In this article, we will try to understand the fundamental differences between political theory, philosophy, science and ideology. This is important, especially from both mains and interview perspective, where one may be asked basic questions about our subject.
A ‘theory’ in general is proposed to explain certain phenomena or to provide some solution. Different theories may be proposed to explain why things happen the way they do. And a theory may be a single idea or collection of ideas.
However, political theory should not be treated as a mere extension of this general term. In our discipline, political theory suggests a particular approach to the subject. Political theory emphasizes the analytical study of ideas central to political thought. It tries to analyze the meaning of fundamental terms such as liberty, justice, state etc. and to understand the questions like – why should one obey the state?, how rewards should be distributed? etc. Thus, political theory naturally focuses on the study of ideas proposed by various classical scholars on these questions.
This term is closest to political theory. However, along with critical evaluation of the political beliefs, political philosophy is more concerned about clarifying and refining the concepts employed in political science. Thus, as Andre Heywood explains, ‘despite the best efforts of political philosophers to remain impartial and objective, they are inevitably concerned with justifying certain political viewpoints at the expense of others and with upholding a particular understanding of a concept rather than alternative ones’.
Science refers to the systematic study of a subject at hand. Simply put, political science is a broad term used to denote the study of political ideas, theories, philosophies, ideologies etc. The discipline which deals with political life and associated ideas.
However, a narrow interpretation of ‘political science’ is also possible. Science denotes hypotheses, experimentation, verification, evidence etc. By these, it claims to produce knowledge that is objective, universal and reliable. ‘Political science’ thus refers to the 20th-century movement which sought to convert political science into a ‘pure science’. Led by David Easton, the experiment ultimately failed, and over a period of time, the term political science came to describe the entire discipline of the subject as discussed in the above para.
Ideology is quite distinct from all the above terms. It denotes a set of ideas, a world view or a holistic system of thought. A grand theory whose purpose is often the mobilization of voters. An ideology is always associated with its proponents. As Karl Mannheim suggests, every ideology represents the interest of a particular class, e.g. liberalism, Marxism etc.