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About this book

The systematically revised third edition of the leading text on approaches and methods in political science features a considerable internationalization in both the team of contributors and the range of coverage and examples. About half the chapters are entirely new and the rest are substantially revised and updated.

Table of Contents



This book aims to provide an introduction to the way that political scientists carry out their studies. In universities it is quite common to have societies set up by students that correspond to the various disciplines that they are studying. These societies provide a number of intellectual events for students to attend but they also organize some social activities. They produce their own merchandise, normally T-shirts or sweaters that society members can wear. The shirts, at least in Southampton, carry mildly risqué slogans reflecting on some aspect of the discipline. Slogans that can be observed include ‘psychologists like to experiment’ and ‘economists do it with models’. The Politics Society has so far been unable to make an allusion to the methods and approach of its subject and its most recent offering is the rather abject ‘political scientists do it on the backbenches’. This book is not a response to this relative failure but it could be argued that the failure of wit on the part of Southampton’s Politics Society reflects a wider challenge in the discipline of political science. We are not clear enough or self-reflective enough about the way our subject is studied. Our book is certainly a response to that concern. And readers of the book may be moved to suggest a future slogan along the lines of ‘political scientists do it with variety’.
Gerry Stoker, David Marsh

Theory and Approaches


Chapter 1. Behavioural Analysis

The behavioural approach to social and political analysis concentrates on a single, deceptively simple, question: Why do people behave in the way they do? What differentiates behaviouralists from other social scientists is their insistence that (a) observable behaviour, whether it is at the level of the individual or the social aggregate, should be the focus of analysis; and (b) any explanation of that behaviour should be susceptible to empirical testing. Behavioural scholars take the view that, whatever theoretical categories any analysis uses, social enquiry is fundamentally about trying to understand what it is that (some) people do, think or say.
David Sanders

Chapter 2. Rational Choice

The rational choice approach to the study of politics involves the application of the method of economics to the study of politics. I will say more about this method in the following section. But two key assumptions which are of absolutely central importance to the rational choice approach ought to be immediately highlighted: rationality and self-interest. Whether analysing the creation of cabinet coalitions in Europe, the transition to democracy in Latin America, the origins of ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia, or the trading of campaign donations for policy favours in the United States, rational choice theorists assume that people can be relied upon to act in ways which best secure their goals and that these goals reflect their self-interest.
Andrew Hindmoor

Chapter 3. The Institutional Approach

This chapter begins by teasing out the implicit theory and methods of the traditional institutional approach within political science which is referred to in the introduction to this section of the book. The chapter goes on to explore what’s new about the ‘new institutionalism’. It identifies core characteristics and key distinctions among the different new institutionalist positions. The chapter considers the challenges facing new institutionalism, not least the charge that its many variants are based upon fundamentally incompatible premises. The chapter concludes by considering whether the multi-theoretic character of the new institutionalism may actually prove to be its greatest asset.
Vivien Lowndes

Chapter 4. Constructivism and Interpretive Theory

A constructivist argument claims that people do one thing and not another due to the presence of certain ‘social constructs’: ideas, beliefs, norms, identities, or some other interpretive filter through which people perceive the world. We inhabit a ‘world of our making’ (Onuf, 1989), and action is structured by the meanings that particular groups of people develop to interpret and organize their identities, relationships, and environment. Non-constructivist scholarship, by contrast, like that surveyed in Chapters 1 (Behaviouralism), 2 (Rational Choice), and 7 (Marxism), suggests that our interpretive filters do not greatly affect how we act. Instead we inhabit a ‘real’ landscape of features like geography, resources, and relative power, to which we respond fairly directly. Some institutionalists (Chapter 3) also make non-constructivist arguments, though other institutionalists overlap with constructivism. The institutionalists — defined by Lowndes as offering a rational choice account — tend to treat organizations and rules as fairly clear, ‘real’ objective obstacle courses to which we respond directly. But as Lowndes highlights, another key variant of the new institutionalism understands institutions through a more constructivist lens, where ‘institutions’ are themselves meaningful social constructs. For this chapter, the key point is that an approach is only constructivist to the extent that it argues that subjective interpretation of some sort affects what people do.
Craig Parsons

Chapter 5. Political Psychology

This chapter provides a thumbnail sketch of political psychology as a perspective within political science. Political psychology asks somewhat different questions to those that tend to be dominant in mainstream political science (see Box 5.1). Psychological interpretations of political actors and processes have been around ever since the Greeks, but as a more systematic academic endeavour, political psychology dates back in Europe to the final decades of the 19th century. That was when the rise of mass politics inspired social theorists such as LeBon and Tarde to think systematically about the psychological bases of various forms of politically salient ‘crowd behaviour’ (Van Ginneken, 1992). In the US, it took until the 1920s for pioneers such as Charles Merriam and Harold Lasswell to lay the foundations of the modern, empirical study of the human factors shaping political behaviour and thus political outcomes (Asscher and Hirschfelder-Asscher, 2004). Political psychology has become a firmly footed part of the American political science scene, has been a steady component of the discipline in various Western and Southern European as well as Latin American countries, and has produced small but innovative pockets of scholarship in Japan, UK, Canada and Australia (e.g. Moser, 1998; Van Ginneken and Kouijzer, 1986).
Paul ’t Hart

Chapter 6. Feminism

Feminism is innately political. To the extent that ‘It picks out and problematizes the fundamentally political relationship between gender and power’ (Höjer and Åse 1999: 73), it has had, and still has a great deal to say to political science, although it is not always apparent that mainstream political science is listening. Feminism, however, is not an approach that has grown up within the confines of social science. It originated outside academia as the ideology of a critical and disruptive social movement. As such its absorption into social, let alone political science, has been partial and selective and there remains quite a gulf between feminism ‘out there’ and feminist political science. In the following discussion there is inevitably, therefore, some disjuncture between characterizations of feminism as a perspective and its implications for political analysis, on the one hand, and the actual preoccupations and achievements of feminist political science on the other.
Vicky Randall

Chapter 7. Marxism

One of the paradoxical outcomes of the collapse of the Soviet Union was the revival of Marxism. No longer were Marxists held responsible for sins of the Soviet Empire, the debate had shifted focus, to analyze less how ‘socialism’ did not work but how global capitalism is failing. Global capitalism has developed a system of production that involves sweatshops, outsourcing and temporary employment. The latest financial crisis has seen the reversal of free market principles with countries bailing out and nationalizing banks. Wars are being fought over oil with the Middle East and in Central Asia. In some large cities, mansions are protected by private security firms while slums are left with rundown public services. The environment is polluted and faces the effects of climate change. Finally, the struggle between global and indigenous cultures is resulting in loss of languages, but also opportunities for solidarity. Next time you enter your local bookshop witness the predominance of books on these issues that Marxists would interpret as stemming from global capital. Most of the writers of these books are by no means Marxists, but we can see how Marxism, in terms of the questions it poses has become ‘the common sense of our epoch’ (Halliday, 1994).
Diarmuid Maguire

Chapter 8. Normative Theory

What is the best way to live? This is the question at the heart of normative theory, a discipline with roots stretching back to ancient times and concerned with thinking about the world not only as it is but also as we might think it ought to be. Given that this question bears upon us not just as individuals but also collectively, it is one that has been the concern of political philosophers. Normative thinking typically invokes principles with respect to how we should conduct and organize ourselves; as such, it seeks to provide ‘norms’ that prescribe appropriate ways of acting individually and collectively. It has generally been held that if they are to be persuasive, norms of this kind need to be based upon an appeal to some ‘ultimate’ conceptions that are beyond question and which supply nonnegotiable standards for judgement. Historically, these ultimate appeals have taken different forms — to a natural cosmic order, to the will of God, to the essentials of human nature. In this chapter, we shall mainly be concerned with how normative theory has developed in the modern period, where answers to the question of ‘the best way to live’ have been mediated by a concern with free choice, and where, as we shall see, some have wanted to doubt that the substantive principles by which we might think we ought to live are really ultimate or objective.
Steve Buckler

Methods and Research Design


Chapter 9. A Skin Not a Sweater: Ontology and Epistemology in Political Science

A number of chapters in this book contain references to ontology and epistemology, some of them relatively lengthy (see for example, Chapters 1, 4 and 8). Perhaps more often, positions on these issues are implicit, but no less significant (see Chapters 2 and 5). Each social scientist’s orientation to his or her subject is shaped by his/her ontological and epistemological position. Even if these positions are unacknowledged, they shape the approach to theory and the methods which the social scientist uses. At first the questions raised seem difficult, but they are not issues that can be avoided. Because they shape our approach, they are like a skin not a sweater; they cannot be put on and taken off whenever the researcher sees fit. In our view, all students of political science should recognize their own ontological and epistemological positions and be able to defend them. This means they need to understand the alternative positions on these fundamental questions. As such, this chapter aims to introduce these ontological and epistemological questions in as accessible a way as possible for readers who are new to these issues.
Paul Furlong, David Marsh

Chapter 10. Meta-Theoretical Issues

This chapter deals with some of the key problems in social science. It is focused on the relationships between structure and agency, the material and the ideational and stability and change. These issues, here termed meta-theoretical issues, are clearly related for two reasons. Firstly, discussions about/positions on structure/agency and the material and the ideational are invariably invoked to explain stability and change, surely the most fundamental issue in social science. Secondly, positions on all these meta-theoretical issues are clearly related and, as I shall argue below, influenced by the particular author’s ontological and epistemological starting point. This chapter is divided into four sections: initially I take up the second point above, examining how positions on structure and agency and the material and the ideational are related; and subsequently, I deal with each of the meta-theoretical issues in turn, outlining the key positions and crucial debates in the area.
David Marsh

Chapter 11. The Challenge of Research Design

In a funny way, academic research is somewhat similar to sports such as sailing and rock-climbing — although admittedly yielding a more modest adrenaline rush. As with those sports — or, closer to home, artisanal work done by skilled craftsmen and women — the process whereby you reach your ultimate destination or produce a piece of furniture is just as important as getting there. What academic research shares with these activities is that everything depends on how principles are applied which have been learned in situations in which they have not been used yet, and how each stage in the process is something that was constructed in the mind of the sailor, climber or carpenter before it was executed. Doing research is constructing research, and research design is the toolbox that allows us to do that professionally. Constructing research, in turn, means that you construct your research question, and present your version of the debate surrounding that question. It also means that you collect and construct data and cases so that they speak to the question and debate that you identify. Finally, you should know how to distinguish between producing your research — constructing it — and reproducing it — writing up.
Bob Hancké

Chapter 12. Debating Methods: Rediscovering Qualitative Approaches

When we seek to understand or explain how and why a political institution, event, issue, or process came about, we are necessarily asking questions that can be answered through using qualitative methods. That is, research questions and answers using qualitative methods can be differentiated from quantitative or statistical methods that focus on questions of ‘how many’ to infer causality. The focus of qualitative methods in political science is on detailed, text-based answers that are often historical or include personal reflection from participants in political institutions, events, issues or processes. This is often characterized as the use of ‘thick’ description and analysis rather than broad, numerical generalizations. This chapter will show that while there has been a recent emphasis on the use of mixed methods in political science research design, there are still some essential features of qualitative methods that need to be understood. Qualitative methods tend to be used within particular sub-disciplines of political science (for example those who study political institutions rather than those who study political behaviour and use quantitative methods), by those committed to a particular approach (such as feminists), and by those coming from a non-positivist epistemological position (such as interpretivists and critical realists). As this chapter will show, however, these divides are far from straightforward and qualitative methods can be used by those with both a positivist and non-positivist epistemological position, and the difference is based on claims made about explanation, purpose and goals of research itself.
Ariadne Vromen

Chapter 13. Quantitative Methods

In spite of many valiant attempts to integrate quantitative and qualitative methods, the divide between the two remains. Many researchers still tend to use one approach, but not the other. Not only is the divide personal, it often sorts out researchers into topics of study. As a result, many academics assume that quantitative investigation only concerns elections, voting systems, party manifestoes and political attitudes rather than having a more general application. The division becomes manifest in the descriptors researchers apply to themselves and to others: quantitative researchers are known as political scientists; the rest often have the labels of students of politics, area specialists, biographers and public policy specialists. Not only do different topics, skills and networks help create the divide; it is sustained by apparently clashing conceptions of the purpose and practice of social science. Some qualitative researchers think that quantitative work is underpinned by a crude version of positivism. Instead, qualitative work describes complex realities, acknowledges that researchers cannot separate their values from the political world, engages with and seeks to understand the beliefs and aspirations of those who are being researched and rejects the idea that there are universal rules of human behaviour. In this context, a review of quantitative methods cannot just be a description of the different techniques on offer. Such an account would reinforce the idea that quantitative research is a set of techniques rather than a practice. Instead, this chapter aims to persuade sceptics of the depth and subtlety of quantitative work. For much of the debate about quantitative and qualitative research is shallow and rests on stereotypes of the research process.
Peter John

Chapter 14. The Comparative Method

The role of comparison in political science is widely misunderstood, probably because of the entrenched use of the term ‘comparative politics’ to describe research into ‘foreign’ countries (in the United States, empirical political scientists work in either ‘American politics’ or ‘comparative politics’). Apart from the obvious paradox that a US scholar working on American politics thus becomes a comparativist once she crosses the Atlantic, this definition also misleadingly restricts the domain of comparative political analysis. In fact, comparison of some form is present wherever political scientists make claims about causality, whether they are studying one country, two countries, 192 countries, or indeed cases from some other unit of analysis. This chapter will present an introductory picture of the uses of the comparative method, describe its logic and some of its techniques, assess its strengths and limitations, and discuss the problems involved in designing comparative research.
Jonathan Hopkin

Chapter 15. The Experimental Method: Prospects for Laboratory and Field Studies

In comparison with other academic disciplines, the potential for experiments as a research method has been downplayed and underestimated in political science. A former president of the American Political Science Association may have initiated this tendency when he announced in 1909 to the annual conference that ‘we are limited by the impossibility of experiment. Politics is an observational, not an experimental science’ (Lowell, 1910, cited in Druckman et al. 2006). Sixty years later, Arendt Lijphart (1971) reiterated this gloomy view in a seminal article in the American Political Science Review, commenting: ‘The experimental method is the most nearly ideal method for scientific explanation, but unfortunately it can only rarely be used in political science because of practical and ethical impediments’ (Lijphart, 1971: 684–5). Comparative methods backed by statistical inference were for Lijphart the only way that political scientists could in practice make progress.
Helen Margetts, Gerry Stoker

Chapter 16. The Relevance of Political Science

So far in Theories and Methods the focus has been on judging political science according to factors that are vital but internal to the discipline. What are the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches to political science? What are the best methods to use when studying politics? In this chapter we want to turn the focus to a more outward-looking criterion. We ask whether political science has anything of relevance to say to key concerns confronting today’s society. Can political science give answers to important real-world problems and, in particular, can it make significant analytical observations that contribute to the identification of solutions to such social problems? As an academic discipline, with a lively practice in universities for about a hundred years, what contributions does political science have to offer in addressing key political problems and issues? The rationale of this chapter is to test the discipline, not against ‘insider’ criteria about coherence and sophistication of research approach, but to ask whether political science has anything relevant to say. After millions of published words in books and articles, underwritten by major research spending, can political science tell us anything valuable about a range of the major issues confronting global society today?
Guy Peters, Jon Pierre, Gerry Stoker
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