What is Political Science? Why study it?

As a Political Science and Public Policy undergraduate, I am often asked “what exactly is political science, what do you actually study?”

Any meaningful answer to this question is probably not short, but it could well be sweet.

I hope what follows will clarify this question and better still, interest readers about the fascinating discipline that is political science.

As a social science, political science seeks to understand and explain human behavior. I construe different social science disciplines as seeking to understand and explain human behavior from different perspectives. For example, another social science — psychology — explains human behavior on a micro-scale, focusing on individuals and their thought processes.

Essentially, all social sciences are concerned with human behavior (hence social). In this light, economics is also a social science. As you might know, economics seeks to explain human behavior in terms of markets, costs/benefits, transactions and assumed-rationality.

So what exactly is political science? My go-to definition of it comes from Harold Lasswell (1936), who explained politics as the study ofwho gets what, when and how”.

The ‘what’ could be something tangible, such as food, money and oil. It could also be something intangible such as citizenship, rights, access to education, healthcare and a life of dignity. To further illustrate, consider the following two questions:

  • Tangible: Why do authoritarian regimes such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa prioritise urban dwellers (e.g. provide them with more affordable food) at the expense of rural dwellers (Bates, 1981)?
  • Intangible: Why do the Rohingyas in Myanmar not have citizenship while those of other ethnic groups such as the Bamars and Shans do (Calamur, 2017)?

Humans interact (conflict) with each other over the ‘what‘. How and when the conflict is resolved, who wins and achieve the ‘what‘ depends on the power relations among those competing. Yet it is not true that the ones with more power will always win. For example, in his book Weapons of the Weak, James C. Scott (1987) elucidated how the seemingly weak peasants can resist against the powerful. Similarly, Ivan Arreguín-Toft’s How the Weak Win Wars (2005) looks at the stereotypical example of conflicting humans — war.

More generally, what factors comprise power? Aside from capital, resources, technology and manpower… Isn’t legitimacy also a source of power? But… are different factors equally important? What about strategy? Or the timing in which certain actions are taken? Under what conditions do certain factors become more crucial in determining political outcomes? Who gets what, when and how?

The ‘what’ that political science studies is practically limitless. Power relations among humans shape the contests and hence outcomes for everything in life.

Like it or not, everything is political.

Therefore, one could also study the politics of

  • waiting (Auyero, 2012)
  • food (Bates, 1981)
  • water (Conca, 2005)
  • road-building (Guldi, 2012)
  • language (Orwell, 2013) and language policies (Liu and Ricks, 2012)
  • public policy
  • development (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2013; Sen, 1999; Escobar, 1995)
  • conflict and peace (Kissinger 2014; Mearsheimer, 2014; Betts, 2010; Wendt, 1999; Keohane, 1984; Waltz, 1979)
  • denuclearisation (for my analysis of Trump’s cancellation of the 12 June summit with Kim Jong-un, see here)

Political science hence provides its students with powerful analytical skills, which are hugely important in today’s world, where the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘when’ are rapidly changing.

Take Uber and Airbnb for example. For such new and ‘disruptive’ businesses, the amount of profits that they make is largely shaped by the regulations that governments place on them. Broadly speaking, why do some governments decide to ban these companies, while others do not? Of course, most choose to regulate in certain ways. These regulations will determine, inter alia, the answers to these questions:

  • Are their business models legal or illegal?
  • Should they conform to the same regulations as those in the taxi and hotel industries?
  • Is Uber a taxi company or merely a technological platform?

These businesses therefore conflict with governments in determining the answers to these questions, hence shaping their profitability and viability.

In today’s rapidly changing world, political science hence offers its students key insights into how emerging phenomena (seemingly political or not) play out. Ever since there were organised societies and scarce resources, we have had to struggle with the question of ‘who gets what, when and how?‘ And before this question is irreversibly resolved, there will always be a place for political science.


Arreguín-Toft, Ivan. 2005. How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Auyero, Javier. 2012. Patients of the State: The Politics of Waiting in Argentina. Durham: Duke University Press Books.
Bates, Robert. 1981. Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policy. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Betts, Richard. 2010. “Conflict or Cooperation?” Foreign Affairs, November 8, 2010. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/review-essay/conflict-or-cooperation.
Calamur, Krishnadev. 2017. “The Misunderstood Roots of Burma’s Rohingya Crisis.” The Atlantic, September 25, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/09/rohingyas-burma/540513/.
Conca, Ken. 2005. Governing Water: Contentious Transnational Politics and Global Institution Building. 1st edition. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.
Escobar, Arturo. 1995. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press.
Guldi, Jo. 2012. Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Keohane, R. O. (1984). After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton University Press. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7sq9s
Kissinger, Henry. 2015. World Order. Reprint edition. New York: Penguin Books.
Lasswell, Harold D. 1936. Politics; Who Gets What, When, How,. New York; London: Whittlesey House McGraw-Hill Book Co.
Mearsheimer, John J. 2014. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Updated edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Orwell, George. 2013. Politics and the English Language. Penguin UK.
Ricks, Jacob, and Amy H. Liu. 2012. “Coalitions and Language Politics: Policy Shifts in Southeast Asia.” World Politics, January, 476–506.
Scott, James C. 1987. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Reprint edition. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press.

Waltz, K. N. (1979). Theory of international politics. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.
Wendt, A. (1999). Social Theory of International Politics by Alexander Wendt (1st ed.). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511612183

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