Mary Baldwin College, Staunton VA 24401
by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
Basic Definitions in Political Science
Politics is any enduring pattern of human relationships which involves to a significant extent Power, Rule and Authority, or P.R.A. (definition by Robert Dahl)
Political science is the systematic observation, description, and analysis of politics. It focuses on patterns of politics as they are made to be binding on all humans in a specific geographic place, especially as it pertains to the allocation of scarce goods and the allocation of values.
The political system is a conceptual framework used to identify the roles which perform the key political functions of exercising power, making rules, and establishing authority. It is conceived to be applicable in many contexts, from a single town, to a province of one nation-state, to the whole of a sovereign state, and even to the entire globe. Developed first by David Easton, and of continuing influence through the influential school of thought known as structural-functionalism most notably led by Stanford's Gabriel Almond, this model uses a metaphor of biology --an organism living in symbiotic relationship with its environment-- to depict how a political system works. Thus, the system model summarizes key relationships in the interaction of the political system with its environment.
Political systems interact dynamically with their surrounding environments, both domestic and foreign, as is illustrated on this linked chart. They receive input from groups and individuals in society in the form of demands and in the form of expressions of support. The political system, a subset of all roles in society, then processes these demands in various ways, according to the institutional structure of the state. Some do better than others at this. But a successful equilibrium (i.e., a peaceful, orderly political society) tends to result when the political system effectively channels social demand into regular and predictable patterns. Political scientists call these "process functions." They include responding to demands articulated by social groups, aggregating the demands of social interests into coherent sets (usually through mediating institutions such as political parties), making policies to address social problems and demands, and adjudicating disputes that arise among social forces. Policies may reward social interests which have made demands (i.e., distributive policy); may transfer valuable resources from one social groups to other social groups (re-distributive policy); and more generally may extract contributions from society to finance government (i.e., through taxation). Policies also regulate social behavior, including the modes of making demand on the political system (e.g., elections; lobbying laws; campaign finance restrictions, etc.). Implementing these various types of policies then closes the circle: the social and physical environments are altered by the policies implemented, which can give rise to new demands on the political system. Thus, the process starts anew.
In common English, other terms frequently are used to speaking of a particular political system. However, these each have narrower, specialized meanings when used in political science:
A nation: a collective identity of a people as a result of common history, expectations of a shared future, and, usually, a common language.
The State: the primary actor in world politics since 1648. All states possess the following characteristics:
sovereignty: i.e., it alone manages its own affairs. (This is a key concept in international relations; for more, follow the link).
recognition by other states
Nation-state: a modern normative concept (i.e., one that conceives what ought to be) which, since the French Revolution of 1789, has stressed the political unity and independence of peoples; i.e.: the state = the nation = one people. This concept can be divisive when two or more ethnicities compose the population of a territory.
The Government: The formal offices which official documents of the State designate as those which perform the political functions (i.e., P, R, A).
The concept of political system is more neutral than any of these terms; it is a framework we can use to observe the world as we find it, and classify what we observe.
In most cases, The Government has been found to perform most political functions, but in some cases some functions tend to be performed by others who are not State officials. Like Aristotle, we need to "walk around" and observe the world to see who is doing what, to whom, to what effect, before we presume to know how power, rule, and authority are exercised in a given place.
As depicted on the system model chart, among the key sets of relationships in any political system are modes of receiving input from the social system and other surrounding environments; the conversion processes of translating social demand and support into decisions about allocations; and policy output or the making and enforcing of rules and allocations.
Input has two main forms, demands and supports. Demonstrations, voting, lobbying, filing lawsuits, armed uprisings, public opinion, and choosing not to participate all are forms of input into the political system.
Conversion processes vary according to the institutional structure of the state: parliamentary, presidential, military government (etc.) each stipulate different modes of decision making in response to input. Some systems substitute informal processes for the ostensible institutional patterns.
The key forms of output from the political system are of two basic types, tangible policies and symbolic policies. These are directed toward the environment in which the political system exists and alter it; and often are referred to as domestic policy (when directed toward the social system in which the political system exists) and foreign policy (when directed toward the environment beyond the political system).
A further illustration of how political structures of a state operate within the system model of politics, one of the structures of Japan, may prove helpful in visualizing these basic concepts.
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