Politics is an interesting phenomenon that has been around since time immemorial. However, the scientific approach towards understanding politics may have emerged recently when its study was institutionalized and made as an organized discipline. Most scholars believe that politics, as a science, started in the United States somewhere in the 20th century (Berndtson, 2009, p.1; Easton, 2012, p.134). As observed, “political science as an academic discipline was first established in the United States and that it was only after the Second World War, when politics was made a separate field of study at European universities” (Berndtson, 2009, p.1). Many scholars who wish to study politics, for instance, train in the United States and it was not until after the World War 2 when the study of politics as an academic discipline was adopted overseas, specifically in Europe (Berndtson, 2009, p.1; Easton, 2012, p.134). Social scientists in America during this time have a penchant for empirical methods and they try to apply it in almost all of their studies; politics being one of them. It was an era where there are great advances in research regarding human behavior and how they can be predicted using empirical methods, which is also known as behaviorism. It can be construed that the academic approach in studying politics during the early 20th century is a product of its time. The emergence of political behavioralism, for instance, draws its inspiration from the popularity of behaviorism. While the application of behaviorism is in understanding human behavior by assuming that people will react readily to outside stimuli, in the same way, behaviorialism in politics assumes that political actions can be empirically studied. While most revel in the thought that finally, politics is already predictable and measurable, some are skeptical that behavioralism is the key to understanding politics; believing that politics is not an exact science as what positivists assume it to be. For the same reason, this paper would like to explore the strengths and weaknesses of behavioralism as a theoretical framework for politics and international relations. Can political activities be truly measured and predicted?
What is Behavioralism?
Behavioralism has been defined as “the view that the subject matter of political science should be limited to phenomena that are independently observable and quantifiable”. Promoted by the positivist movement, behavioralism became the prevailing perspective towards politics that emerged in the United States somewhere between 1950s and 1960s, although, some scholars argue that behavioralism can be traced as early as the 1920s (Berkenpas, 2012, p.2; Dahl, 1961, p.763). Behavioralism appealed to many social scientists primarily because it offers a more scientific approach towards political analysis as compared to the so-called traditional methods in politics. As observed by some scholars, behavioralism is a “version of the scientific method championed by positivist social scientists and philosophers is characterized by a procedure which starts with the formulation of a hypothesis, followed by empirical verification or experimentation, which leads to falsification or verification of the initial hypotheses” (Berkenpas, 2012, p.2). To achieve this goal, proponents of behavioralism utilize several known scientific methods such as statistics and psychology in order to measure and understand political behavior. According to scholars, prior to behavioralism, political scholars focus their analysis on the laws, political offices and organizations and their impact on governance. This approach is referred to as the “formal and traditional stages” that spanned the development of politics as an academic discipline in the United States prior to the emergence of behavioralism (Easton, 2012, p.134). There were, however, many drawbacks in the formal and traditional stages of political studies most especially in making sense of the enormous amount of information that needs to be acquired in the study of politics. As observed by David Easton, a renowned political scientist, the wide variety of subject matter acquired in traditional political science “lacks theoretical coherence” since he could see no theoretical framework wherein he could arrange these subject matter or check their relevance (Easton, 2012, p.136). For the same reason, some scholars hardly see political studies during the early years of the 20th century as a science primarily because it lacks the empirical approach identified with most social sciences. Behavioralism is often referred to as a revolutionary stage in the history of political science. It replaced the formal and traditional approach of most scholars towards the study of politics. However, behavioralism is not unique on its own, as most scholars would agree that this theory was largely inspired by behaviorism, the psychological theory pioneered by notable psychologists such as Watson and B.F. Skinner (Easton, 2012, p.137). Behavioralism, in a way, is the counterpart of behaviorism in political science. Like behaviorism, behavioralism assumes that political behavior can be studied using measurable techniques in a similar manner that a person’s behavior can also be studied and verified.
Strengths of Behavioralism
The empirical approach in understanding things has been of utmost importance not only in the field of physical sciences, but also even in the field of humanities. The British philosopher, David Hume, for instance, emphasized the importance of the empirical approach by saying that even with ‘greatest vigor,’ the imagination of the human mind could not compare to the actual experience of the senses and that even the ‘liveliest thought’ could not replace the ‘dullest sensation’ (Hume, n.d., p.13). The scientist and philosopher, Isaac Newton also emphasized the importance of empirical evidence by saying that people should not “relinquish the evidence of experiments for the sake of dreams and vain fictions of our own devising” since the analogy of nature is often simple and in agreement with itself (Motte, 1729, p.1). Apparently, one particular advantage of the scientific approach is that people can always be certain that the results are unbiased and neutral. Results are also more reliable because they can be replicated. As observed, “Scholars working in the behavioural tradition are always concerned to establish that other researchers who make similar sets of assumptions as them and examine the same evidence would draw broadly similar conclusions” (Sanders, 2010, p.34). Unless the data is maliciously altered, the results of experimentation through verifiable methods such as statistics are more factual than knowledge acquired using only logic or philosophical argumentation. For the same reason, behavioralism became the dominant approach in studying politics in the modern era because it appeals to those who are critical about knowing facts rather than philosophies. One of the major practical uses of behavioralism in political science is in analyzing the political choices or voting behavior of the population. The first such study was conducted at the Columbia University during the 1940s (Bartels, 2008, p.2). For many years, political analysts have assumed that the individual’s behavior in choosing his political candidates is heavily influenced by logical thinking. Surprisingly, the Columbia study revealed that the underlying factors that influence and individual’s choice goes beyond critical thinking and is rather primitive. Accordingly, people are heavily influenced by factors such as class, family traditions, ethnicity and other characteristics that impacts human emotion and subconscious (Bartels, 2008, p.4). Behavioralism has also gained much attention in the field of world politics. Shortcomings in the analysis of international relations using traditional political theories, for instance, have turned scholars’ attention towards behavioralism. According to observers, traditional theories such as liberalism, realism and constructivism are criticized for being ambiguous, naïve and idealistic; making these traditional political theories regarding world politics, unsatisfactory (Kegley, 2008, p.48). Behavioralism can be used to test and verify political theories that pertain to international relations. Accordingly, “behavioralism advances principles and procedures for formulating and stringently testing hypotheses inferred from theories to reach generalizations or statements about international irregularities that hold true across time and place” (Kegley, 2008, p.48).
Weaknesses of Behavioralism
While behavioralism has gained popularity in analyzing specific topics in political science, its practical usage in the field of world politics and international relations is still under scrutiny. Some scholars, for instance, criticize behavioralism for being ambiguous. According to political scientist, Robert Dahl, the behavioral approach is like a “Loch Ness monster: one can say with considerable confidence what it is not, but it is difficult to say what it is” (Dahl, 1961, p.763). Does political behavior, for instance, refer to the political entities or does it refer to the behavior of the individuals that comprises the political entities? Much to the dismay of the proponents of behavioralism, there seem to be limitations on how to understand the behavior of people and states when it comes to international relations. The world, for instance, has been viewed by many as a complex system of political, economic and cultural elements, thereby, it is difficult to compehend using only pre-meditated variables. Much like human behavior, the factors that influence nations and leaders in the arena of international relations is quite complex. In their quest to reduce experiences into a common, universally understood language, positivists often over simplify things. In conducting empirical studies, especially in complex topics such as politics or international relations, scholars observed that the approach of positivists is reductionism or the reduction of complex things into simpler, more manageable components. Such approach, however, might overlook the system characteristics of politics. As political scholar, David Sanders, put it, there is a tendency that behavioralism would fall into “mindless empiricism” (Sanders, 2010, p.30). Some political scholars, for instance, view the world as a system. According to this world-systems theory, states and nations could not be fully understood without considering all the internal and external elements that surround them . Behavioralism may not be adequate to fully understand how a system works using simple experimentation alone. For the same reason, proponents of behavioralism sometimes resort to complicated and complex quantitative measures, which are often difficult to comprehend.
Behavioralism can be considered as a break with traditional political science. Considered as a more scientific way of studying politics, behavioralism relies on quantitative data and empirical studies for the purpose of creating a fundamental understanding of political behavior. The major strengths of behavioralism when used as an analytical framework for politics and international relation is that it provides and unbiased and neutral perspective. For the same reason, proponents of this approach are not clouded by prejudice as their decisions are based on verifiable facts. However, there are also limitations on what behavioralism can do. With the complexity of local and world politics, behavioralism may not be adequate to predict the political behavior of individuals and political entities using empirical evidence alone. Nevertheless, behavioralism could not be undermined since it is a powerful tool in making sound political judgment.
Bartels, L. (2008). The Study of Electoral Behavior . Retrieved December 2015, from www.princeton.edu: https://www.princeton.edu/~bartels/electoralbehavior.pdf
Berkenpas, J. (2012). “The Behavioral Revolution?” History and Myth in American Political Science. Retrieved January 2016, from http://wpsa.research.pdx.edu/: http://wpsa.research.pdx.edu/meet/2012/berkenpas.pdf
Berndtson, E. (2009). ‘Schools of Political Science’ and the Formation of a Discipline. Retrieved January 2016, from http://paperroom.ipsa.org/: http://paperroom.ipsa.org/papers/paper_3767.pdf
Dahl, R. (1961). The Behavioral Approach in Political Science: Epitaph for a Monument to a Successful Protest. Retrieved January 2016, from http://www.uky.edu/: http://www.uky.edu/~clthyn2/PS671/Dahl_APSR1961.pdf
Easton, D. (2012). Political Science in the United States: Past and Present. Retrieved January 2016, from http://www.cesruc.org/: http://www.cesruc.org/uploads/soft/130304/1-1303041AK6.pdf
Hume, D. (n.d.). An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Retrieved December 2015, from http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/hume/enquiry.pdf
Kegley, C. (2008). World Politics: Trend and Transformation. Retrieved January 2016, from books.google.com.ph: https://books.google.com.ph/books?id=JFVlaSN6CwsC&dq=Behavioralism+in+international+relations&source=gbs_navlinks_s
McLeod, S. (2007). Behaviorist Approach. Retrieved January 2016, from http://www.simplypsychology.org/: http://www.simplypsychology.org/behaviorism.html
Motte, A. (1729). Newton’s Principia: Rules of Reasoning in Natural Philosophy. Retrieved December 2015, from http://strangebeautiful.com/other-texts/newton-principia-rules-reasoning.pdf
Ney, A. (n.d.). Reductionism. Retrieved January, from http://www.iep.utm.edu/: http://www.iep.utm.edu/red-ism/
Roskin, M. (2014). Political science. Retrieved January 2016, from http://www.britannica.com/: http://www.britannica.com/topic/political-science#ref848558
Sanders, D. (2010). Behavioural Analysis. In Marsh, D., &. Stoker, G. Theory and Methods in Political Science (pp. 23 - 41). Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Skinner, B. (2014). SCIENCE AND HUMAN BEHAVIOR. Retrieved January 2016, from http://www.bfskinner.org/: http://www.bfskinner.org/newtestsite/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/ScienceHumanBehavior.pdf
Trewavas, A. (2006). A Brief History of Systems Biology. Retrieved January 2016, from http://www.plantcell.org/: http://www.plantcell.org/content/18/10/2420.full.pdf+html
Wallerstein, I. (n.d.). World-Systems Theory. Retrieved January 2016, from http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/: http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/users/f/felwell/www/Theorists/Wallerstein/Presentation/Wallerstein.pdf