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About this book

A broad-ranging and pluralistic textbook which highlights the rich variety of approaches to studying politics. Written by an international team of experts, this fully revised fourth edition offers cutting-edge coverage from fundamental to contemporary issues. Integrating guides to further reading and clear examples of how research methods can be applied, it enables readers to feel confident about taking their study of politics forward.

An ideal foundation for study and research in political science, this textbook will be essential to students at any stage of their degree. It serves as core reading on undergraduate and postgraduate political analysis, theory and method courses. In addition, in demonstrating how independent research is undertaken in political science, the book allows students and early career researchers to begin thinking about formulating their own research agendas.

Table of Contents

Theory and Approaches


Chapter 1. Introduction

This book introduces the theories and methods that political scientists use, which tells us a great deal about the nature of political science. To us, political science is best defined in terms of what political scientists do. Of course, there are thousands of political scientists around the world and we have tried to capture and clarify the variety of ways they seek to understand, explore and analyse the complex processes of politics in the modern era. We are interested in how they differ in their approach, but also in what they share. Our book identifies nine approaches used by political scientists and then explores some of the specific research methods, which are used in different combinations by scholars from these different approaches. All disciplines tend to be chaotic, to some extent, in their development (Abbott, 2001) and political science is certainly no exception. However, we would argue that the variety of approaches and debates explored in this book are a reflection of its richness and growing maturity. When trying to understand something as complex, contingent and chaotic as politics, it is not surprising that academics have developed a great variety of approaches. For those studying the discipline for the first time, it may be disconcerting that there is no agreed approach or method of study. Indeed, as we shall see, there is not even agreement about the nature of politics itself. But, we argue that political scientists should celebrate diversity, rather than see it as a problem.
Vivien Lowndes, David Marsh, Gerry Stoker

Chapter 2. 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 (1) observable behaviour, whether it is at the level of the individual or the social aggregate, should be the focus of analysis; and (2) 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. Scholars working in the behavioural tradition have investigated a wide range of substantive problems. Behaviouralists have extensively analysed the reasons that underlie the main form of mass political participation in democratic countries: voting (for example, Heath et al., 1994; Clarke et al., 2009). They have also examined the origins of participation in other, more unconventional, forms of political activity such as demonstrations, strikes and even riots (for example, Barnes and Kaase, 1979; Parry et al., 1992; Anderson and Mendes, 2006).
Vivien Lowndes, David Sanders

Chapter 3. Rational Choice

The rational choice approach to the study of politics involves the application of the methods of economics to the study of politics. We say more about this in the following section, but two key assumptions which are of absolutely central importance to rational choice can be immediately highlighted: rationality and self-interest. No matter what aspect of politics they are looking at and no matter whose behaviour they are seeking to account for, rational choice theorists, with some exceptions discussed below, start by assuming that people can be relied upon to act in ways which best secure their goals and that these goals reflect their self-interest. The plausibility of these assumptions can be challenged. But their utility cannot be doubted because if people are rational and self-interested it is possible to construct simple but potentially powerful explanations about political events. Rational choice theorists often assemble dizzyingly complex models of political behaviour replete with equations and mathematical appendices. But the explanatory work being done by the assumptions of self-interest and rationality is nevertheless easy to grasp. Why did government ministers cut taxes shortly before an election? The rational choice theorist will be at one with the cynical voter in suggesting that the government cut taxes in order to boost its own chances of re-election and did so in the belief that voters reward governments who can deliver the appearance of prosperity.
Vivien Lowndes, Andrew Hindmoor, Brad Taylor

Chapter 4. Institutionalism

Until the 1950s the dominance of the institutional approach within political science was such that its assumptions and practices were rarely specified, let alone subject to sustained critique. Methodological and theoretical premises were left unexamined behind a veil of academic ‘common sense’. Outside of political theory, the core activity within political science was the description of constitutions, legal systems and government structures, and their comparison over time and across countries. Institutionalism was political science. But this traditional form of institutionalism found itself under attack from a range of quarters. Rather than taking the functions of political institutions at face value, behaviouralists sought to explain how and why individuals acted as they did in ‘real life’ (see Chapter 2). The behavioural revolutionaries, as Goodin and Klingemann (1996: 11) argue, ‘were devoted to dismissing the formalisms of politics – institutions, organizational charts, constitutional myths and legal fictions’. A generation later, rational choice theorists sought to explain politics in terms of the interplay of individuals’ self-interest (see Chapter 3). From another direction, neo-Marxist accounts focused upon the role of ‘systemic power’ (deriving from capital/labour relations) in structuring political action and the organisation of government (see Chapter 7). ‘Modern’ political scientists of all colours seemed intent upon debunking the institutionalist certainties of their forebears. The clear message was that there was much, much more to politics than the formal arrangements for representation, decision-making and policy implementation.
Vivien Lowndes

Chapter 5. Constructivism and Interpretive Theory

A constructivist argument claims that people do one thing and not another due to 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 meanings that groups of people develop to interpret and organise their identities, relationships and environment. Non-constructivist scholarship, by contrast, like that surveyed in Chapters 2 (behaviouralism), 3 (rational choice) and 7 (Marxism), suggests that our interpretive filters do not greatly affect action. Instead we inhabit a ‘real’ landscape of features like geography, resources and relative power, to which we respond fairly directly. Some institutionalists (Chapter 4) also make non-constructivist arguments. Even though organisations and rules are obviously ‘social constructs’ as well – institutions are created by people – many institutionalists treat organisations and rules as fairly clear, ‘real’ objective obstacle courses to which we respond directly. An argument is only constructivist to the extent that it argues that subjective interpretation of some sort affects what people do. At a more meta-theoretical level, constructivism has a contested relationship to other approaches. Many constructivists espouse an interpretive epistemology, as discussed in Chapter 11. If our world is socially constructed, they reason, there is little ‘real world’ for political scientists to study.
Vivien Lowndes, Craig Parsons

Chapter 6. Feminist and Gendered Approaches

Taking women and gender seriously fundamentally transforms how we understand and approach the study of politics. Feminist approaches are both corrective – in that they have sought to rectify the gendered ‘blinkers and biases’ of mainstream political science – and transformative – in that they aim not only to expose gender power inequalities, but also to change them (Lovenduski, 1998; Hawkesworth, 2005). In this chapter, we evaluate the implications of a feminist perspective for political analysis, focusing in particular on empirically based political science, rather than the prescriptive or normative side of the discipline (see Randall, 2010 and Disch and Hawkesworth, 2016). We begin with a brief overview of feminism, before moving on to assess what it means to argue that political science is a historically ‘gendered’ discipline. We then evaluate two main trends in feminist approaches to political analysis: first, foundational and ongoing work on ‘women in politics’; and, second, the growing body of work on ‘gender and politics’, which has raised crucial questions about the gendered nature of political institutions and power dynamics. We conclude by discussing some of the dilemmas and challenges that remain in the field, evaluating the overall impact of feminism on political science, and looking towards the future.
Vivien Lowndes, Meryl Kenny, Fiona Mackay

Chapter 7. Marxism: A Global Perspective

A chapter on Marxism may seem odd in a book on contemporary politics. The former Communist world has collapsed and, some would argue, good riddance to a body of thought which provided an apology for the existence of highly repressive governments. This point might be applied to other political ideologies, not least in terms of the West’s treatment of the colonial world, and ignores the important Marxist critiques of, and opposition to, these regimes. More important, Marxist analyses of capitalism remain relevant, as they highlight the exploitation and hierarchy that exists within global capitalism, the focus of this chapter. The chapter aims: (1) to show the utility of some of Marx’s analysis of the expansion of capitalism for understanding contemporary globalisation, with particular reference to political economy; and (2) to assess the contemporary political economy of globalisation, with particular attention paid to the question of whether the world is becoming ‘flatter’ and therefore converging, or actually becoming more uneven and therefore diverging. The two questions will be linked because it will be suggested that Marx and the Marxist tradition contains arguments supportive of both positions, and this is linked to how Marx understood both capitalism and its expansion beyond national borders. The chapter will outline its contentions in three main sections. First, it will introduce the reader to Marx’s arguments concerning capitalism and show how Marx saw it as both exploitative and progressive. The second section’s focus is on ‘globalisation’ and how Marx and later Marxists attempted to understand the expansion of capitalism beyond its ‘heartlands’ in Europe.
Vivien Lowndes, Ray Kiely

Chapter 8. Poststructuralism

The term ‘poststructuralism’ refers to movements in French theory that emerged from the late 1960s. This was a time of political instability in France, which culminated in ‘May 68’, when radical student groups took over the campuses, workers shut down factories and for a while these militant ‘assemblages’ occupied significant parts of Paris. These events almost toppled the De Gaulle government, and in retrospect they can be seen as the focal point of the widespread social changes of the late 1960s, associated with youth countercultural movements, the politicisation of sexuality, the rise of second-wave feminism and of the ‘new social movements’. The key figures associated with ‘poststructuralism’ came of age during these times, and emphases on contingency and unpredictability, as well as on a diversity that extends beyond class-based politics, have become abiding themes in poststructuralist theory, as they have likewise become key characteristics of our increasingly post-industrial societies. However, beyond this initial characterisation, ‘poststructuralism’ is difficult to define. Like perhaps all significant movements in social and political theory, poststructuralism is identified with a number of prodigious thinkers. The advent of poststructuralism is associated with those who would become major figures in the Parisian academy, such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva and more tangentially Gilles Deleuze (for some of their most influential works, see Foucault, 2007, 2008, 1991; Derrida, 1976, 1978; Kristeva, 1986; Deleuze, 1983, 1994).
Vivien Lowndes, Mark Wenman

Chapter 9. Political Psychology

Spanning systematic research, teaching and public outreach for the best part of a century, the interdisciplinary subfield of political psychology has become a firmly footed part of political science. Political psychologists have contributed significantly to our understanding of political elites, dissecting their personalities, political stances, policy choices, crisis responses, and the connections between their private and public lives. They have also provided new insights into the sources of political behaviour of ordinary citizens, in countless studies of mass political beliefs, attitudes, socialisation, and participation, as well as into political conflict and cooperation within and between members of different social groups. Political psychologists also examine the nexus between elite and mass political behaviour: leader–follower relations; political rhetoric, persuasion and communication; collective mobilisation; and political representation and legitimacy. The fruits of many decades of research have been laid down in specialised journals (most notably Political Psychology, which by 2016 had become a top journal at ISI 8/120 in Political Science and 12/62 in Social Psychology), a series of major handbooks (Sears et al., 2013), anthologies (Lavine, 2010), and textbooks (Jost and Sidanius, 2004; Houghton, 2009; Cottam et al., 2015.).
Vivien Lowndes, Frank Mols, Paul’t Hart

Chapter 10. Normative Political Theory

Citizens, and politicians, frequently argue about how resources should be distributed within society, how political power should be allocated, what the rights and duties of citizens are, and much else besides. When we argue in this way we make use of normative concepts such as justice, equality, freedom, rights, democracy and authority. They are ‘normative’ in the sense that they seek to specify what we ought to do, rather than simply describing how political life works. Such concepts are in a very real sense the fundamental building -blocks of political debate, and the precise meaning we attribute to them can turn out to be enormously consequential. While most of us profess to believe in community, and social justice, and equality of opportunity, say, this superficial agreement masks considerable disagreement about how best to understand those concepts, and this dissensus is inevitably reflected in further disagreement about their political implications. As a result, you may well find yourself voting for a politician who claims to believe in social justice and equality of opportunity only to discover that his understanding of what those words mean is entirely different to yours. If so, you might throw up your hands and announce that the meaning of these concepts is simply a matter of opinion, that they can be made to mean whatever we want them to mean, and that you are not going to listen to politicians any longer. While the conclusion about politicians might be understandable, the conclusion about the meaning of the concepts themselves would be resisted by many political theorists. For many of them are united in the belief that, just as progress is possible in science or (on a good day) in economics, so too might we make progress in sorting good normative arguments from bad, in revealing the inconsistencies and weak points of political arguments, and in building better and more coherent political theories.
Vivien Lowndes, Chris Armstrong

Methods and Research Design


Chapter 11. A Skin Not a Sweater: Ontology and Epistemology in Political Science

Several chapters in this book contain references to ontology and epistemology, some of them relatively lengthy. Perhaps more often, positions on these issues are implicit, but no less significant. Each social scientist’s orientation to his/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 may 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 recognise 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 and be able explain why they have chosen certain positions and methods over others. This chapter aims to introduce these ontological and epistemological questions in a comparative and accessible way for readers who are new to these issues. The chapter is divided into three major sections. In the first section, we introduce the concepts of ‘ontology’ and ‘epistemology’ and consider why they matter in social science research and how they relate to each other. The second section then outlines different positions on ontology and epistemology and presents the arguments, which have been put forward for, and against, these positions.
David Marsh, SelenA Ercan, Paul Furlong

Chapter 12. The Meta-Theoretical issues

If we think about why Donald Trump was elected, or why the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016, we inevitably evoke the relationship between structure and agency. How important were structural factors in these votes? For example, how far were votes for Trump and Brexit shaped by structural factors such as class, gender and age? In contrast, what effect did the personal attributes and actions of Donald Trump, or in the UK Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage, have on these votes? At the same time, these voting patterns also focus attention on the role of material and ideational factors. For example, how far did voting patterns reflect the fact that some areas of both the USA and the UK are hardly integrated into the increasingly globalised world economy, and thus voted against the political elite? In contrast again, how important was the role of ideas, about, for example, sovereignty/nationalism or immigration. These, here termed meta-theoretical issues, are two of the crucial issues in Social Science, and they are clearly related. In addition, positions on structure/agency and the material and the ideational are invariably invoked to explain stability and change, another meta-theoretical issue, and surely the most fundamental one in Social Science. So, for example, if we ask questions about the likely future of democracy, we might consider the possible effect of growing inequalities, the increased importance of religious or nationalist views and/or the role of individual political leaders. At the same time, it is important to recognise that an author’s position on these meta-theoretical issues is influenced by her ontological and epistemological starting point.
David Marsh

Chapter 13. Research Design

Research design is about getting valid answers to research questions in a reliable and efficient way. It is about maximising the validity and scope of application (generalisability) of scientific inferences, given the goals of the researcher and the practical and ethical constraints. From one perspective, research design can be considered applied epistemology as it deals with the big question ‘How do we know?’ at a more operational level than philosophy. From another perspective, it is a branch of the decision sciences as it is about making optimal choices under constraints. Research design choices are made at three levels of generality (see Figure 13.1). At the first, most general, level research design is about the adoption of certain general ontological and epistemological positions and a broad theoretical outlook. For example, it is about whether one approaches the problem of political inequity from an interpretivist or positivist, Marxist or feminist vantage point. The ontological, epistemological and theoretical vantage points also direct the researcher’s attention towards some research questions at the expense of others. Consider that gender-based political inequality is a much more central problem for feminist theory than it is for classic Marxism, for instance.
David Marsh, Dimiter Toshkov

Chapter 14. Qualitative Methods

When we seek to understand or explain how and why a political institution, event, issue or process came about, we are asking questions that can be answered using qualitative methods. The focus of qualitative methods in political science is on detailed, text-based answers that are often historical and/or include personal observations and reflection from participants in political institutions, events, issues or processes. This is often characterised as the use of ‘thick’ description and analysis. This chapter shows 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, by researchers 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). Yet these divides are far from straightforward and qualitative methods are also used by those with both a positivist and a non-positivist epistemological position, and differences are based on claims made about explanation and the purpose and goals of research itself.
David Marsh, Ariadne Vromen

Chapter 15. Quantitative Methods

The divide between quantitative and qualitative methods remains as wide as ever. 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 manifestos 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 and public policy scholars. 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 critics believe that quantitative work is underpinned by a crude version of positivism while 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 laws of human behaviour.
David Marsh, Peter John

Chapter 16. The Comparative Method

Plenty of political scientists will say that one of the ways – or perhaps the way they study politics is by using the comparative method. You may hear some distinguish their work by saying that that they are ‘comparativists’, or that they work in the subfield of ‘comparative politics’. What do they mean? There is no such thing as a research method that is not comparative. As Swanson nicely puts it ‘thinking without comparison is unthinkable’ (cited in Ragin, 1987: 1). Every thought or action we come across is understood with reference to previously acquired information, thoughts and experiences. Why then do political scientists talk about a distinctive comparative method? This chapter answers that question by first explaining the historical development of comparison in the study of politics. I then present ‘Mill’s methods’ and update them by drawing a lineage to current developments in case-based/set-theoretic methods, providing examples along the way. The chapter focuses on important debates about how cases are chosen for comparison and discusses critiques of comparativists’ research strategies. I discuss how recent evolutions in methods and approaches in the discipline pose difficulties for proponents of a distinctly valuable comparative method. I argue, nevertheless, that the strategic expertise of a good comparativist is witnessed in their sensitivity to the implications of trade-offs among different sampling strategies for explaining and predicting politics.
David Marsh, Matt Ryan

Chapter 17. The Experimental Method

Experimentation has rapidly become a popular method of choice for today’s political scientists (Druckman et al., 2006: 627). For years, researchers underplayed the possibility of experiments, following Lijpart’s gloomy assertion in 1971 in the American Political Science Review that: ‘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: 684–685). Since then, political scientists have been overcoming these impediments in droves, in the laboratory and the field and in newer online settings. This chapter is devoted to their work and the contribution it can make, as well as a careful analysis of the pitfalls and problems of the experimental method. Our conclusion is that political scientists need to get used to the idea that experimental evidence is increasingly mainstream in theory testing and the enhancement of understanding of how politics works. Just as it becomes essential, experimentation has also become more affordable, with web-based experiments and some natural experiments revealed in large-scale data, with the only cost that of analysis. As experimentation becomes part of the growing toolkit of ‘social data science’ political scientists will need to develop new expertise to take advantage of these opportunities.
Gerry Stoker, Helen Margetts

Chapter 18. Big Data: Methods for Collection and Analysis

Today there is a dual revolution going on in the social sciences. First, more and more daily life leaves behind digital traces which are archived in various databases creating new data resources for social scientists to study social and political life. Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt once claimed that we produce as much information in two days as we had in all of human history up through 2003 (Siegler, 2010). Whatever the veracity of the claim, the accelerating rate of information production and its utilisation in all aspects of political and social life is undeniable (Crozier, 2010, 2012; Ekbia et al., 2015). Second, innovations in computational tools are increasingly making these data accessible to academic researchers through the creation of various libraries and packages which extend popular data analysis platforms, such as NVivo, and programming languages, such as Python and R, to facilitate the collection and analysis of these data. ‘Big data’ is a popularised term that has come to refer to the collection and analysis of digital traces. Similar terms to characterise these methods include ‘computational social science’ (Bankes et al., 2002; Conte et al., 2012; Alvarez, 2016), ‘data science’ (Loukides, 2011; Baesens, 2014; Grus, 2015) and ‘digital methods’ (Rogers, 2009). These methods are being used by political scientists (King et al., 2013; Barberá, 2015; Freelon et al., 2015; Jensen, 2016; Jungherr, 2015), sociologists (Ackland, 2013), communication researchers (Lewis, 2015; González-Bailón and Wang, 2016) and literary scholars (Ramsay, 2011; Jockers, 2013).
Gerry Stoker, Mike Jensen

Chapter 19. The Relevance of Political Science

In this chapter, we analyse the debate about relevance in political science. We think the debate has moved on quite a lot since we raised the issue in the third edition of Theories and Methods in 2010. Together with colleagues (Stoker et al., 2015) we published a book on the subject in 2015 which noted that while political science has constructed for itself a way of working often that appears to give little or no credence to the demands of relevance there was a sense of awakening to the issue that could be identified. We could find no ‘in principle’ objections to relevance that could plausibly be argued. Political science is engaged with the wider world whether its wants to be or not. It would be odd indeed if there was no connection between the agenda of political science and the concerns raised in ‘real’-world politics. But that is the extent of the consensus. Some in political science are, reasonably enough, concerned about too narrow a focus on relevance as doing the bidding of policymakers. That is not the only type of relevance we advocating; instead we want to celebrate the diverse ways in which political science is tackling the issue. Our starting point – which we think is very widely shared – is that political science should be asking questions to which others, outside the profession, might want to know the answers. But, when getting to the detail of how relevance might be defined and delivered, some significant differences of opinion begin to emerge. The bulk of this chapter explores these emerging differences on relevance.
Gerry Stoker, B.Guy Peters, Jon Pierre
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