Political Theory is the branch and basis of Political Science, which encompasses Political matters that focus on and organize inquiry to describe, explain, and predict political events, phenomena, and behaviors.

As the branch of political science, political theory tried to organize generalizations and concluded from the data gathered by various specialists in this field. It is not limited to political science but throughout the whole range of human experience and knowledge.

Political theory throughout history has dealt with the very fundamental and perennial ideas of Political Science. That’s why we need political theory to understand every political phenomenon of the country concerning political science.

Political theory reflects its shadow upon the political phenomenon, processes, and institutions and on actual political behavior by subjecting it to philosophical or ethical criteria.

Most dominant political theories realize all three goals: describe, explain, and predict. The theories result from the thoughts and research of many political science scholars, thinkers, and exponents. Numerous thinkers on the subject formulate definitions of various political concepts and establish theories (D. K. Sarmah, 2007).

To Germino, ‘Political theory is the most appropriate term to employ in designating that intellectual tradition which affirms the possibility of transcending the sphere of immediate practical concerns and viewing man’s societal existence from a critical perspective.’

Sabine described, “Political theory is, quite simply, man’s attempts to consciously understand and solve the problems of his group life and organization. It is the disciplined and detailed investigation of political problems not only to show what a political practice is, but also to show what it means. In showing what practice means, or what it ought to mean, political theory can alter what it is.”

Nature of Political Theory

David Held says, “Political theory is a network of concepts and generalizations about political life involving ideas, assumptions and statements about the nature, purpose and key features of government, state and society, and about the political capabilities/potential of human beings.”

WC Coker detailed political theory as “When the political government and its forms and activities are studied not simply as facts to be described and compared and judged in reference to their immediate and temporary effects, but as facts to be understood and appraised concerning the constant needs, desires and opinions of men, then we have a political theory.”

Andrew Hacker described that “Political Theory is a combination of a disinterested search for the principles of good state and good society on the one hand, and a disinterested search for knowledge of political and social reality on the other hand.”

George Catlin said that “Political theory includes political science and political philosophy. While science refers to the phenomenon of control in many forms over all the processes of the whole social field. It is concerned with the end or final value, when a man asks, what the national good is” or “What is good society.”

John Plamentaz delineated political theory in its functional terms and said that “The function of political theory has come to be restricted to the analysis and clarification of the vocabulary of politics and the critical examination, verification, and justification of the concepts employed in political argument.”

Another theorist, Norman Barry, defined that “Political theory is an electric subject which draws upon a variety of disciplines. There is no body of knowledge or method of analysis which can be classified as belonging exclusively to political theory.”

Approaches to Political Theory

Certain procedures must be followed in the study of political science and the search for political truth. These procedures are defined as approaches, methods, techniques, and strategies. Approaches to studying political science are grouped as traditional and modern approaches (D. K. Sarmah, 2007).

Traditional Approaches

Traditional approaches are value-based. These approaches emphasize values more than facts. Advocates of these approaches believe that the study of political science cannot and should not be purely scientific. They stated that such facts and values are closely related to social science. In politics, the emphasis should not be on the facts but on the moral quality of the political event. There are many traditional approaches, such as philosophical, institutional, legal, and historical approaches (D. K. Sarmah, 2007).

Characteristics of Traditional Approaches

  • Traditional approaches are largely normative and stress the values of politics.
  • Emphasis is on the study of different political structures.
  • Traditional approaches made very little attempt to relate theory and research.

These approaches believe that studies in political science can never be scientific since facts and values are closely interlinked.

Types Of Traditional Approaches:

Philosophical Approach 

This approach is considered the oldest approach in the arena of Political Science. The development of approaches can be traced back to the times of prominent Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.

Leo Strauss was considered one of the main supporters of the philosophical approach. He considered that “philosophy is the quest for wisdom and political philosophy. It is an attempt to truly know about the nature of political things and the right or good political order.”

Vernon Van Dyke observed that philosophical analysis is an effort to clarify thinking about the nature of the subject and about the ends and means of studying it. This approach aims to evolve the standard of right and wrong for critical evaluation of existing institutions, laws, and policies (Gauba, 2009).

This approach is deeply based on the theoretical principle that values cannot be separated from the study of politics. Therefore, its central concern is to judge what is good or bad in any political society. It is mainly an ethical and normative study of politics, and thus, it is idealistic. It addresses the problems of the nature and functions of the state, citizenship, rights, duties, etc.

The supporters of this approach consider that political philosophy is strongly associated with political beliefs. Therefore, they believe a political scientist must know a good life and society. Political philosophy supports establishing a good political order (Gauba, 2009).

Historical Approach

Theorists who developed this political approach focused on historical factors like the age, place, and the situation in which it evolved are taken into consideration. This approach is related to history and emphasizes the study of the history of every political reality to analyze any situation.

Political thinkers like Machiavelli, Sabine, and Dunning considered that politics and history are closely related, and the study of politics should always have a historical standpoint.

Sabine strongly stated that Political Science should include all those subjects discussed in the writings of different political thinkers from the time of Plato. This approach strongly maintains the belief that their surrounding environment forms every political thinker’s thinking or dogma.

Furthermore, history provides details of the past as well as it also links it with present events. History gives the chronological order of every political event and thereby helps in the future estimation of events.

Therefore, it would be erroneous to analyze the present political events without studying past political events, institutions, and environments. But critics of the historical approach designated that it is impossible to understand the ideas of the past ages in terms of contemporary ideas and concepts.

Institutional Approach

This is a traditional and significant approach to studying Political Science. This approach primarily deals with the formal features and structure of the government, and politics accentuates the study of political institutions and structures.

Therefore, the institutional approach studies formal structures like the legislature, executive, judiciary, political parties, and interest groups.

The supporters of this approach include both ancient and modern political philosophers. Among the ancient thinkers, Aristotle had a significant role in shaping this approach, while modern thinkers, including James Bryce, Bentley, Walter Bagehot, and Harold Laski, contributed to developing this approach.

Legal Approach

This approach considers that the state is the fundamental organization for forming and enforcing laws. Therefore, this approach is concerned with the legal process, legal bodies or institutions, justice, and independence of the judiciary.

The supporters of the legal approach are Cicero, Jean Bodin, Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham, John Austin, Dicey, and Sir Henry Maine.

The various kinds of traditional approaches to studying Political Science have been disapproved for being normative. These approaches were moral, and their concern went beyond how and why political events happen and what ought to happen. In the later period, modern approaches attempted to make the study of Political Science more scientific and, therefore, emphasize pragmatism.

Modern Approaches

After long studying politics with the help of traditional approaches, the political thinkers of the later stage felt the necessity to study politics from a new perspective which is widely known as Modern Approaches. Therefore, to minimize the deficiencies and limitations of the traditional approaches, new political thinkers have advocated various new approaches. These new approaches are known as the “modern approaches” to studying Political Science.

Modern approaches are fact-based approaches. They emphasize the factual study of political events and try to arrive at a scientific and definite conclusion. Modern approaches aim to replace normativism with empiricism. Thus, modern approaches are marked by empirical investigation of relevant data.

Characteristics of Modern Approaches

  • These approaches try to conclude empirical data.
  • These approaches go beyond the study of political structures and their historical analysis.
  • Modern Approaches believe in interdisciplinary study.
  • These emphasize scientific study methods and attempt to draw scientific conclusions in Political Science.
  • Modern approaches include the sociological, psychological, economic, quantitative, simulation, system, behavioral, and Marxian approaches (D. K. Sarmah, 2007).

Behavioral Approach

Among the modern empirical approach, the behavioral approach to studying political science grabbed a notable place. Most eminent scholars of this approach are David Etson, Robert A. Dahl, E. M. Kirkpatrick, and Heinz Eulau.

The behavioral approach is a political theory that results from increasing attention given to the behavior of an ordinary man.

Kirkpatrick stated that traditional approaches accepted institutions as the basic unit of research, but behavioral approaches consider the behavior of individuals in the political situation as the basis (K. Sarmah, 2007).

Salient Features of Behaviourism

David Easton has pointed out certain features of behaviouralism that are considered its intellectual foundations. These are:


This approach believes that certain uniformities in political behavior can be expressed in generalizations or theories to explain and predict political phenomena. In a specific scenario, people’s political behavior could also be a lot or less similar. Such regularities of behavior could facilitate the research workers to research a political scenario and predict the long-run political phenomena. The study of such regularities makes Political Science more scientific with some predictive value.


Behaviouralists do not want to accept everything for granted. Therefore, they emphasize the testing and verifying everything. According to them, what can not be verified isn’t scientific.


Behaviouralists emphasize using research tools and methods that generate valid, reliable, and comparative data. Researchers should use subtle tools like sample surveys, mathematical models, simulations, etc.


After aggregating data, the researcher should measure and quantify those data or information.


Behaviouralists have put heavy emphasis on the separation of facts from values. They believe that one needs to be value-free to do objective research or analysis. It means that the researcher should not have preconceived notions of a biased view.


According to behaviouralists, research in political science should be systematic. Theory and research should go together.

Pure Science: 

Another characteristic of behaviouralism has been its aim to form political science as a “pure science.” It believes that the study of political science ought to be verified by proof or evidence.


Behaviouralists thought Political Science should not be separated from other social sciences like sociology, economics, etc. This approach believes that various other social factors shape political events, and therefore, it would be wrong to separate Political Science from other disciplines.

Theorists recognize that with the development of behaviouralism, new thinking and technique of study evolved in the field of Political Science.

The benefits of the Behavioral Approach are as follows:

  • This approach makes Political Science more scientific and brings it closer to the day-to-day activities of the individuals.
  • Behaviouralism has first explained human behavior in Political Science and thus makes the study more relevant to society.
  • This approach helps in predicting future political events and phenomena.
  • Different political thinkers have supported the behavioral approach as it is a scientific approach and the predictable nature of political events.

Despite its merits, the Behavioural approach has also been criticized for its fascination for scientism. The main criticisms leveled against this approach are mentioned below:

This has been disparaged for its dependence on practices and methods ignoring the subject matter.

The supporters of this approach were wrong when they said that human beings behave in similar ways in similar situations or circumstances.

This approach focuses on human behavior, but it is a difficult task to study human behavior and get a definite result.

Most of the political phenomena are indeterminate. Therefore, the use of scientific methods in the study of Political science has always been difficult.

Furthermore, Behaviouralist believes human being scholars of political science will not always remain value-neutral

Post Behavioral Approach

In the mid-1960s, behaviorism gained a dominant position in political science methodology. Relevance and action were the main slogans of post-behaviorism. In modern social science, the behaviorism approach has shown increasing concern with problem-solving to the prevailing problems of society. In this way, it largely absorbed the post-behavioral orientation within its scope (Gauba, 2009).

The political system operates within an environment. The environment creates demands from different parts of society, such as demand for reservation in the matter of employment for certain groups, better working conditions or wages, better transportation facilities, and better health facilities. Different demands have different levels of support. Easton stated that ‘demands’ and ‘supports’ establish ‘inputs.’

The political system receives these inputs from the environment. After considering various factors, the government decides to take action on some of these demands while others are not acted upon. Through the conversion process, the inputs are converted into ‘outputs’ by the decision-makers in the form of policies, decisions, rules, regulations, and laws. The ‘outputs’ flow back into the environment through a ‘feedback’ mechanism, always gives rise to fresh’ demands.’ Consequently, it is a cyclical process.

Structural Functional Approach

According to this approach, society is considered as a single interrelated system where each part of the system has a certain and dissimilar role. The structural-functional approach may be believed as an outgrowth of the system analysis. These approaches accentuate the structures and functions.

Gabriel Almond is a follower of this approach. He explained political systems as special interaction systems that exist in all societies that perform certain functions. His theory revealed that the main characteristics of a political system are comprehensiveness, interdependence, and the existence of boundaries.

Like Easton, Almond also considered that all political systems perform the same input and output functions. The Input functions of the political systems are political socialization and recruitment, interest-articulation, interest-aggression, and political communication.

Almond made three-fold classifications of governmental output functions relating to policymaking and implementation. These output functions are rulemaking, rule application, and rule adjudication. Thus, Almond affirmed that a stable and efficient political system converts inputs into outputs.

Communication Theory Approach

This communication Approach explores how one segment of a system affects another by sending messages or information.

This process is known as communication between the system of government.

Robert Weiner had evolved this approach. Afterward, Karl Deutsch developed it and applied it to Political Science.

Deutsch stated that the political system is a network of communication channels that is self-regulative. Additionally, he emphasized that the government is responsible for administering different communication channels.

This approach sought the government as the decision-making system. Deutsch explained four factors of analysis in communication theory: lead, lag, gain, and load.

Decision-Making Approach

This political approach discovers decision-makers features and the type of influence the individuals have on the decision-makers.

Some scholars, such as Richard Synder and Charles Lindblom, have developed this approach. A few actors’ political decisions influence a larger society, and a specific situation generally shapes such decisions. Therefore, it also considers the psychological and social aspects of decision-makers.

Several approaches to political science have been advocated from time to time. These are broadly divided into two categories: the empirical-analytical or the scientific-behavioral approach and the legal-historical or the normative-philosophical approach.

Empirical Theory

In Simple form, the empirical political theory explains ‘what is through observation. In this approach, scholars and researchers seek to generate a hypothesis, a proposed explanation for some phenomena that can be tested empirically. After formulating a hypothesis, a study will be designed to test the hypothesis.

Normative Theory

Normative political theory is related to the concepts such as justiceequality, and rights. The historical political theory involves political philosophers from the past (e.g., Thucydides and Plato) to the present (e.g., Wendy Brown and Seyla Benhabib) and may focus on how particular philosophers engaged political problems that continue to be relevant today. While the main focus has traditionally been on Western traditions, that is beginning to change in this field.

The empirical approach seeks to discover and describe facts, whereas the normative approach seeks to determine and prescribe value (Gauba, 2009).

Empirical and Normative Approaches

It is demonstrated in theoretical literature that the traditional empirical approach to studying political science is what makes it a “positive” science. 

The study of what is, as opposed to what ought to be, lends certain respectability to political science that is not attached to opinion writing or political theorists. While Plato and Aristotle sought to recognize the characteristics of a good polity, most modern political scientists seek to identify the characteristics of polities, their causes, and their effects, leaving aside moral judgments concerning their goodness or badness.

To summarize, Political Theory is a separate and distinct area within the discipline of political science. 

Political theory is a simple outline of what the political order is about. 

It is a symbolic representation of the word ‘political.’ It is a formal, logical, and systematic analysis of the processes and consequences of political activity. 

It is analytical, expository, and descriptive. It seeks to give order, regulations, coherence, and meaning to what is described as ‘political.’ Political theorists concentrate more on theoretical claims instead of empirical claims about the nature of politics.

Different approaches explain the political system, which includes modern and traditional approaches. In the behavior approach, the scientific method is emphasized because the behaviors of several actors in the political situation are capable of scientific study.

A normative approach is linked to a philosophical method because norms and values can be determined philosophically. Another classification of the political approach is an empirical analysis of political events.

Reference – https://www.civilserviceindia.com/subject/Political-Science/notes/political-theory-meaning-and-approaches.html

Categorized in: