As a student majoring in political science, I find myself less constrained than my peers in what I can consider a part of my discipline. Political science can be seen as structured in a manner ‘opposite’ of the ‘hard sciences’, such as biology and chemistry, where singular focus is placed on a specific aspect of the function of our universe. In those fields, studying the discipline eventually leads to an expanded understanding of the universe… but only when combined with the knowledge of the other ‘hard sciences.’ The physicist, the chemist, and the biologist see different forces in play when looking at the same thing; it is not until they combine their knowledge that it can be understood in its totality. Political science, on the other hand, explains the whole ‘universe’ of human political activity, and to do so aggregates and studies other fields which contribute to its function. The political scientist does not place singular focus on a specific function within the political ‘universe’, but must rather broadly understand all of the forces in play. What, then, constitutes ‘political science?’ What must be studied in order to understand the universe of human political thought and action?
Perhaps the two fields most integral to political science are philosophy and history. These two fields explain how and why modern political thought arose, what those thoughts mean, and how the political world of today came into existence. Philosophy serves as the entire foundation to political thought; indeed, political thought is itself philosophy. All political ideas and ideologies are answers provided to the questions of how we should organize ourselves, how we should conduct ourselves politically, and why. Yet more than just that, philosophy also seeks to answer how humans should ideally conduct themselves, directly influencing political behaviors and ideas. Politics is nothing but interacting human behaviors, and thus even philosophies outside the realm of political thought influence political behavior dramatically. Having a firm footing in philosophical thought is therefore necessary for understanding the intellectual tenets behind the political systems and ideas which exist today. History, meanwhile, explains how these philosophical ideas became tangible behaviors, what those behaviors were, and how they created the political systems of today. Understanding history therefore enables us to understand how the systems we study today came into being, how they previously functioned, and what came before them. This knowledge of political evolution shows us where we came from, and where we may be heading. History also provides political scientists with the empirical data necessary to create and verify theories about how humans behave politically. Without understanding history, we would have no context to understand the political universe as it presently exists. We would be unable to recognize patterns of political behavior, and thus would be unable to create theories to explain them. A study of history is as vital as a study of philosophy.
Yet political science, outside of ideas and systems, explains human behaviors, perceptions, and norms. Again, politics is nothing but human interaction. As such, it is equally important to understand behavior-focused fields such as sociology and psychology. Sociology explains the function of human society – its structure, norms, taboos, and culture. These all influence that society’s political culture, which in turn directly influences how that society operates politically. Without understanding a region’s politics through the eyes of someone living in that region’s society, explaining human political behavior will be a futile effort. After all, culture, and thus thought and behavior, is all relative; the politics of one culture may be diametrically opposed to the politics of another. Equally important is understanding psychology – how and why humans think the things they do and behave as they do. Every human is a political agent, contributing energy to political activity through our behaviors. The way we contribute that energy is a result of our personal ideas and thoughts, products of our brain’s functioning. Psychology, the study this functioning, is thus incredibly important to explaining the individual human’s thought processes and, in turn, political thinking. Additionally, it helps unlock the secrets of how and why humans naturally behave the way they do. Our tendency for social interaction, our territoriality, our hierarchical power dynamics, and other characteristics of our psychological character all manifest themselves in some way in our politics. Applying physiological understandings to political science thus enables us to explain much about political behavior and our political reality.
There are a plethora of other fields the political scientist must devote energy to studying in order to more properly understand the political universe. Geography impacts the strategic importance of various states and also the culture of the people living within them; it therefore should be studied so that regional and global political issues and interactions can better be put into context. Religion is a powerful motivator of behavior and thought, and in turn a powerful motivator of political action. Some states, such as Iran, are even built around religion, and religion has in the past served as a justification for many political realities (such as the ‘Divine Right ‘of the European monarchs) and behaviors. Of course, religion is a field of philosophy, but is such an extensive sub-field that it could and, for the purposes of understanding our quite religious world, should be given the time and energy to be studied as its own distinct entity. Indeed, even studying fields such as technology and advancing science has importance for the political scientist, as they help explain the changing ways humans interact with each other and thus change the realm of politics.
What, then, is political science? It is a collection of knowledge from various fields and disciplines which, when combined, explains human political behaviors. Political science cannot operate alone; it is entirely the sum of its parts. When there is a deficit of knowledge in any one of these fields, the entire discipline of political science suffers. After all, political science studies human behaviors, and humans are complicated creatures. They think and behave in complicated ways. The study of those behaviors transcends disciplines and draws from the knowledge produced by a vast array of fields. In order to accurately explain how the human will behave politically, the political scientist must accumulate and understand all of these fields. It is a daunting task, but it opens up the discipline to a vast amount of possible theories, possible approaches, and limits constraints. The political scientist will never have to worry about not having enough to study.