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What Is Political Science? Russell Muirhead Political scientists try to understand politics,and they make use of every method and technique that is useful in this quest: they borrow from philosophy,history, psychology,classics,economics,law,sociology,geography,statistics,and applied mathematics,even from literature.What binds political scientists together is not the way they “do” political science—this they will disagree about forever—but what they study: politics. Their methods may be quantitative (they may apply sophisticated statistical methods to large data sets) or qualitative (they may interpret ideas, history, and culture), but in their basic quest they are not that different from ordinary citizens. They simply try to understand the political world around them. The most important reason to study politics is civic: ideally, it helps citizens understand their country and their world and thus make more informed and effective decisions.With this in mind,in what follows I will explain what politics is and the fundamental questions that arise when thinking about it,with a focus on democracy in general and American democracy in particular. The First Question of Politics: Who Rules? There is no good life for human beings without rule: without some bossing others , perhaps for their own private advantage, perhaps with a view to everyone’s advantage.The only thing worse than bad rule is no rule,which is called anarchy. Anarchy,the absence of any rules and any power to enforce them,is a condition where life is (as the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it) “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Even if we cannot live well without some kind of rule, the question “Who What Is Political Science? 275 rules?” does not answer itself for us as it seems to for other animals, like bees. The beehive has a natural order—there are drones, and workers, and a queen. But for us, there is no order that comes into being on its own and settles the question of rule without giving rise to an argument or contest. You do not need to be a professor of political science to understand this. As soon as my twins learned to write—they were about three years old—they put a sign on their bedroom door: “lila and allie rule this room.”They grasped that the question of rule is a problem. And they understood that they might solve the problem by asserting themselves. To rule,someone (or some group) must make a claim: we rule this room. Every assertion leads to an argument: oh no you don’t! And every argument leads to counterarguments . . .and yet more arguments.Politics is argument without end (except in war—but when the war stops, the arguments restarts). Some say that arguments about who should rule ought not be taken that seriously .What matters,they say,is what gives people real power: a large following, money, or guns. What can an argument say to a gun? But it turns out that even guns on their own are rarely enough to stabilize rule. There is no way to get rule and to keep it without convincing someone else that you should have it.If you want to rule,posting a sign on the door is only the first step: you must then persuade somebody else you deserve the power you assert. This is why the study of politics is not a science in the way chemistry or physics is. The elements of the periodic table do not argue with each other about who should get the most atomic weight.The motion of the planets is not the outcome of a negotiation among the heavenly bodies. In politics, people argue with each other,and the arguments matter: you can’t rule without them.So political science is never only about describing things simply as they are, as natural sciences do. Although many political scientists aim to discover the necessities that show how things must be, political science is also inescapably about describing things as they “should” be. The political world is full of shoulds and should-nots, claims and counterclaims. The claims people make about what should and should not be accepted or enforced are, as I mentioned above, the focus of political theory (sometimes called political philosophy.) This is what I study and teach. It is the oldest part of political science, and goes back to the ancient Greeks, particularly Plato and Aristotle, who wrote in the fourth century BCE. Politics in ancient Greece was unstable, and many...


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