The meaning of political theory


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Human life is a complex creation on the earth’s surface. It is inevitably interesting to think of how humans think about where they come from, where they are now, their values and norms, differing views and perception about the social, economic and political arrangements of the world they live in, and their hope for a better society or world. Aristotle, (1996) argues that man is by nature a political animal. This further complicates the already complex human life as it entails that Politics exists at every corner of human life and is an intrinsic feature of mankind, despite controversies on what is ‘political’ and not. These arguments further erupt over the legitimate order and meaning of political phenomenon or empirical political actions, with regards to what Heywood, (2004) refers to as political values or normative concepts, for instance; justice, liberty, rights, equality, and descriptive concepts like; power, order and law, to mention a few. Political theory is, therefore, concerned with ethical or normative questions like, ‘How should power be distributed amongst individuals and the state?’, ‘What should the limit of an individual’s rights and liberty be?’. But then, what is Political Theory? This paper discusses the meaning of Political theory and attempts to find a better definition of the nomenclature.

The desire to find the meaning to Political Theory requires the meaning of theory. The word theory originates from the Greek word “theoria”, meaning the act or procedure or state of contemplation over something going on with the intention to understand it. Political Theory may, therefore, be described as the act or procedure of having a long thoughtful observation, with intention of understanding the meaning of what may be referred to as “political”. However, this is not a description enough to quench the desire for a better definition, hence rendering political theory contested.

As defined by Held, (1991: cited by Farrelly, 2004), political theory is “ a network of concepts and generalizations about political life involving ideas, assumptions and statements about the nature, purpose and key features of government, state and society and about the political capabilities of human beings”. Heywood, (2004) also contends that political theory is sets of ideas or an idea that in some way seeks to impose order or meaning upon prevailing political phenomena. In general, political theory essentially provides necessary analytical tools like; concepts, models, theories and ideologies, to analyze, understand and criticize Political thought and practice.

Concepts, as described by Heywood, (2004) serve as building blocks of human knowledge and are, therefore, general idea or mental construct through which meaning is draw out from an otherwise infinitely complex reality. State, presidency, and political party are examples of concepts. However, the complexity of political reality often renders some concepts insufficient to explain, in great deal, political practice and are often contested, hence Heywood, (2004)’s argument that Politics as a struggle over the legitimacy of concepts.

On this background, models and theories were developed. Models successfully devise representations of empirical data that aim at advancing understanding of a number of concepts by highlighting the significant relationships and interactions among them. A theory comprises many models and establishes an explanatory proposition which comprehensively, systematically, consistently and reliably explains and predicts, in full details, political actions and behavior. Pluralism is an example of a theory and is explained by models of the state, electoral competition and group Politics.

Theories are, however, not enough analytical tools to give a wider explanation of the structure of the world and predict future events, hence the need for a more comprehensive tool – ideologies or paradigms. Heywood, (2004) describes ideologies as intellectual frameworks that comprise interrelated values, theories and assumptions, within which search for knowledge is conducted. Liberalism, Socialism and Conservatism are examples of Political Ideologies. These grand philosophical thoughts explain reality based on the assumptions of what is going on. For instance, if a state claims to be a Liberal, assumptions like; existence of capitalist economic system, an individual’s space, that is, rights and liberty, precede that of the collective, individual property ownership, are drawn.

Analysis made on ideologies revealed their short falls, hence, led to establishment of other ideologies in reaction to these short falls. For instance, the failure of capitalism, liberal’s economic system, to redistribute wealth between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat led to the evolution of Socialism which emphasizes welfarism.

Most students studying Politics confuse Political theory to[G1] other disciplines that deal with politics, such as political philosophy, political science and history. It is, however, important that a distinction line be drawn among these fields of study. Political theory can be meaningless to the exclusion of history and political philosophy. History enriches us with enough knowledge of the political strives that states have experienced and evolved through. It also informs the strains and stress that lead to the creation of political ideologies through the remarkable works of Aristotle, Plato and other great thinkers.

Political theory dwells in these premises; digs out the history of states and governments; analyzes their grand philosophical thoughts, known as political ideologies in order to understand, explain and/or criticize them, and predict future events. Political theory deals with fundamental problems of the state, such as rights, liberty, justice and equality to mention a few. It does not create the fundamentals themselves, but only tries to analyze, understand and explain them so as to predict better social, economic and political arrangements that will create what Heywood, (2004) refers to as a ‘good or just society’. For example, Political theory is not concerned with what liberty and rights are. It is rather interested in comprehending the extent to which the exercise of rights and liberty is just.

Political tTheory can be approached in two imperative ways. On one hand is the normative or tradition approach which concentrates on the historical, philosophical, institutional and legal orientations of political phenomenon, for instance, Thomas Hobbes’ theory of the state. On the other hand empirical approach believes in facts, as opposed to values, obtained through scientific methods to make sense of political behavior; for example, David Easton’s model of a political system. Political theory invariably treasures both normative values and empirical facts in order to predict a just society.

It is apparent from the discussions on this paper that a precise definition for political theory is invariably difficult as it is subject to contention due to its complexity. It incorporates necessary aspects of history, political philosophy and political science. Nevertheless, political theory can be describes as nothing but a field of study that provides analytical tools, like; concepts, models, theories and ideologies or paradigms in order to impose meaning, understanding, criticism and prediction of political thought and action. It treasures both normative values and empirical facts to predict political phenomenon and it is through a vast knowledge of these analytical tools that a ‘just society’ can be predicted.


Aristotle, (1996). The Politics and the Constitution of Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Farrelly, C. (2004). Contemporary Political Theory, London: Sage Publications

Heywood, A. (2004). Political Theory, An Introduction, 3rd ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan