The Meaning of Political Theory


There's a specialist from your university waiting to help you with that essay.
Tell us what you need to have done now!

order now

Harold Lasswell (1936) defines politics as ‘Who gets what, when and how,’ Leftwitch, (2004). No wonder, then, a myriad of attempts has been made to come up with a conclusive and all-encompassing analytical approach to this study of ‘who gets what, when and how’. Some of these, of course, include; scientific approach, philosophical approach as well as theoretical approach to the study of politics, Heywood (2007). It is the latter, however, which is the scope of this discussion.

While science refers to a means of acquiring political knowledge through observation, experimentation and measurement using empirical evidence, philosophy is a means by which any abstract thought about politics is covered in search for, both, wisdom and understanding, Heywood (2004).

Before going any farther into the discussion, a look at the meaning of the word theory is imperative. The dictionary meanings of the word theory are (1); a formal set of ideas that is intended to explain why something happens or exists, (2) the principles on which a particular subject is based (3) opinion or idea that somebody believes is true but that is not proved, Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary, 7th Edition, (2006).

Political theory, in this context, is an academic discipline that studies politics based on the following premises; it involves the analytical studies of ideas and doctrines that have been central to the political thought; it studies the ends and means of political action; it is concerned with ethical and normative questions; it draws upon the example of economic theory in building up models based on procedural rules usually about self interested behaviour of individuals involved like the bourgeoisie or the proletariat; it examines what major thinkers said, how they developed or justified their views; it attempts to, better, understand behaviour of actors like voters, politicians, lobbyist and bureaucrats, Heywood, (2004).

Basically Political Theory analyses political concepts and their relationship to actual political practice. This is done through; Concepts, Models, Theories and Ideologies.

Concepts, to begin with, are general ideas or mental constructs by which attempts are made to draw out meaning from otherwise infinitely complex realities through logical presentations.

They are tools with which human beings think, criticize, argue, explain and analyze political developments. Examples include liberty, human rights, equality, power, authority, order and law Heywood (2004).

Second tool of political theory are Models. Models are representations of empirical data that aim to advance understanding by highlighting significant relationships and interactions among variables. These are built around a number of concepts with an aim of making a vivid resemblance of the original object without necessarily becoming its copy.They are analytical tools through which meaning can be imposed upon a massive and disorganized collection of facts. An example is the Easton Systems Model of state by David Easton (1953) cited by Heywood (2007).

Third on the list of tools of political theory are ‘theories’ or simply put macro theories.Theories, often used interchangeably with models, are comprehensive, systematic, consistent and reliable explanations and predictions of relationships among specific variables. Theories are explained through models, for example, theories of collectivism, pluralism, elitism, and functionalism. These may be explained by a model of state, model of electoral competition, or model of group politics, Heywood (2007).

Last on the tools through which political theory does the analysis of politics are Ideologies. The term Ideology was coined during French Revolution by Antoine Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836) Ideologies are intellectual frameworks comprising interrelated values, theories and assumptions, within which search for knowledge is conducted. They are main beliefs that outline how political change can and should be brought about. They provide a broad range of political creeds and traditions which provide basis of political action. Examples of political Ideologies are Conservatism, Socialism, Communism, and Fascism of course, just to mention but a few, Heywood (2004)

In as much as there is an appreciation on the arguments of the four tools of Concepts, Models, Theories and Ideologies to the theoretical approach to the study of politics on one hand, a number of weaknesses can be observed in this ‘tool’ based approach on the other. The first problem encountered with political concepts is that they are, often, difficult to disentangle from the moral, philosophical and ideological views of those who advance them. Another problem is that political concepts often become the subject of intellectual and ideological controversy. It is not uncommon for political argument to take place between people who assert to uphold the same principle or ideal which is reflected in attempts to establish a particular conception of a concept as objectively correct, as in the case of true democracy, freedom, justice and so forth, Heywood (2004). An additional problem with political concepts is fetishism. This occurs when concepts are treated as though they have a concrete existence separate from the human beings who use them. In short, words are treated as things, rather than as devices for understanding things. The complexity of political reality also renders concepts insufficient to explain political practice as some concepts are multi-faceted in nature and are a subject to profound ideological controversy, Heywood (2004).

Although models are a simplification of reality, they are not a reliable knowledge in themselves as they have hidden values. These values and beliefs may intrude into the process of model and theory building thereby making it impracticable to create purely empirical theories or models. This means that models and theories contain some biases, Heywood (2004).

Ideologies are the ‘Grand Thought’ of any political institution. Despite being such major themes in the political arena, ideologies command no objective standard of truth against which they can bejudged. As a matter of fact, there are different perspectives on ideologies. For instance, Liberals, have viewed ideologies as officially endorsed belief systems that claim a monopoly of truth, for example communism and fascism. Conservatives have traditionally regarded ideologies as manifestations of the arrogance of rationalism. Socialists have seen ideologies as body of ideas that conceal the contradictions of class society, thereby promoting false perception and political obedience amongst subordinate classes per se, Heywood (2004).

Having looked at political theory from an academic perspective as based on the premises on which it operates, the concepts, the models, the theories and the ideologies with their relationship to real political practice, I would, therefore, understand political theory as an approach to the study of politics based on mere social constructs, of course, without proof.


Heywood, A. (2004). Political Theory: An Introduction, London Palgrave.

Heywood, A. (2007). Politics (3rd Ed) London: Palgrave.

Hoffman, J. and Graham, P. (2009).Introduction to Political Theory (2nd Ed): Pearson Education Limited, England.

Leftwich, A. (2004).(Ed) What is Politics? Cambridge: Polity Press.

Wehmeier, S. et. al (2006). (Ed): Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, (7th Edition), International Student’s Edition. Oxford University Press.