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What is Politics: Theorizing the ‘Political’

Updated: Dec 11, 2022

What is Political Theory

  • Catriona McKinney believes that Political theory is the study to understand the questions like how we should live together in society.

  • Political theory urges to understand, explain and analyze the political phenomena and suggesting ways and means to rectify the shortcomings.

  • The objective of Political theory is to generalize about the good conduct in the political life and about the legitimate use of power.




  • The word ‘Political’ has multiple meanings

  • It derived from the Greek word ‘polis’ meant city states,

  • It refers to decision-making within and about the community

  • Term ‘political’ can be understood through the following points :

    1. The collective power to take decisions about every aspect of the good life in the community.

    2. The power of some groups to control or subordinate others

    3. The state power used to realize the common good or values.

Meaning ; THEORY

  • The word 'theory' has been derived from the Greek word ‘Theoria’.

  • It means a well focused mental outlook taken at something in a settle of contemplation with the intent to grasp it.

  • It is generally considered as a separate branch of political science which attempts to arrive at generalizations and draws inferences or conclusions from the data gathered by various specialists relating to political phenomena.


As a term 'political theory' has been defined in both “a broad” and “a narrow” sense. Below some of the famous definition given by political theorists.

  1. Sebine- Political theory "As anything about politics or relevant to politics.( Broder definition). Political theory is “the disciplined investigation of political problems”. (Narrow definition)

  2. David Held- He defined that “political theories are complex network of concepts and generalizations about political life involving ideas, assumptions on statements about the nature, purpose and key features of governments, state and society, and about the political capabilities of human beings”.

  3. Andrew Hacker- “It 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.”

The above definitions bring out certain essential characteristics of political theory which are as follows :

  • Political theory has as its area of operation, the realm of politics. It includes citizen’s political life, political behavior, political ideas, the governments he establishes and the task that government performs.

  • The methods which political theory applies, includes description, explanation, prediction and investigation of any political phenomenon chiefly with intent to grasp or comprehended all about what is 'political'.

  • The ultimate objective of political theory is to construct a better state in a good society. In the process it also attempts to create certain processes, procedures, structures and institutions, which historically tested and rationally attuned.

  • As a systematized body of thought, political theory is about to explain, evaluate and predict political phenomena. In the process political theory also builds scientifically testable models as well as values as rules of human conduct.

  • The functions of political theory are prescriptive and explanatory. It is a description of what the ‘political order’ is about and it is also a symbolic representation of what is ‘political’.

  • As the systematic and analytical study of the processes and consequences of political activity, it is both analytical expository, and explanatory. Thus, political theory seek to give order, clarity and meaning to understand what is described as ‘political’.


  • Political theory relates with the works of political thinkers.

  • This tends political theory to mean more of political thought.

  • “The theory (of politics) itself is divided into political science and political philosophy.


  • The nature of Political science relates to the study of politics by the use of scientific methods in contrast to political philosophy which is free to use non-scientific methods.

  • The study of political science is concerned with explaining and describing the realities of political behavior, generalizations about man and political institutions through empirical evidence, and the role of power in the society.


  • Political Philosophy deals not only with matters of fact but also with matters of norms.

  • According to Haywood, “Political philosophy’s central questions have included ‘Why should I obey the state?’, ‘Who should rule’? ‘How should rewards be distributed?’

  • As for example, political philosophy is abstract or speculative study, while political theory can be the study of both normative and empirical.



During its history of more than 2500 years various traditions and streams have been developed. Let's discuss some of them given below:

1. Classical Political Theory

  • Classical political theory starts from the 6th Century B.C.

  • It explains the political ideas of a large number of philosophers from Greek, Roman and Christian thinkers.

  • Classical Philosophers seems politics as the participation in the public affairs.

  • The nature of classical political theory included description,explanation, prescription and evaluation.

  • The classical political theorist believed that state as a natural institution and prior to the individual and common good.

2. Liberal Political Theory

  • From 15th Century onwards, the twin revolutions of Renaissance and Reformation in the Europe, developed the new intellectual atmosphere which resulted the birth of modern science and modern philosophy and a new political theory known as liberalism.

  • It puts more emphasis on autonomy of individual will.

  • The theory does not believe the idea of common good and focused an organic self- interested community.

3.Marxist Political Theory

  • Karl Marx, Engels and their followers was challenged Liberal individualistic political theory in the later half of the nineteenth century.

  • Theory according to Marx is the hand-maiden of practical material interests.

  • The central theme of Marxist political theory are state as an instrument of class domination, mode of production, class division, property relations and revolution.

  • The prominent contributions to the Marxist thought in the twentieth century were Lenin, Bakunin, Stalin, Rose Luxemburg, Gramsci, Lukas, etc.

4. Empirical-Scientific Political Theory

  • Empirical scientific political theory was developed in America during the decade of 1920s.

  • Max Weber, Graham ,etc. studied political theory by the empirical-scientific methods and advocates that the study of political theory should be based upon only ‘facts’.

  • It believe to maintain order, explanation and predicts the phenomenon but not evaluate it by settling the utopian standard.

  • The theory free itself from values and centers around facts.

5. Contemporary Political theory

  • The two much emphasis on facts, pure sciences by the empiricist school and its failure to understand the present socio-political reality gives shape to the contemporary political theory.

  • The political scientist like Thomas Kuhn challenges the whole model of what is science.

  • So, it was realized that political theory is more than a philosophy and also more than a science as it has both vision and relevance.



  • The relevance of political theory can be well understood from the purpose it serves and the task it performs.

  • Political theory may be seen as a system of values, norms and ideas on forming an organization, social, political, cultural etc.

  • It enables us to speculate about the nature of good life, the appropriate political institutions needed to realize it.

  • The significance of political of theory lies in evolving various doctrines and approaches regarding the nature and purpose of the state, the basis of political authority, vision of an ideal state, best form of government, relations between the state and the individual and the basic issues such as rights, liberty, equality, property, justice, etc.

  • Therefore, political theory not only presents solutions to resolve the existing problems but also provide estimate of future conditions.

  • Thus, the interpretation and analysis of theorist provide clarity to political values and ideologies and makes it possible to protect from possible misinterpretation and misrepresentation.



These two branches of political theory taken together performs three important functions : the explanatory function at the most general level, but more distinctively the contemplative and the normative. Political science mainly relies on empirical method, which is supposed to be most reliable knowledge. Hence it specialize in ‘explanation’. On the other political philosophy being concerned with normative questions and value judgment specialize in ‘criticism’ and making some ‘solution’. The goal of theory is to enhance our thinking of the social reality and create conditions for good life.

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