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Is ʻpolitical scienceʼ an oxymoron?

ʻWhat is the nature and purpose of political science? Posed in such a direct and stark

manner, this may well be a rather uncomfortable question to ask.ʼ (Hay, 2002, p.64)

But as Hay subsequently explains: the answer to this questions defines the core features

of political science. In assessing if ʻpolitical scienceʼ is an oxymoron we are essentially

examining the core of the discipline of political analysis.

While this question may lead us to the core features of political science, (Stoker, 1995, p.1)

the answer to this question is still not widely agreed upon in academic circles.

Hay subsequently analyses that ʻthose with the most narrow, restrictive and formal

conceptions of politics are the most attached to the label ʻscienceʼʼ (2002, p.66) So by

trying to keep ourselves from being or becoming overly attached to the label ʻscienceʼ we

might be able to make our conceptions of politics wider, more unrestricted and less formal.

This essay will start by taking a closer look at the ʻpoliticalʼ aspect of the posed question

and its implications. Secondly, this essay will look at ʻscienceʼ and the requirements it

presents for the ʻpoliticalʼ. As third, this essay will define what an oxymoron is. Finally, this

essay will take a look at prominent or possible critiques and responses to the posed

conclusion. And last, this essay will conclude that ʻpolitical scienceʼ is indeed an oxymoron,

based on the notion that the prerequisite of impartiality, neutrality and autonomy can not

be met in the study of the ʻpoliticalʼ for it is too concerned with the study of values,

behavior and and the human nature in general.

Or as Leftwich puts it: ʻshould the study of politics be undertaken as an essentially

scientific and quantitative endeavor or does its very nature, as a complex human process,

require a more qualitative approach?ʼ (2004, p.17) This essay will follow Leftwichʼs subtle

suggestion in showing that the study of politics needs a more interpretative approach to


suit its nature as a complex human process instead of a more scientific and quantitative


Hayʼs assessment of the ʻpoliticalʼ versus ʻscienceʼ matter offers a clear framework for this

essay to build on:

In the philosophy of the social sciences, what we have thus far termed the political

question is referred to as an ontological issue; what we have thus far termed the

science question is referred to as an epistemological issue. Both, as we shall see,

have methodological implications. (C. Hay, 2002, p.61)

To define what the ʻpoliticalʼ is we have to step into an array of confusing and contradicting

definitions. No one really agrees on one specific definition or explanation. Or as Jean

Elshtain puts it: ʻall we know is that [the world of the political] would not be what we

currently have.ʼ (in Hauptmann, 2004, p.34) Admittedly, this does not have to be such a

negative issue, since ʻfor many, this is a deeply worrying and depressing state of affairs;

for just as many others, however, it is a sign of theoretical vibrancy and intellectual

pluralism.ʼ (C. Hay, 2002, p.65)

Furthermore, as Adrian Leftwich analyses about the defining of ʻpoliticsʼ (2004, p.2):

because it is such a highly contested subject, debates about its proper definition
and the scope of its subject matter are themselves political, and that it is not likely
that there will ever be universal agreement on either what politics, as an activity, is
or what the appropriate composition of the discipline of Politics should be.
This essay sees a few basic features and characteristics that can be agreed upon to be at

the core of the ʻpoliticalʼ. Most academicsʼ concerns seems to be ʻwith the analysis of the

origins, forms, distribution and control over power.ʼ (Leftwich, 2004, p.2) rather than the

widely accepted angle to politics that it is the involvement of human beings in the ʻstudy of

influence and the influentialʼ (Lasswell in Leftwich, 2005, p.2). This essay argues that

whenever one talks about politics or anything political, one always talks about human


relations and their perception of influence or power. It is this distinct emphasis on ʻhumanʼ

that makes it unfeasible to consider anything political to be a science for it rests too heavily

on human perception and philosophy as will be shown in the next section about science.

This second section will provide an analysis of what science entails and what aspects are

essential when trying to link ʻpoliticalʼ to science.

The public feeling seems to be that if political scientist were in the possession of
anything even faintly resembling a science, they could tell the world something
beyond what is in the daily news, could provide not just the known facts but general
explanations that would make the political world more understandable. This goal
has been elusive. Even when sophisticated statistics are brought to bear on politics,
the numbers frequently only repeat facts that were obvious enough to uninformed
observers without going to all that statistical trouble. (Lane, 1997, p.vii)
This essay acknowledges that there are many different angles to the problem that political

science may or may not be ʻscientificʼ. This essay will elaborate a theory that shows

politics and the ʻpoliticalʼ are missing a crucial pillar to be considered scientific in not

complying with the prerequisite of science being value free.

Hollis poses the following question about the philosophy of social science (1994, p.216):

Could it be that our difficulties in settling on the correct analysis of, for instance,
causation, explanation, understanding and knowledge stem from failure to realise
that an element of value-judgement is always involved?
This essay will argue that it is exactly this ʻfailure to realise that an element of value-

judgement is always involvedʼ that makes it impossible for the ʻpoliticalʼ or ʻsocialʼ to mix

with clean, objective and ʻscientificʼ science.

ʻscience as value free represents a value of scientific practices and institutions.ʼ (Lacey,

2001, p.2) This essay acknowledges that there is a lively ongoing debate between

academics about the question ʻCan science itself comply to the requirements it sets out?ʼ

One of the most distinct requirements of science is that it needs to be value free. But this

leads us directly to the question ʻIs science itself value free?ʼ Lacey set out to answer this

question and offers three components to dissect the discussion of ʻscience being value

freeʼ: impartiality, neutrality and autonomy. This essay will use these ideas to show how the

building blocks of the ʻpoliticalʼ make it impossible to build a foundation for science and

how by considering politics to be a science we are moving further away from ʻpure scienceʼ

on the account that we are making science less value free.

First, impartiality leaves no space in science for ʻmoral, social and any other non-cognitive

valuesʼ (Lacey, 2001, p.1). However, politics and the ʻpoliticalʼ are entirely based on

humans and their social conventions and moral dimensions. Requiring politics to abandon

their social and moral roots would imply stepping away from e.g. ʻthe study of influence

and the influentialʼ (Lasswell in Leftwich, 2004, p.2), for the perception of influence is

based on social aspects and conventions.

Secondly, proper science needs to be neutral and not favor any views over others. Since

we are studying human relations and their struggle for influence it is unlikely that we - as

the researcher or observer - will remain neutral. The concepts of influence, power and

authority are entirely based on favoring one over another. Or as Robert Dahl puts it ʻA has

power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise

doʼ (1957, pp.202-203). The valuation, interpretation and perception of power, influence

and success depend greatly on personal views, opinions and definitions and are therefore

unlikely to be neutral. How can we assure that what B does in Dahlʼs definition is actually

caused by A having power over B? The observer will need to base his answer on his

personal qualitative explanation, rather than a general quantitative belief. Hence, the

necessity for a more qualitative approach, rather than a more quantitative approach as

marked by the scientific angle.

The third requirement for science being value free is autonomy. Autonomy is explained by

Lacey as ʻmethodologies should be unencumbered by political, religious and other non-

cognitive interests.ʼ (p.1) Besides the clear claim that research should be ʻunencumbered


by political … interestsʼ there is another angle to autonomy. Autonomy is closely related to

terms like independence, external observation and unconnectedness. Science is done by

humans and political science would thus imply having humans ʻstudyʼ human relations. So

with these parties being too similar, dependent and connected, the ʻpoliticalʼ can never be


The premise used by Lacey to address the need for science to be value free hands us

clear arguments to show that ʻpolitical scienceʼ is an oxymoron. Based on perception,

interpretation and valuation. Or as Meehan explains in respect to Karl Popperʼs views:

ʻThe meaning of concepts is not grounded in observation but somehow excogitated from

unstated philosophic premises.ʼ (1982, p.255)

This third part of the essay will elaborate on what an oxymoron is and how it is used in this

essay. One dictionary defines ʻoxymoronʼ as follows:

ʻa combination of contradictory or incongruous words (as cruel kindness)ʼ

(Websterʼs New Collegiate Dictionary, 1973, p.821)

Another example of an oxymoron would be ʻbittersweetʼ, where these apparently

contradictory terms appear in conjunction.

This essay argues that the terms ʻpoliticalʼ and ʻscienceʼ are indeed an oxymoron on the

grounds that they contradict but still appear in conjunction. This essay shows the

contradiction in terms of impartiality, neutrality and autonomy.

When it comes to the exact explanation of the terms involved in this question, one could

argue that ʻscienceʼ simply refers to the ʻpossession of knowledge as distinguished from

ignorance or misunderstandingʼ (Websterʼs New Collegiate Dictionary, p.1034). But this

implies that almost anything that involves investigation or any form of knowledge can be

seen as science, even e.g. washing the dishes: the ʻscience of washing the dishesʼ. This


essay though approaches science as the systematized and value free attained knowledge

in academia, therefore abandoning washing the dishes as a science.

In conclusion, ʻpolitical scienceʼ is an oxymoron for the ʻpoliticalʼ is too concerned with

complex human processes to meet the requirement of science to be value free. The

ʻpoliticalʼ and politics is based on discourse, perception and interpretation and is thus in

need of qualitative approaches, rather than quantitative approaches as suggested when

focussing on the ʻscientificʼ side. By detaching the ʻpoliticalʼ from the ʻscienceʼ this essay

expects to see a stronger focus on qualitative research that will create a stronger

ontological premises for the discipline and that will thereby create stronger methodological

tools and approaches: improving the discipline as a whole.

Word count: 1,816



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