Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
Political Science and International Relations disciplines
Mary Baldwin College
Staunton, VA USA 24401
Politics is any enduring pattern of human relationships which involves to a significant extent power, rule and authority: "Political analysis deals with power, rule or authority" (Dahl: 5).
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 concept used to identify the enduring roles, or political structures, which pattern politics in a given place. (Below, a chart from Almond 2000: 39, illustrates these in Japan). It summarizes the key relationships in the interaction of a specific political system with its surrounding environment. Note that input to the system comes both from the domestic social and economic environment and from other states in the international system.
In common English, other terms frequently are used in 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
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 desirability of political unity and independence of distinct groups of peoples; i.e.: the state = the nation = one people. Some famous political scientists, e.g. Woodrow Wilson when President of the U.S., contended that unification of single ethnicities into their own sovereign states would eliminate one of the lasting sources of conflict and war. It is true that multi-ethnicity can pose serious obstacles to the effectiveness of a state. But its opposite, ethnic purification of states, produced horrific results in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, and in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Few today espouse a strict version of Wilson's doctrine of "self determination" with quite the fervor that once had states and international organizations pursuing it a panacea for all important political problems. Nonetheless, when two or more ethnicities lacking a common heritage and perception of the future, compose the population of a territory, social peace often is illusive. See for example, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, or Israel.sovereignty: i.e., it alone manages its own affairs.
recognition by other states
The Government: The formal offices which official documents of the State designate as those which perform the political functions.
Why we study political systems comparatively. The concept of "political system" is more neutral than any of the above terms. It is a framework we can use to observe the world as we find it, and classify what we observe. In most cases, in most places, at most times, The Government has been found to perform most political functions. But, in many political systems, some political functions are performed by others who are not State officials. A good example of this sort of informal role performing some political functions (such as rule making and rule enforcing) would be the Ku Klux Klan in the rural South around 1900, or the Mafia in Southern Italy in more modern times.
To sort out what is usual from what is essential in political life, therefore, it is necessary to look at a variety of settings, both geographically and in time. We need not only to appreciate the richness of human diversity through this study. We also need to identify the common features of the human experience. Thus, we need a conceptual framework flexible enough to accommodate differences, and comprehensive enough to allow us to see patterns of similarity.
Thus has emerged the comparative study of political systems, and of political life within them; or the study of politics. Among the key sets of relationships in any political system are
- The modes of receiving input from the social system and other surrounding environments: are they regularized into a stable pattern (e.g., through an electoral process), or are they irregular and punctuated by violence (e.g., as in the form of armed rebel bands marching on the capital city, as occurred in Liberia in summer of 2003). Many actual political systems may exhibit some mix of these and other forms of input into the system. Not all input is a demand for change. Some input to the system is in the form of support for the system, e.g. by voluntarily submitting to laws and regulations without coercion as in paying taxes. Demands and supports play an important role in creating or undermining the stability of political life in any system.
- Conversion processes translate social demand and social support into decisions. Different systems evolve different structures to perform this process: legislatures, courts, executive offices and bureaucracies are some common forms. Key political decisions made within political structures involve the distribution of valuable goods: who is going to get what? Distribution of the tax burden (e.g., which citizens will pay how much?) and decisions about which problems will have resources spent addressing them, are often the most significant areas where political conflict is intense. Social forces vie to influence authorities to "convert" their demands into binding policies that are enforced. Not all demands are met; sometimes mere symbols replace more tangible responses to demand (e.g., a holiday commemorating a revered leader or cause replaces the demand for economic justice made by a champion for social change). Both symbolic and tangible responses by the political system to demands affect future social attitudes and future demand behavior.
- The final step in the input-output cycle is the policy output of the political system. The set of winners, and of losers, in the political process emerges through the enforcing of rules made and allocations determined during the conversion processes. Laws written still need to be enforced; and enforcement almost always requires spending. Again, the most significant of these determinations have direct effect on "who gets what," literally. Some social groups receive tax breaks or lax enforcement, others receive the largesse of the system directly, through spending on projects that benefit them. Still others, who were not successful in influencing the conversion process, continue to endure problems that led them to demand change, whether they are potholes in their roads, unclean air, excessive tax burdens, or substandard health care.
- Political conflict thus is related both to the political process and to the scarce environment in which competition for goods occurs. Since resources with which to address social, economic and political problems always are scarce, winners and losers in the political process inevitably emerge in all political systems. To an extent that often disturbs new students of the subject, the cast of winners and losers in most political systems only slowly changes. But social / economic reality is, to a degree altered by the political process: e.g., once a tax break is won, the industry or social group that benefits from it needs only work to influence the conversion process in such a manner as to impede the repeal of the tax break. Stopping action is always easier than initiating new policies, especially expensive ones. In this way, future social demand is affected by the outcome of the whole of the earlier political process, and the cycle begins again.
Below is a graphic illustration of the range of these political functions in the modern Russian Federation (again from Almond, 2000: 41). The points made above are reiterated below the illustration.
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.
Input is also received from outside the political and social system of the state: actors in the international system (i.e., other states, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, international corporations, drug cartels, terrorist groups, etc.).
Conversion processes vary according to the institutional structure of the state: parliamentary systems, or presidential systems, or military governments (etc.) each stipulate different structures to channel input into the system, and each follow different modes of decision making in response to input. Some systems substitute informal processes for the ostensible institutional patterns.
Output: the key forms of output from the political system are of two basic types, tangible policies and symbolic policies. These are directed toward the social and/or economic environments in which the political system exists. Outputs can alter these environments. Often outputs are referred to as domestic policy (when directed toward the social or economic environment in which the political system exists) and foreign policy (when directed toward the international environment beyond the borders of the political system).
Gabriel Almond, Comparative Politics: a developmental approach (Boston MA: Little Brown, 1966); and Robert Dahl, Modern Political Analysis fifth edition (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1991).
Robert Dahl, Modern Political Analysis fifth edition (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1991; originally published 1963).
Harold Lasswell, Politics: Who gets what, when, how (NY: Meridian, 1972; originally published 1936).
Graphics from Gabriel Almond, et. al., Comparative Politics Today: a World View seventh edition (NY: Addison, Wesley, Longman, 2000): 39, 41.
this page last edited
September 01, 2005