What is Political Theory? - Manu Siddharth Jha

The expression ‘political theory’ or ‘a theory of politics’ is made up of two important words - " ‘Theory’ and ‘Politics’ ".Let us analyze the two terms "Theory" and "Political" separately.

What is Theory?
The second word, "Theory", Greek; and in the Greek language it belongs to a short vocabulary of five words which is worth considering:

Thea: something seen, a ‘spectacle’, an occurrence.
Theorein: to look at, to observe what is going on.
Theoros: an intelligent observer; one who looks at what is
going on, asks himself questions about it and tries to
understand it.
Theoria: the act or procedure of seeking to understand
what is going on: ‘theorizing’.
Theorema: what may emerge from ‘theorizing’. A conclusion
reached by a theoros. ‘An understanding’ of what
is going on. A ‘theorem’.

Thus,theory is a language-dependent systematic expression which distinguishes itself with the following six features:
  1. Conceptual Sensitivity
  2. Rational Structure
  3. Aspiration for humanly achievable truth and objectivity
  4. Generality
  5. An explicit mandate to unearth assumptions and presuppositions
  6. Strong non-speculative intent - the need not to bypass results of micro-enquiries into the particular
What is Political?
The first word, "Political" is derived from the word "Polis" which literally means "the city" or "the community". The term "Political" has multiple meanings and can be first traced back to classical Greece.The multiple meanings of the term "Political" can be summarized as following :
  1. The collective power to take decisions about every aspect of the good life in the community."Political" here refers both to power and to ethical values.
  2. The power of some groups to control or subordinate others in order to realize not the good of the entire community but their own narrow interests.To get others to do things that might go against their own interest.Here, the term "Political" is used to relate power and self-interest.It also refers to power embodied in a separate institutional apparatus, i.e. the state.
  3. The state power used to realize the common good/values
  4. State power used to exercise domination by one group over others.
  5. Values common to the entire humanity,even all living species.
What is Political Theory?
  1. "Political theory is a network of concepts and generalizations about political life involving the ideas,assumptions and statements about the nature,purpose and key features of government,state and society,and about the political capabilities of human beings." - David Held
  2. "Political theory is a combination of a disinterested search for the principles of good state and society on the one hand , and a disinterested search for knowledge of political and social reality on the other" - Andrew Hacker
  3. " When political government and its forms and activities are studied not simply as facts to be described and compared or judged in reference to their immediate and temporary effects but as facts to be understood and appraised in relation to the constant needs,desires and opinion of men,then we have political theory" - W. C. Coker
  4. "Political theory is a subfield of political science which includes :
a. Political philosophy - a moral theory of politics and a historical study of political ideas
b. Scientific criterion
c. Linguistic analysis of political ideas
d. The discovery and systematic development of generalizations about political behaviour
e. "Political theory can be viewed as an activity which involves posing questions,developing responses to those questions and creating imaginative perspectives on the public life of human beings" - Weinstein

On the basis of the above definitions,we can conclude that political theory is concerned with the study of the phenomena of the state and related institutions both in philosophical and empirical terms.Political theory then is a particular form of word-dependent systematic reflection on any or all of the following:
  1. The collective power to take decisions about the good life of a community
  2. The mechanisms by which power is exercised by one group over another
  3. The use of state power to achieve the good of the community
  4. The use of state by one group to exercise power over another
  5. On the values of which a particular community governs its life
  6. There can be a grand political theory that reflects on the general condition of the entire human kind or the values by which the entire humanity may govern its life.
Characteristics of political theory
The characteristics of political theory are the following:
  1. Firstly,political theory is an intellectual and moral creation of man.Generally it is the speculation of a single individual who is attempting to offer us a theoretical explanation of the political reality i.e. the phenomena of the state.Every theory by its nature is an explanation,built upon certain hypothesis which may be valid(or not) and which are always open to criticism.
  2. Secondly,political theory contains an explanation of man,society and history.It probes the nature of man and society: how a society is made up and how it works,what are the important elements,what are the sources of conflict in the society and how they can be resolved.
  3. Thirdly,political theory is discipline based.It means that though the phenomena which the theorist seeks to explain remain the same i.e. the state,the writer may be a philosopher,historian,economist,theologian or a sociologist.Thus we are confronted by a variety of political theories each distinguished by a discipline on which it is based.
  4. Fourthly,political theory is also actively engaged in hastening the process of history.The task of political theory is also to devise ways and means to change the society -
"The task is not merely one of description of what it is but also a prescription of what ought to be."- Laski
Thus political theory recommends agencies of action as well as means of reform,revolution or conservation.It contains programmes that embody both ends and means.
5. Lastly,political theory also includes political ideology.Ideology in simple language means a system of beliefs,values and ideals by which people allow themselves to be governed.Political theory in the form of political ideology includes a system of political values,institutions and practices which a society has adopted as its ideal.
E.g. All political theories adopted by the Western Europe and America have been dominated by liberalism and the theories accepted by China and erstwhile USSR were influenced by a particular brand of Marxism.Each brand of theory or ideology in this sense
claims for itself the attributes of universality and compels others to accept,leading to what is generally known as "ideological conflicts".

Nature and significance of political theory

The nature and significance of political theory can be derived from the purpose it serves or supposed to serve and the task performed by it.The growth and evolution of the nature and significance of political theory can be classified into three basic periods or forms:
  1. Classical Political Theory:This form was majorly dominated by philosophy.It was the systematic approach to know about the best form of government and society.Its aim was to establish a rational basis for beliefs and action.It studied state as a whole and treated an individual as a part of it.It was not merely concerned with explaining and understanding the political phenomena but also evaluating it and thriving for an ideal state.It tries to analyse sources of conflicts,anarchy,instability and attempts to enunciate principles of justice.
  2. Modern Political Theory: It is value free.It is only concerned with understanding and explanation of problem without evaluating its nature,suggesting suggestions etc.It is based on facts and data and does not consider values for its study.It is empirical in its approach.
  3. Contemporary Empirical Political Theory:Due to its highly empirical(scientific) and data based approach,modern political theory soon started getting criticism because people believed in the role of political theory as a guide to government for the proper functioning of the state.Thus,contemporary empirical political theory is a combination of both philosophical as well as scientific understanding of a problem.
The nature and significance of political theory can be understood in the following way:
  1. Essentially descriptive studies i.e. description of political phenomena
  2. Non-Scientific (based upon philosophy or religion ) or Scientific explanation (based upon empirical studies)
  3. Proposals for the selection of political goals and political action
  4. Moral Judgment
  5. Analytical studies based on information and facts
  6. Interdisciplinary study & Study of information factors
  7. Behavioural revolution and acceptance of values by the post of behaviouralists
Thus,as we have understood political theory derives from all disciplines of social studies and thrives for the best form of government and society so that each individual can fulfill his aspirations.