Note: In your text, Corbett and Le Roy do not use the term "theory" as a separate step in their outline of the research process (see chapter 1). Rather they just use the phrase "Literature Review." I would argue that the purpose of the review is to see what existing theory is, that it is a means to the end. They do , however, use the term in the next step, "Formulating the hypothesis." They do correctly note that the hypothesis should be grounded in what we already know about political reality.
Theories are used in all areas of political science. So no matter what kind of political science course you take, you will be taking a course in theory. More generally, all social sciences and all sciences use theory. In fact, the whole process of scientific research is about discovering, testing, and improving theories. The facts that we base on observation and accept as reality are important because of the implications they have for theories.
When Sir Isaac Newton observed the apple falling from the tree, the significance of that observable and therefore scientifically factual event was not that the apple did in fact fall. Rather, its significance was the implications of that event for his theories on classical physics. After much testing and application these theories later became known as laws. Later physicists found that these classical laws of gravity and motion had limited applicability. They improved upon them using theories developed by Einstein.
The same thing is true in political science, although our theories are much less elegant and precise (the "rational choice" people have been trying to change this by creating mathematical representations of theories, if you recall). When you observe that your old friend at work who got a promotion and became a boss no longer acts friendly toward you, you have observed a political fact that fits into a social science theory known as Michels' "Iron Law of Oligarchy." Your observation had scientific significance if you thought about it in more general terms. Of course, it also had personal significance--losing a friend is sad. But if you understand the theory, coping and not blaming yourself or your friend becomes easier.
Michels' law has a couple of implications. The first one is that leaders and followers will always exist. Moreover, most people are content to just simply follow. That gives an advantage to those who would like to lead, especially when a group is forming. All you have to do is speak up first and you are almost immediately seen as a leader. That is true at work and it is true in social settings as well. A small group of leaders--an oligarchy--develops pretty quickly.
Second, leaders develop separate interests from their followers. The most important of these is an interest in maintaining and often even increasing the perquisites (that means benefits--like special hours, eating areas, parking places, faculty bathrooms, executive washrooms, and so on) that go along with being a leader. The danger here is that leaders may lose touch with their followers. They may even begin to exploit their followers in order to protect and expand their perquisites. Do you ever feel that your boss wants you to really sacrifice yourself so that she/he can get a promotion or a raise? This is part of what people mean when they say that power corrupts.
At this point I hope you understand that theories are important. They are central to what we do in science and in political science. So before we start talking about some of them, let's start by defining them and then discussing some of their characteristics and qualities.
Just as for political science, no one single definition exists that everyone accepts. So I'll give you a couple and underline the main ideas of each.
Most simply, theory refers to a set of relationships. If you think about it this way, then the word "school" is a theory. School signifies very specific and concrete observable relationships. If you go somewhere and observe teachers and students and maybe a little learning going on (but not necessarily), you have probably found a school.
A more complex definition of political theory is a set of specified relationships involving political matters that focus and organize our inquiry in our attempt to describe, explain, and predict political events and behaviors. The most powerful political theories accomplish all three goals: describe, explain, and predict.
Let's look at the key ideas in this definition. This definition is similar to the previous simple definition because it also involves relationships. For example, Michels' theory on oligarchy involved power relationships between leaders and followers.
The definition eliminates all relationships that are not political in nature. Think about the definitions of politics. Nearly all involve power in some way. So if the relationships involve power questions, then we are in the area of political theory. Michels' theory qualifies.
Next, the definition tells us that the relationships in question "focus and organize our inquiry." That means the theory tells us at what we should look and suggests what questions we should ask. Again, using Michels' theory, we will look at how leaders arise and how they relate to their followers. We will ask about how their perceived self-interests develop and how these interests begin to differ from those of their followers. We will ask when and if followers begin to realize that their leaders have separate interests.
Finally, the definition lays out the goals of all theory: describe, explain, and predict. A good theory should help us describe what is going on. In doing so, the theory should help us separate the significant from the trivial and irrelevant. It should help us explain why these things happen, for example, why and how a disease develops, or why and how leaders develop different interests. The third goal is prediction. If we know the explanation and the relevant conditions that are present when things begin to change, we can even predict when these changes will take place. For example, different interests will develop more quickly when leaders have separate offices that are physically distant from followers.
The steps we go through in building theories are an essential, perhaps the most essential part of any science. Each research project that is done should have adding to existing theory as its most general goal. Let us now study the different types of theories and learn about different examples of each type. These examples are important in that they are useful in understanding the world around us.
B. Scopes of theories
All theories have a scope. Scope simply refers to how broad or how narrow a theory is in its application. The scope ranges from extremely broad to quite narrow.
1. Macro-level theories
These theories have the broadest scope. In political science they would be those that describe, explain, or predict the behavior of whole governments, or of many governments in international systems. One good example of a macro-level theory is "balance of power" theory, which describes how nations seek power to make sure that other nations cannot overwhelm them. One political scientist, Hans Morganthau, equated balance of power theory in international relations with the importance of the law of gravity in physics: a politician who dismisses "balance of power" is about as foolish as "a scientist who says he does not believe in the law of gravity." What we are seeing in the Middle East with Iran and Syria forming an alliance against the US, even though Iran is Shia and Syria is Sunni, is an excellent example of this theory at work. They fear that the US may overwhelm them so they join together. If the US should leave, the theory says they will then likely break apart. Something of the same thing happened in Vietnam with China and North Vietnam, historical enemies, joining together in opposition to the presence of the US and the government supported by the US in South Vietnam. After the US left China and Vietnam almost immediately went to war with each other.
Example: Systems Theory
Systems theory is another macro-level theory
that focuses on whole nations and presumably applies to all nations. It
was developed by a political scientist named David Easton during the period
that we called the behavioralist revolution. Systems theory is based on
observations about how nations survive and answers the question of how
do nations persist? It is perhaps best understood in terms of a diagram
having four major parts: inputs, conversion, outputs, and feedback. You
should note in the figure below that two kinds of feedback exist. Internal
feedback is that which affects other parts of the political system. External
feedback affects parts of other systems. You should also note that the
political system is bounded by a dotted line. This signifies that actors
move in and out of the political system into other systems.
Systems theory can apply to any existing nation. A successful nation will convert demands (unhappy voters or groups that threaten violence or some other form of action) into a mixture of rewards (services, opportunities, protections, honors) and deprivations (imprisonment, taxes, restrictions, loss of rights, public criticisms) so that the internal feedback generates enough support (following the law, being productive, paying taxes voluntarily, voting for leaders) for the system to survive. By conversion we simply mean making decisions and passing policies, things that all governments do. If a government is failing to get sufficient support internally, they must get external support or the government fails. Think about his this applies today to the existing government in Iraq.
Systems theory, because it is dynamic (that is, it is an ongoing process), predicts that change is likely to take place when supports are insufficient, because all systems try to maintain themselves. It also predicts that systems that do not change will fail. However, the theory does not tell us exactly what these actions will be, nor does it tell us whether or not they will be successful. Other kinds of theories would have to give us some help there. As you can see from this brief account, systems theory is strongest in description and explanation and weakest in prediction (except in the most general terms).
From this brief discussion, I hope you can see how systems theory helps us to describe, explain, and to some degree predict the actions of a political system. It focuses and organizes our inquiry to ask several questions. What demands are being made? Who makes them? What is the form of the demands? What are the rewards and deprivations created by the political leaders? How effectively are they in generating support necessary for continued existence? If you remember, the central question that systems theory asks is "how do political systems persist". From this discussion, you should understand that the general answer that systems theory provides is that political systems persist by converting inputs into outputs that generate support through feedback.
2. Middle Range theories
Middle range theories are those that describe, explain, and predict political behavior and events of subunits of whole governments or of groups. An example would be organizational theory, a very important part of the study of public administration that focuses on how bureaucracies behave under different circumstances. If you were to take some public administration courses, you would learn some of these theories, hopefully well enough to be able to prosper in our bureaucratically organized world.
Example: Critical Election Theory
Critical election theory has mainly descriptive and explanatory value in dealing with elections in the United States. It explains where people get their party identifications (party ID) and uses party ID to explain electoral outcomes. It focuses our attention on those events that may permanently or temporarily disturb party ID. It has some predictive power in telling us that when no factors affect party identification, the election can be predicted on the basis of party lines and a split among the independents.
Critical election theory classifies elections into one of four categories, depending on the circumstances surrounding the election.
1) Normal elections. This is when people vote their normal party identifications because no major events cause a significant number of people to do otherwise. Examples would be the presidential elections of 1940 and 1976, when in both cases the majority party, the Democrats, voted as Democrats and carried the election for their candidate.
2) Critical elections. Sometimes these are called realigning elections. These are those elections in which some dramatic crisis or set of events causes large groups of people to adopt new party identifications. These new ID's are so strong that they are passed down to their children, and then to their children's children, and so on. This process is much the same way that religious ID's are transmitted between generations. It is part of the process of political socialization, the process by which we are taught political values.
The problem in identifying a critical election is that you can't be sure you've had one until it is over. You can't be sure because the proof is in the persistence of the new identification in future generations. The last critical election we know about for sure was either in 1932 or 1936 (political scientists are divided as to which it is--I would argue that it was really 1936) in which enough non-southern workers and minority group members became Democrats to make them the new majority party. Of course, the event was the Great Depression and the reason for the mass change was approval of the New Deal policies of Roosevelt and the Democratic Party. Looking back further, most political scientists agree that the nation has had a critical election about every 30 years. If so, we are overdue. We'll talk more about that shortly.
3) Dealigning Elections. These usually precede critical elections. What happens here is that events and failures of the current majority party to deal with those events cause people to drop their old party identifications WITHOUT moving to the other party--they are likely to become independents. Another way to think about this is that people reject one party without identifying with the other. I would argue that this is what happened in 1932. Most Americans voted AGAINST Hoover and the Republicans for their failure to deal with the Great Depression. Roosevelt won because he was not Hoover. He won by default. Only in the next election did Roosevelt win in any positive sense.
4) Deviating Elections. You might think about these as a much milder version of a critical election. Deviating elections are characterized by temporary issues and factors that cause those people with party ID's to vote for the candidate of the other party, but not change their party ID. In the next election they are likely to go back to their own party in voting as the issue passes or as the temporary factor disappears. These temporary factors and issues can be such things as an issue position on which voters strongly disagree with their party's candidate. For example, blue collar workers abandoned Hubert Humphrey in 1968 because Nixon took a more hawkish stance on the Vietnam War. Another temporary factor could be the personal traits of a candidate that partisans dislike. For example, John Kennedy did not do well among Southern Democrats in 1960 because of his Catholic religious identification.
Political scientists disagree about the proper classification of presidential elections since 1980. A significant movement away from the Democratic identification seems to have occurred without a corresponding increase among the Republicans. The only group to clearly move to the Republicans are white Southerners. Beyond this group, the "no party" or "independent" classification seems to have grown about as much as the Republican identification. The end result is that today the Democrats still have a slight edge in identifications, but all three categories are in the 30 to 40% range. We can use MicroCase and the data archives to track this over time. A good lab exercise.
The current situation is quite unstable, with the electorate moving from one party to the other depending on the particular candidates and short term forces. Political scientists find that in most presidential elections 80% of the electorate votes quite predictably. Both parties can count on about 40% of the vote. The outcome is generally decided by the other 20%.
If the Democrats had won credit for the good economic times we were having in the late 1990s and Republicans were remembered as the party that ran big deficits in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Democrats could have built a new majority. But that did not happen. Economic advantages were offset by public disgust with the personal moral corruption of President Clinton. The only thing we are saw was a slight increase in the independent category. The country seemed satisfied with split control of government, not trusting either party to rule. Things were so evenly divided in 2000 that neither party was a clear winner. The Senate was split 50/50, and the presidential race was so close that the popular vote winner lost the electoral vote. Yet people accepted the strange outcome in which the Supreme Court essentially decided who won the election. Turnout was only up slightly, mostly due to the closeness of the election. Clearly no realignment took place. Nor was it normal in the sense that Democrats did less well than they should have. We can probably classify it as another deviating or dealigning election that only increased disillusionment with voting.
Short term forces caused a lot of people to vote for a president who seemed to be taking a strong stand in fighting terrorism in 2004, and Americans reelected their "wartime president." 2004 appears to have been a deviating election in which Republicans did better than they would in a normal election. The question after that election was whether they could turn short term forces to increase Republican identifications, and that rested on the success of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They had a chance for a critical realignment. But they did not as the Iraq War got costlier and costlier with little progress. Thus they lost both houses of congress in 2006. As the war dragged on voters began to spread the blame to the Democratic Congress so that neither party was in a stronger position.
As we look to 2008, it appears
that the nation is undergoing more dealignment. The situation
remains ripe for a long overdue realignment, at least from the perspective of
critical election theory. Notice how critical election theory focuses our
attention on specific questions about changing party identifications and events
that affect these identifications.
3. Micro-level theories
Micro-level theories focus on the behavior of individuals engaged in political activities, that is, the smallest possible political unit. Many of these theories are psychological and sociological in their orientation and draw upon the methods of these other disciplines. Many very fascinating theories about such things as presidential personality would fit under this category. The example I will give you here is more applicable to the politics of everyday life.
Example: role theory
Let me explain role theory by applying it to you as students. Role theory focuses our attention on three major variables. The first, role expectations, refers to those things that are expected of you as students. You are expected, for example, to attend class regularly, to do your readings and understand them, to turn in assignments on time, and to do well on your tests. You create some of these expectations for yourself. But others create them for you as well. These others include your family, peers, teachers, and even possibly your employers if they are helping to pay your way.
The second variable is role resources. This refers to what you have at your disposal to meet the expectations that exist. As college students, you have the skills you acquired in high school and grammar school, or perhaps in lower level college courses. You have whatever time is available to you once you meet your family and possibly work obligations. You may have money to hire tutors or bribe the professor. You have whatever raw intellectual ability you were lucky enough to be born with. The more of these resources you have, the better you will be able to meet your role expectations. That gets us to the third variable.
Role stress is the shortfall between role expectations and role resources. As I am sure you know, most students usually suffer a shortfall. Enough time never exists. Teachers always seem to expect a little better paper or exam than you can produce. They expect you to remember more from other courses than you possibly can remember. As a result, you feel stress.
Role theory does a good job in describing this situation and focusing our attention on how people seek to cope with role stress. Different coping strategies can be explained in terms of what resources people have and how they try to stretch them to meet expectations. Alternatively, people may attempt to reduce the role expectations that exist. How do you reduce your role stress as students?
Role theory has been applied to political lobbyists who are expected by their employers to control the entire legislative process--an impossible expectation. How do lobbyists cope with this impossible situation? They spend a great deal of time telling their employers what is and is not possible. They are using their reputation as experts on the legislative process to reduce the expectations that their employers have for them.
The theory does little to predict exactly how people will deal with role stress. So while it is powerful in description and explanation, it is relatively weak at prediction.
As you may be noticing by now, most of our theories are weakest at prediction. This is because prediction is the most difficult of the tasks we have set out to accomplish.
C. Two general types of theories in political science
In addition to classifying theories in terms of their scope, we might divide all of political science theory into one of two general classifications: normative theory and empirical theory. As you will see, the differences between these two kinds of theory are not as clear in practice as they might seem in abstract definitions. In addition, the differences between those who teach and do research in these two areas reflects the conflict we examined earlier between the behavioralists and the post-behavioralists.
1. Normative theory--"Ought" theory
Normative theory involves questions of VALUE, of what we SHOULD do, or of what we OUGHT to do. This is the stuff of political philosophy, and as you know it is the oldest area of political study. Normative theory has had something of a renaissance with the post-behavioralist movement.
2. Empirical theory--"Is" theory
Empirical theory deals more with questions of what IS rather than what SHOULD be. This is the kind of theory used by behavioralist political scientists. Empirical theorists lay out hypotheses that can be tested by applying the scientific method. These hypotheses are generated by theories. The results of the tests lead to refinement of these theories.
D. "Fact" statements and "value" statements in theories
Virtually every theory involves either fact statements or value statements or both--usually both. The difference and relationship between these kinds of statements reflect the difference and relationship between normative and empirical theory.
Fact statements are those that can be observed as being true or not true using one of the five human senses. Another way of saying this is that fact statements can be tested scientifically. Empirical theory deals with these kinds of statements. They meet the test of intersubjective transmissibility. That is, they are tested through simple observations about which we can most likely agree. For example, we can agree that a meter registered at 14, or that the respondent said "yes" to the question, or that the senator voted in favor of the bill. We can use one of our senses to observe what happened and what we observed is usually not subject to controversy.
On the other hand, value statements cannot be tested directly. Even though sensory observation might be used to determine what candidate or policy is "best," we are likely to disagree about the conclusion because of the values that get involved with what we see or hear. Normative theory deals mainly with value statements.
2. Examples. Let me give you some example of each and you see if you can tell the difference.
a. Democratic nations are better to live in than nondemocratic nations. Now you probably all agree with this statement. Nevertheless, it is clearly a value statement in that it involves the speaker making a preference, a judgment that involves a great deal of interpretation. Exactly what do we mean by "better?" If by better health, then living in Castro's Cuba may be better than living in many places in the U.S. If we mean having political freedoms, then a different conclusion would be drawn.
b. Democratic nations have higher per capita incomes than nondemocratic nations. All of you also probably agree with this one as well. However, it is a fact statement because it can be directly tested using the sense of sight in looking at generally accepted economic measures and generally accepted classifications of nations. The observations are intersubjectively transmissible. So far, so good. Now let me give you one that may seem a little tricky.
c. Most students on this campus feel that democracy is the best form of government. Be careful here! It sounds like the first statement in which there were values involved. Only this time it's not the values of the speaker, but rather the values of a group of individuals that she/he is speaking of, in this case students on this campus. Moreover, this time you can test the statement in ways that depend on the five senses and get results that are again intersubjectively transmissible. That is, people will be able to agree whether or not the statement is true based on the test and the test alone. We could simply do a survey of all students on the campus or even a reasonable sample of them and SEE if in FACT they do feel that democracy is the best form of government. We'll talk more about doing surveys and samples later on.
3. Relationships between values and facts in science
If you think about the three examples I just gave you, you may already see that a relationship exists between value statements and fact statements. We can often take a value statement that is not directly testable and approximate it with a related fact statement that is testable. If by "better" we mean higher incomes, or less illiteracy, or more indoor bathrooms or whatever, we can do some observation and testing.
If you think about this some more, you realize that the next question is whether or not we can ever FULLY test and prove a value statement by testing all conceivably related fact statements. As you might guess, this is another question on which many disagree. I would tend to say that the answer is no, because no matter how many tests of "better" we might come up with, someone can think of another. It's kind of like the concept of mathematical infinity--you keep trying, but you never can get there. You can always add one more.
E. Sources for theory--the Literature Search
After you have chosen a problem you must find out what is known. Where should you start?
1. Text books. A great place to start is with a current general text, providing that it has footnotes and references. A public opinion text is a great starting source for any problem relating to public opinion. Find the reference for the subject in which you are interested and then use that reference to work your way back to other references.
2. On-line searches. We have excellent library search tools available to us here. the available tools change a little every year, The best way to get to them is to just go to the library home page off the USCA homepage under "academics" and then "library."
3. Web searches. The amount of material on the Web is expanding at an exponential rate. The problem is that much of it is unedited and unevaluated. You can find conflicting facts and half-baked theories all presented in great color with really snazzy graphics. But that does not make it true. As an "authority" the Web has serious flaws because any idiot with a computer modem can put up anything they want (e.g. Wikopedia). So here the key is evaluation--was it edited?
A number of standard ways
exist to make citations in your paper. I prefer the parenthetical method
in which you give the author's last name and page number in the text and
then under "Works Cited" at the end of the paper give the full reference
using a standard form. Here is a great url that shows you all you need
to know about citations of all kinds using MLA style:
Included at the cite are how to cite both electronic and standard sources.
Go again to some political science scholarly journal. Using ONE different
scholarly article other than you have used before, describe the theory
section of the article (if you cannot find theory in your article, find
another article). How many sources did the author utilize?
What are the types of sources used, journal articles, books, popular
magazine articles, or what? What is the major theory in the article?
Is the theory empirical or normative? Is it micro, middle range,