Can there be a political science?

Week 2

Learning objectives:

  • Describe five tools for gathering primary data in the social sciences
  • Understand the difference between correlation and causality
  • Differentiate between dependent and independent variables
  • Identify the role of the hypothesis
  • Identify the concept of theory

Class coordinators

Dr Last


As we discuss the nature of political science as a discipline, consider the question, what is it useful for future leaders to know, and why? We’ll lead into this discussion by considering what’s in the domestic and international news.

  • Then we will discuss the main fields within the discipline of political science.
  • Political theory and political philosophy
  • National government and politics (e.g. Canadian politics)
  • Comparative government and politics
  • Public administration and law
  • International relations and strategic studies

Contending approaches discussed in Chapter 2 have evolved within the discipline of political science in response to the question, “how do we come to know that something is true?”  As you are reading these sections, ask yourself, why did particular approaches become more or less popular over time? What influences in the real world, including the influence of other disciplines, may have affected the way in which political scientists shaped their discipline?

  • formal legal approaches
  • systems analysis
  • political culture
  • political economy
  • rational choice
  • new institutionalism
  • feminism and post-modernism

As we move on to discuss the nature of political science, consider how can we be more rigorous and systematic in answering practical questions about the management of interests, which beset the profession charged with managing violence.

Tremblay, Ch. 3 includes the following material – for which some questions are provided:

  • Epistemology: how do we know what we know? Proof in the social sciences (if something was true in the past, is it necessarily true now?)
  • Descriptive, normative, and empirical approaches – how are they different?
  • Scientific method and its application to social problems – incremental falsification and paradigm shifts
  • We will add five basic methods of collecting primary data in the social sciences, which you should be able to explain:
    • experimentation
    • surveys and interviews
    • correlation of data (unobtrusive)
    • text analysis
    • observation and participant observation
  • Levels of analysis: individuals, groups, structures and functions
  • Sources of data, data collection, qualitative and quantitative components

Is it time to abolish the social “sciences” ?

In an interview with CBC, Professor Michael Lind, Research Fellow at the New America Foundation, claims that whole fields of research have lost their way, and cannot replicate results or produce useful work.

Learning objectives

  • Describe five tools for gathering primary data in the social sciences
  • Understand the difference between correlation and causality
  • Differentiate between dependent and independent variables
  • Identify the role of the hypothesis
  • Identify the concept of theory

Required readings

Tremblay, ch.2 & 3

Scott, ch.13 see skills, read the links in the section on Sources

  • how we know what isn’t so
  • five means of evaluating on-line sources

Optional readings

A series of short videos about research methods in social psychology, generally relevant to the social sciences.

The introduction to Goodin’s section on political methodology is a good place to start for a deeper understanding of why we do what we do.

Bhattacherjee, Anol (2012) Social Science Research: Principles, Methods, Practices. University of South Florida Scholar Commons. This is a 160-page textbook used to introduce graduate students to the challenges of advanced research.

Beissel-Durrant, Gabriele (2004) “A Typology of Research Methods with the social sciences.  NCRM Working Paper. This 22-page document provides a seven-part typology of social research methods. The categories are useful for highlighting some of the tools that you will have access to as you progress in your education in the social sciences – frameworks for research design, data collection tools, data quality and data management, data handling and data analysis, software and simulation, research management and application of research, and research skills, communication and dissemination.

Paul Kennedy, “It’s the Economists, Stupid” CBC Ideas9 September 2015. “Interest rates.  Unemployment. GDP.  Markets. Austerity measures.  Economists tell us what we, as societies, can and can’t afford.  But how do they decide? What values are at play? CBC Ideas producer Mary O’Connell speaks with two economists about how modern mantras on the economy limit our choices and shut down civic debate.”


Use the political compass to assess your own position in the political spectrum. After you have taken the test, read the analysis page to understand how it is formulated, and how your answers help to position you on the grid.  How accurate or useful do you think it is?  Why are there specific pages for countries and individual elections?  For the seminar, take note of the questions that you are answering to permit the software to place you in a quadrant.

Self-assessment questions

  1. Why are there different approaches to the study of political science?

  2. what are five basic tools for gathering primary data in the social sciences?

  3. what is the difference between a primary and a secondary source  when you are doing research?

  4. what does correlation mean?  Why is it not the same as causality?

  5. Why are dependent and independent variables difficult to manage in a social science research problem?

  6. what is a hypothesis, and why do we sometimes resort to ‘null’ hypotheses?

  7. what is a theory?  How do we know when we have a good one?


We will begin every class with a quick review of domestic and international news items, dwelling on those items that are related to the material covered in the class.

The seminar this week will begin with a discussion of your response to the political compass (we will do more on that next week).  We will then move on to discuss sources and methods, using this week’s assignment and your first written assignment as points of departure.  Be prepared to have something to say about each.


Weekly activities can be adjusted by class coordinators in consultation with the professor

Week 5 checklist of material

[1] Introduction from class coordinator – time allocation

[2] Current events of political significance (domestic, international) [60s]

[3] Review/amend focus of learning objectives  [5D]

[4] Key terms [5D, GLI]

[5] Mapping the political landscape [5D, GLI]

[6] External resources [class coordinator]

[7] Exam questions [5D, GLI]

[8] Looking ahead: next week’s class coordinator introduces (last 15 minutes)

Next up

The concept of ideology

David Last, updated September 2016