica, the 13th-century theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas described man as naturally political and the state as a natural institution. Aquinas assumed that the universe was inherently orderly, and that in law and politics, like everything else, the world moved from imperfection to perfection.

Machiavelli, in the early 16th century, is often credited as the first modern political theorist; his credo was "For how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation." Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, Montesquieu, Burke, Mill and Hegel among others all contributed to the literature of political philosophy. Marx, originally a follower of Hegel, decried philosophers for merely interpreting the world and not trying to change it, and claimed that he had taken a scientific approach to the world. By the end of the 19th century, it is often said that ideology had replaced political philosophy.

Contemporary political science owes its development to the 19th and early 20th centuries' enthusiasm for the SOCIAL SCIENCES, which was stimulated by the rapid growth of the natural sciences. The major change characterizing the growth of political science as a field of study is an emphasis on analysis. Instead of simply describing the formal rules and procedures involved in political institutions, eg, how a bill travels through Parliament to enactment, modern political science is equally interested in analysing the processes involved, how people actually behave.

Political Science in Canada

In Canada political science is also an academic discipline. Departments of political science, or political studies, exist in some 45 universities, as well as in community colleges. Canadian political scientists are engaged in extensive research on the various aspects of politics and publish their findings in books, specialized academic journals, research reports and other forms of scholarly communication. Political science at Canadian universities dates to the late 19th century; originally it was strongly connected to constitutional law and to economics. The latter connection is somewhat distinctively Canadian, reflecting perhaps Canada's status as a developing nation with a strong concern with economic questions. At the University of Toronto, which dominated political science until the mid-20th century, political scientists were colleagues of economists in a department of political economy. The first professional association, established permanently in 1929-30, was the Canadian Political Science Association, a joint venture with economists. Its official journal, another joint venture, the CANADIAN JOURNAL OF ECONOMICS AND POLITICAL SCIENCE, existed until 1967, when separate associations and separate journals were created.

Although Queen's, McGill, Dalhousie and later the universities of Saskatchewan and BC also taught political science, until after WWII academic departments were very small, faculty were poorly paid and political science (along with the social sciences in general) had little prestige. As late as 1950, there were only 30 political scientists in all Canadian universities. The 1940s, however, witnessed a coming-of-age of Canadian political science. The publication of major books by R. McGregor DAWSON, J.A. Corry, Alexander Brady and H.McD. Clokie indicated that indigenous Canadian scholarship in political science concerned with the study of Canadian political institutions was now possible, separate from economics or constitutional law.

In the 1960s, Canadian universities underwent a dramatic expansion. New universities sprang up and older institutions expanded their faculties and their offerings. Political science, gaining in prestige along with the other social sciences, shared in this rapid growth.

By the early 1970s, there were about 30 times more political scientists teaching at Canadian universities than there had been in 1950; according to a survey of the Canadian Political Science Association, in 1979 there were 687 political scientists with permanent teaching positions in 45 universities. Sixteen percent of these were located in Québec, and 14% were in French-language or bilingual departments. This does not include the political scientists who became public servants, politicians, journalists, lobbyists, consultants, researchers and advisers to various organizations, or high-school or community-college teachers.

During the 1960s, English Canadian political science was strongly influenced by American political science. Because the relatively small departments and small graduate programs of the 1950s had not produced a sufficient number of graduates to fill all the new positions created by expansion, Canadian universities turned to the relatively better-developed American political-science departments and a large number of American political scientists were recruited throughout the 1960s.

By the end of the 1960s, nearly 50% of faculty members in political-science departments in Canada were non-Canadian by birth. The influence of American schools, American concepts and models and American authors and journals was very strong at a crucial period in the development of Canadian political science.

At the same time the so-called "behavioural revolution," an attempt (originating in the US) to make political science as scientific as possible, gained precedence. Value judgements were to be excluded. Political facts that could be given numerical values and could be systematically analysed were called "hard data." For example, with voting, representative samples of electorates are drawn up, questionnaires administered and sophisticated statistical techniques applied to the results. Not all aspects of politics, however, are as easily quantified, nor is there any real basis for a science of politics exactly comparable to the hard sciences.

Political scientists are themselves part of what they study and not detached observers. Within the discipline, during the 1960s, a major controversy concerned with the limits of this behavioural revolution erupted. Some political scientists claimed that the scientific study of politics alone was legitimate; others argued for the continuation of more traditional ways of looking at politics, claiming that political facts could not be separated entirely from political values. This conflict has now moderated considerably. Behaviourism is generally accepted as a legitimate but not exclusive part of the study of politics. Political science in Canada is varied and pluralist in its approaches.

During the 1960s and 1970s, French-speaking political scientists were influenced by different forces. In Québec, social sciences were relatively underdeveloped and very much in the shadow of religious influence before the 1960s. The first political-science faculty in Québec was created at Laval in 1954, followed by a major expansion throughout Québec universities in the 1960s. However, American political science did not influence the development of the discipline in Québec as strongly as it did in English Canada. New positions in political science faculties were filled primarily by Québecois, but most of their graduate training was in France. European influences on political science were much more marked in Québec than in English Canada. Marxism was one such influence, and there was a greater emphasis on ideas and on political ideology.

Another major difference in Québec was that the growth of Québec political science coincided with the QUIET REVOLUTION. As a result of the rapid rise of Québec nationalism and the debate over the constitutional future of Québec in (or out of) Canada, political science enjoyed a more central position than it held in English Canada. Political scientists became major participants in public debates and Québec political scientists are consequently more engaged politically than their English Canadian counterparts.

There is both autonomy and collaboration in the relations between the English- and French-speaking political-science communities. The Canadian Political Science Association had about 1250 members in 1999. A separate francophone association was established in the early 1960s (first called the Société canadienne de science politique, but since 1978 known as the Société québécoise de science politique). The Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique is a bilingual journal with editors and contributors drawn from both communities. A separate French-language journal, Politique, is also published by the Société québécoise. The Société holds separate annual meetings, although many francophone political scientists hold joint membership in the Canadian Political Science Association and participate in its meetings as well.

Fields of Study

There are a number of fields of study within the discipline of political science. Political theory is either about the explicit study of values (sometimes still called political philosophy) or about the methodology of political inquiry. The latter is concerned with more technical questions, such as the construction of hypotheses, deductive and inductive logic, and the use of statistical tests. Political theory in this sense is a much more specialized field than political philosophy, which sometimes spills over into debates over democracy, liberalism, conservatism, socialism or federalism. Sometimes public debates invoke the concepts developed by political philosophers - as in the debate over independence for Québec or the Canadian Constitution - although rarely in a form that political philosophers would recognize.

A second subfield is comparative politics, which compares political forms, institutions, values and processes in different countries. This is a vast field, encompassing a considerable amount of detailed information about many countries. Comparative politics has also evolved more specialized branches, eg, area studies, which focus on particular groups of nations and geographic regions such as Latin America, Africa, the Soviet Union. Political developments are concerned with the problems of developing nations. In political-science departments in Canadian universities, the study of Canadian politics not surprisingly forms a distinct subfield in itself, as does Québec politics in Québec universities. Within this field provincial and municipal politics are also studied. International relations focuses on the interrelationship of states, diplomacy, foreign and defence politics, war and international organization. Yet another subfield is PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION, primarily the study of BUREAUCRACY. Public policy focuses attention on the process of policy formation.

An important subfield of Canadian political science is POLITICAL ECONOMY, which is both a subfield of study and an approach to politics in itself. It attempts systematically to relate economic, social and political factors together, partly a reflection of the older Canadian connection between economic history and the study of politics, but also a reflection of the influence of Marxist analysis and of a recent trend to more interdisciplinary research.

The most important new direction in Canadian political science in the 1990s is the growing emphasis on feminist approaches to the study of politics. Feminist perspectives are forcing all aspects of political science to rethink basic categories of analysis that have gone unchallenged for decades. Along with the feminist emphasis on gender relations, more attention is also being directed toward factors such as race, ethnicity and cultural diversity. In particular, there is rising interest in the study of the relations between Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian political system and of the struggle of Aboriginal peoples to achieve forms of effective self-government.

At annual meetings of the Canadian Political Science Association and the Société québécoise de science politique, scholarly papers are presented from all the subfields. The Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique and Politique publish articles from all of them as well. There are also more specialized journals, such as Canadian Public Administration, Canadian Public Policy, International Journal, Studies in Political Economy, Canadian Journal of African Studies, Recherches sociographiques and Canadian Foreign Policy. Canadian and Québec political scientists publish in journals edited abroad. Canadian political science is well respected internationally in a number of fields, particularly in the area of political theory.

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