Making the sense of the literature: types of theories in political science

As you read through political science research sources, you can probably notice many different kinds of research, and different kinds of theory they produce. There are two main types of theory in political science. One kind describes the way reality is, based on empirical evidence. this kind is called descriptive or empirical theory. The other kind tells you how things should be so that other things happen. This kind is called normative theory.

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Let’s take a bit more of a look at them both.

Descriptive theory

Social sciences seek to develop empirical theory. “Empirical” refers to things that can be experienced through the five senses of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or (in the case of political corruption) smelling. “Theory” basically means explanation. An empirical theory of politics, then, is an explanation of why people behave the way they do politically.

This approach is has become a very important part of political science. In 2001, for example, almost three-quarters of the articles in arguably the top three scholarly journals in the discipline (the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, and the Journal of Politics) included analysis of empirical data.[1][1]

If a social scientist (or anyone else) observes people engaging in political behavior, he or she will need to focus on certain characteristics of the people being observed. The observer may wonder why some people differ from others in their political characteristics. Why, for example, do some people vote for the Labour party, while others vote for the Greens?

Not all empirical study of politics involves the methodology of social science. Although Aristotle’s classification of city-states had an empirical component, he did not develop or test hypotheses. This is not surprising: the scientific method as we know it was developed about 400 years ago though the writings of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and others, and only spread to the social sciences until the 1800s. This scientific method became a major part of the political science mainstream well into the 20th Century. The term “descriptive analysis” remains an essential part of the discipline.
What are the important differences between political science social science? They are listed below, and summarised in Table ‘Characteristics of research fields’.

  1. Social science is analytic. It breaks down problems into relatively small components for study. Descriptive analysis, used in political science, is more holistic, more likely to focus on the big picture.
  2. Where social science usually looks for typical patterns in human behavior, descriptive analysis in political science emphasizes unique behaviour. A social science research project might involve survey research, in which a sample of a larger population is interviewed in order to find out how and why people in the population think and act. A descriptive study in political science, on the other hand, might consist of a biography of a leader who is “one of a kind.”
  3. In order to be as precise as possible in carrying out analysis, social science tends to pay a great deal of attention to questions of methodology – great care is taken to obtain accurate measures and conduct careful analysis. This in turn has made the social sciences much more quantitative. While the desire for precision is admirable, critics have a point when they argue that at times this quest leads political scientists to focus on the most readily operationalised aspects of a question, rather than on those aspects that are most important.

Reflection activity

  • Think of your research. Where does it ‘sit’? Is it more of a social science research? Or is it more of a political science research? Which characteristics of these types of science does it have?
  • Now think of the kind of theory that your research is aiming to produce. What kind of assumptions does your research make? And what kind of theory will it generate based on them?

Characteristics of research fields
Characteristic Social science research Political science research
Problem view Analytic: breaks problems down to small components Holistic: focuses on the big picture
Phenomenon selection Typical patterns displayed Unique behaviour or individuals
Methods’ focus Accuracy of measures Operationalisation of the question
Typical questions Voting patterns Biographic research

Some areas of political science are more suitable for social science inquiry than others. At one end of the spectrum, social scientific approaches dominate studies of voting, which involve analyzing patterns of behavior within entire electorates that may consist of millions of people. On the other hand, President Lyndon Johnson once responded to critics by noting that “I’m the only president you’ve got.” Because most countries have only one president (or one prime minister, chancellor, dictator, or monarch) at a time, studies of chief executives tend with notable exceptions to take a more holistic, humanities-oriented approach. Studies of legislative bodies fall someplace in between – biographies of legislators and case histories of individual bills will combine with roll-call analyses that seek to find patterns in voting alignments. Studies of industrialized nations generally lend themselves more to social science analysis than those of developing nations because of the relative lack of reliable data in the latter.

Normative theory

Because social science is limited to studying that which can be tested empirically, there are many vital questions about politics that are beyond its scope. Also central to political science, therefore, is what is called “political philosophy” or “normative theory.” Whereas empirical social theory seeks to explain why people behave the way that they do, normative theory seeks standards for judging how we ought to behave. Examples include just war theory and theories about the equitable distribution of wealth, power, or other resources.

Empirical and normative theorists have often squabbled about the relative value and validity of their respective parts of the discipline, a dispute manifested in recent years in the arguments for and against the “Perestroika” movement. [2] Both approaches, however, are needed for a comprehensive study of politics. Well over two thousand years ago, Aristotle managed to combine both approaches in his study of Greek city-states, classifying them in terms of whether their regimes were just (a concern of normative theory) and whether power was in the hands of the one, the few, or the many (an empirical question).

An example of a normative theory of voting can be found in Powell, 2000, “Elections as instruments of democracy”. A summary of the book is [[1]], describing two systems of democracy: majoritarian or proportional. The book also provides empirical evidence on these systems.
Another example is Schumpeter’s (1950) book “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy”, describing economic, social, and historical growth in society.

As with empirical theory and normative theory, there need be no quarrel between social science theorists and those doing descriptive analysis. Rigorous efforts that develop valid generalizations about political behavior though analysis of large databases are complemented by the rich context and detail found in studies of unique individuals and events.


  1. John L. Korey, “Political Science,” in Kimberley Kempf-Leonard (ed.). Encyclopedia of Social Measurement. San Diego: Academic Press, 2004: Vol. II, 99-108. This number does not include articles using “analytical theory,” most of which employed highly mathematical formal models of politics but which contained no actual data. These made up almost half of the remaining articles.
  2. D.W.Miller, “Storming the Palace in Political Science,” The Chronicle of Higher Education; Stephen Earl Bennett, “‘Perestroika’ Lost: Why the Latest ‘Reform’ Movement in Political Science Should Fail,” PS. June, 2002; David Little. “The Perestroika Debate in Political Science,” Understanding Society. April 19, 2008. Accessed April 22, 2013.


John L. Korey 2013, POLITICAL SCIENCE AS A SOCIAL SCIENCE, Introduction to Research Methods in Political Science:
The POWERMUTT* Project, [2]