The Science of Political Science

Summary and evaluation of James Skillen’s ‘Is a Science of Politics Possible?’

Skillen starts with stating the popularly held notion by many North American political scientists that because human and animal behavior is a cocktail of its biological, physical and psychological traits, then it is possible to determine political behavior from pure scientific laws. He narrows down his criticism to one such scientist, John Bond, who argued that political science is bound to experience its figurehead, just like Newton is for the physics discipline (Skillen, 2009). Bond aims at a model that will not only reevaluate existing theory but also provide a mechanism through which political behavior of people can be extracted into quantifiable data.

This Criticism on Bond’s approach is legitimate because he, Bond, seems to have misunderstood the real meaning of scientific application on different disciplines. He was comparing the political science inability to employ elements of physics that were effectively incorporated in in other disciplines, citing an example of the economic models that effectively incorporated the terms elasticity and equilibrium. While it is almost possible to incorporate mathematical computations in political science, its limits are broad, the same way it is unsuitable to use telescopes in microbiology or microscopes in astronomy (Sridhar, 2015). Political science is therefore unlikely to use Newtons laws to predict the future, because its scientific orientation is different from that of many other disciplines.

Skillen then dwells into the arguments of a past American Political Science Association president, Robert Axerold, who sought to explain the relevance of political science in assisting other disciplines. Apparently, Axerold was disturbed by the expansive importation of ideas and concepts developed by other disciplines such as economics and psychology into political science, with the latter having very little to export to them in return (Skillen, 2009). The examples he gave to situations experienced by other disciplines for which political science could help are not only vague but also far-fetched, an analysis replicated by Skillen in this article. The expectance that a problem experienced in the by nurses could be solved by the science of politics is low, considering that psychology offers more rigid and concise help to calm the nursing problem.

Chapter 5 of the book edited by Angus and Robertson dwells on such reliance by political science on models and concepts developed by other disciplines, and specifically political psychology. The main protagonist and developer of the argument in the chapter, Paul Hart, struggles to develop a proposition that political psychology is fully a reserve of political science, explaining, meekly though, that political scientists developed the model long before the psychologists did. Axelrod also saw a reliance on political science on the neural level because the neurologists were finding the applicability of the concepts of fairness and justice (Skillen, 2009). While this may be true, the claim that the aspects of justice and fairness are primarily in the domain of this science elicits sharp criticism, with other disciplines such as sociology which will argue that these aspects appeal to ethics. Truly so, Parsons in Chapter for of the book argues that these are widely-held social constructs that people generally associate with, regardless of whether the politics is in play in such situations or not.

The last two arguments developed by Axelrod relate to cooperation and neuropsychology. On the former, he was specific in explaining that this cooperation is between politicians and not necessarily between loved ones, aimed at the broader success of the parties cooperating (Skillen, 2009). On neuropsychology, he developed a weak analysis of how voter choices may sometimes disgust them same voters, arguing that neuropsychology borrowed this concept from political science. He develops this rationale from findings by this discipline that to an observer, a disgusting behavior displayed by another person is compared to disgusting odors. A neutral observer to these two claims have a thin, if any, relationship with politics as a science. Ultimately, the criticism levelled against the claims by the then senior most person in the organization of political science are serious, casting doubt on the independence of the discipline and the prospects of the scholars who pursue careers affiliated with political science.

Skillen later dwells on the objectivity of studies under the political science docket. The first argument about this topic are the elements of power and to what extent they draw a political affiliation (Skillen, 2009). Power is exercised by different holders and at different power relationships, and political power, the writer asserts, is the power that has dominance over subjects in a certain community setup. This power is materially backed by the control of forces to counter those who act centrally to the prescriptions of the power holder. Political scientists argue that all forms of power have political motive, regardless of the magnitude. It only leaves one wondering what political motive is exercised in the power held by a surgeon over his patient, or the power held by the Catholic priest over a faithful in the confession box.

More developments on the approach to power and politics indicates presence of laws that controls the subjects on the activities they can undertake, which the proponents argue are motivated by political institutions (Skillen, 2009). The conveners of this model explain that politics in this case is derived from laws that are legalized, or the right to do this or that without eliciting negative consequences on either party affected.  This argument cannot claim universal application, because not all laws are enacted with the idea of adding political mileage to some individuals over others. Laws that exist in a business, family and sometimes religious setups do not portray characteristics and are just meant to install harmonious relations with no political loss or gain on the parties subject to such laws.

Political science therefore, according to Skillen, lacks a specific subject over which it can then apply the models of hard science (Skillen, 2009). The main sectors that this discipline subscribes to are power, legality of activities and the community. These three components must combine to form a political argument, and, more importantly, politics must outline a concise relationship between them to have any formidable backing (Skillen, 2009). Hard science requires accuracy in determining how functions relate so that mathematical data can be derived, computed, and analyzed d to offer accurate predictions towards future expected political behavior when certain mixes of the components are in play.

To arrive at this matrix, computer scientists must comprehensively decode each of the three factors in isolation (Hall & Taylor, 2016). To study the community, aspects such as race, linguistics, economic factors, geographic scope, health statistics and many others will clog the argument of what specifically entails a community (Skillen, 2009). The legality or laws that apply to a community are also broad and will derail most of the arguments that the proponents may want to develop. Lastly, as established, power is generic, specific and social, and cannot be quantified, causing an even bigger headache to the political scientists who may want to shift the discipline from a social science to a hard science.


Skillen is articulate in pointing out the criticism on arguments that seek to qualify political science as an independent hard science, establishing that even the proponents of these arguments realize that their explanations are weak and unsubstantiated. He sees no little dependence that other disciplines can draw from political science, and explains that some of the claims by experts in this field are more attributable other disciplines than they are to political science. He also explains the load of analysis on different fields that the scientists must engage in before they can display political science as an art. His analysis is deemed accurate and concise due to the diverse angles that it approaches each of the subjects presented, establishing that political science, if anything, should settle for the widely-accepted status of social science.






Hall, P. A., & Taylor, R. C. (2016). Political science and the three new institutionalisms. Political studies, 44(5), 936-957.

Marsh, D., & Stoker, G. (Eds.). (2010). Theory and methods in political science. Palgrave             Macmillan.

Skillen, J. W. (2009, 9 1). Is a Science of Politics Possible? Retrieved from MetaNexus:

Sridhar, S. S. (2015, 2 8). How would you define “scientifically”? Retrieved from Quora:



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