Why is it political ‘science’?

It sometimes comes as a surprise to some that study of politics is a social ‘science.’ The terminology is indeed misleading, as the word ‘science’ usually conjures up an image of white lab coat and test tubes with some complex liquid in it, or indeed blackboard full of equations and calculations. However, there is a reason why the subject is called ‘political science’ and not simply ‘politics’ or ‘political studies.’ Political science is a branch of a broader discipline called ‘social science.’ Now the obvious question is:

What is Social Science?

Social science uses scientific methods to model and analyse the real society, and thereby explain human behaviours in certain situations. The fundamental aim of social science is not simply to observe a social phenomenon but to generate new knowledge based on quantitative and qualitative data.society .jpg

“The fundamental aim of social science is not simply to observe a social phenomenon but to generate new knowledge”

Quantitative design is the kind of method you are probably the most familiar with; it uses quantifiable variables (such as age) through statistical research and analysis to support the validity of a theory. It’s kind of like the natural sciences in this respect, because it relies on solid ‘facts’ and ‘numbers.’* Basically, it’s seeing the world through a lens of mathematics- everything will be converted to numbers, according to their values or characteristics.

Qualitative design, on the other hand, is relatively subjective compared to quantitative design. It is complementary with quantitative design, as it emphasises explanation of society through “direct observation, communication with participants, or analysis of texts.” [1] Unlike quantitative design, qualitative design takes into account contexts and more individualised variables and so tries to avoid generalisation.

Mainly using these two designs, social scientists try to be objective observers of the society; it’s kind of like when you’re playing Sims and trying to observe and then analyse their society. Social scientists are careful (or at least should be careful) not to let personal views or prejudices influence their analysis, and tries to come up with a “descriptive or predictive model that explains the events observed.” [2]


What is Humanities?

Then do subjects like history, philosophy and literature also count as social science? After all, to a degree these subjects also give some new insights on human nature and the society we live in. This is true, but the answer is no: these subjects do not count as social sciences but are parts of another discipline called humanities.

The fundamental difference between social science and humanities lie in their approach and aim. While social scientists mainly uses empirical methods (statistics, observation, etc.) to support their model of the society, those studying humanities will use interpretative methodologies to support their ideas. It is essentially the scholar’s explanation, which uses logic and quotations from other texts, that counts as evidence for his/her thesis. So inevitably, humanities are ‘subjective’; humanities subjects allow bigger presence of the scholars in their analysis. The most important criteria therefore in humanities are not objectivity and accuracy but authenticity and trustworthiness.

Also, the aim of humanities is to “yield wisdom.” While social science focuses more on generating new knowledge of the society, humanities constantly strive to answer the BIG questions, like “Where did we come from?” “What is love?” or “Why am I thinking what I am thinking?” So in a way, humanities are more personal and accessible, because it seeks to enlighten the general people through its wisdoms.


“the creativity of human minds will be severely limited, and our views of the world and of ourselves will be restricted to what is provable with numbers”

Why does it matter?

Well, that’s a very good question. It may seem a little pointless to distinguish such subtle differences, but it’s much more important than it seems. If political science was not social science but a part of humanities, it would mean that rather than basing the explanations on (relatively) objective figures and numbers, it will be a debating forum. Similarly, if literature or philosophy was a social science, the creativity of human minds will be severely limited, and our views of the world and of ourselves will be restricted to what is provable with numbers. Both disciplines are indispensable precisely due to these subtle yet crucial differences, and in order for one to truly immerse oneself in either of the two areas of studies, one needs to fully appreciate what each discipline requires.




*Although it is true that facts and numbers from statistical analysis are fairly accurate, they are never 100% accurate or reliable. These numbers may have been affected by several factors that could not be sufficiently controlled, so it is important to consider whether the accuracy and reliability of the data is sufficiently high to make the theory valid


[1] University of Idaho Resource “The Humanities and the Social Sciences: Contrasting Approaches” (developed for ISEM Integrative Seminars)

Available at: https://www.uidaho.edu/~/media/UIdaho-Responsive/Files/class/departments/general-education/Faculty Resources/humanities-social-sciences-distinctions.ashx

[2] ibid. 

**I have referred to this particular resource throughout the article, and I clarify here that many of the explanations, phrases and terminologies used in this article are borrowed from the above mentioned article.

Photo Credit:

First photo)

Taken by Matthew Wiebe. Published on April 18, 2014. Dimensions: 5498 x 3615 Available at https://unsplash.com/photos/nOhUx3tiaQQ

Second photo)

Taken by Anastasia Zhenina. Published on February 16, 2016. Dimensions: 4608 x 3456 Available at: https://unsplash.com/photos/XOW1WqrWNKg


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