political science

Political Theory; meaning and definitions, importance and significance

Political Theory

Before analysing the definitions of Political Theory as given by some political scientists let us understand the meaning of two words ‘Political‘ and ‘Theory’.

A. Political

The word ‘Political’ is the adjective of Politics. In a traditional sense, it means relating to polis i.e. state and government. In this way Political Theory means theory of state or theory of state and government. However, in contemporary times the term political is defined in a broader way. It means power and power relations. Political relations involve power to a significant extent. Lasswell and Kaplan define Politics as the study of “the shaping and sharing of power.” The emphasis now shifts from the study of state to study of power. Politics involves the study of power and the powerful. In a very popular way Politics/ Political Science is defined as the study of struggle for power in society. Political Theory means the theory of Politics i .e. power relations in society.


We will like to define ‘Political’ in a broader and all-inclusive way. For us it means, all activities concerned with state, government and political relations/power relations in society.

B. Theory

Theory be defined as a set of inter-related propositions/principles/concepts which are designed to explain and synthesise the ideas and conclusions or generalisations pertaining to a discipline. In its traditional form, theory is a normative exercise. It explains and prescribes values and offers a philosophy of the concerned subject. In its modern form, theory is taken to mean a set of tested and valid generalisations arrived at through the use of scientific method of study. It is conceptualised as scientific theory. Several modern scholars however, accept both these forms of theory i.e. normative theory and empirical scientific theory. They adopt and advocate an integrated view of Theory.

After having understood the meaning of the two terms ‘Political’ and ‘Theory’, let us define Political Theory. In simple words Political Theory means theory of Politics, Theory of State and Government and theory of political relations in society.

Political Theory; meaning and definitions, changing nature and scope, importance and significance are given below:

Political Theory


1.Political Theory is the theory of Politics. It seeks to understand analyse and explain the political phenomena and prescribes ways and means to reform it”:

2. “In a very broad sense political theory is anything about politics or relevant to politics. However in its specific and narrow sense, it is “the disciplined investigation of political problems.”   By -Sabine

3. “A combination of disinterested search for the principles of good state and good society on the one hand and a search for knowledge of political and social reality on the other.” By -Andrew Hacker

4. “Political Theory includes political science and political philosophy”. By -George Catlin

Several modern political scientists define political theory as a set of theories or generalisations which describe or explain various dimensions of politics. It can be said that Political Theory involves both the philosophy and science of state, government and politics. It is both normative as well as empirical in nature and content.


We can identity the following features of Political Theory

1.Political Theory is theory of politics. It seeks to understand, analyse and explain the phenomena of politics. It also attempts to reform by rectifying the shortcomings in
the political life of society.

2.Political Theory, like an ideology, also includes a set of beliefs, values and ideas which stand accepted by the people in the process of their governance.

3.Political Theory involves systematic reflections on politics or state or government or political institutions. It is generally the intellectual and moral creation of a single thinker who offers a theoretical explanation of the political reality-the phenomena
of state.
4.Political Theory can be normative or empirical or both.
5. Description, analysis, explanation, prediction and change are the goals of Political Theory.
6.Scope of Political Theory covers all areas of political relations.
7. Finally, Political Theory is related to the state, government and political Institutions. It is the handiwork of philosophers, historian, economists, theologians, sociologist, thinkers, journalists, intellectuals and all others who try to comprehend and explain the political reality.


The nature and scope of Political Theory has been continuously changing and developing in response to socio-economic political cultural changes which always keep on coming in every society. Political Theory has been getting formulated and deveIoped in the light of different developments and issues of different periods of history.

Political Theory in Ancient Period of History

In the ancient times, the political theory remained primarily concerned with such issues as ideal state or best political order. It tried to answer such questions as : What should be the state ?, What should be the ideal state ?,What should be he ideal relation between the individual and his state?, What should be the nature and purpose of state ?, What should be
the basis of political participation and political obligation?, What is ideal citizenship ?, What is good life in the state ?, and the like.

Political Theory in Middle Ages

In the medieval period, Political Theory remained concerned with such issues as relationship between Religion and Politics i.e. between Church and State. Whether church was supreme or supremacy was with the state ? While Christian saints (like Acquinas) advocated the supremacy of the church over the state, philosophers (secularists) like Marsilio strongly advocated the case of supremacy of state over all institutions, including the church.

Political Theory Since 15th Century

After the birth of Nation State, State came to be accepted as supreme and sovereign institution exercising power over all the persons and places. However, now the issue of supremacy the king vs the Parliament became the central focus of theory. The orgin and nature of state, the basis of the authority of the state and its rulers, the issue of divine rights of the king vs the natural rights of the people, and several others became the dominant subjects of political theorising. Rights and Liberty of the people also emerged as central issues.

In the 18th century, the issue of rights of man and citizen became a dominant theme. The French Revolutionaries and the authors of the American Declaration of Independence strongly advocated the high importance of rights and liberty of each individual. Thereafter, under the impact of Industrial Revolution which acted as a source of big socio-economio changes in the society, several big issues came to the fore front and several political philosophers and theorists came out with their theories and issues. Rights, liberty, equality, justice, property, law, legal rights, and several others came to be the major areas of theory building and philosophical contemplation. The scope of Political Theory got expanded in a big way.

The discipline of Political Science emerged as a popular subject of study and research. Comparative study of governments working in several European countries became a popular exercise. The birth and popularity of Marxism in the second half of 19th century gave rise to such issues as capitalism, Democracy Proletarian Revolution, Socialism, Communism, class antagonism, class struggle, rights of workers, trade unionism, social and economic rights of the workers and all socio-economic issues and problems.

The coming of Socialist Revolution in Russia in in the second decade of the 20th century, gave a new dimension to the issue of capitalism vs communism, Western Liberal Democracy vs Proletarian Republicanism, and Liberal Political Theory vs Marxian Political Theory became a very hot subject of debate.

In 1940s, Political Science experienced the Behavioural Revolution and it gave rise to several new and big issues in the study of Politics. The Behaviouralist political theorists placed emphasis upon the study of human behaviour in Politics, political processes, and structures and functions of politics. Empirical and scientific study of politics became the main current and political theory came to occupy a back seat. Politics came to be described as struggle for power, a system of conflict-resolution through the making and implementation of authoritative and binding values. The concepts of Political System, Power, Authority Legitimacy, Political Culture, Political Socialisation, Political Development, and others came to be developed and used for the study of politics. Study of the processes of policy-making, decision-making, conflict-resolution, nationl-building voting-behaviour, political participation came to be very popular areas of study. The issue of Classical Political Theory versus Scientific Political Theory emerged as a very major issue. Decline of Political Theory and End of Ideology were discussed and debated by the political theorists of liberal stream.

Along with it, Marxist political theory continued to be a very popular exercise. The concepts of Hegemony, Civil Society, Justice, Rights of the Third World, Neocolonialism and several others emerged as important topics of study.

In the last two decades of the 20th century, the collapse of the socialist regimes in almost all socialist countries of the world, gave a new legitimacy to the Liberal Political Theory and the Marxian Political Theory suffered a big decline of popularity. Liberalisation of economy and politics, democratisation, decentralisation, de-polarisation, open competition, free trade, globalisation, sustainable development, human rights, environmentalism, ecology, communitarianism, libertarianism, common good, social justice, feminism, gender justice, multiculturalism, Peace Research and several others, have now came to be the dominant themes of contemporary political theory.

Contemporary political theorists have been focusing attention on all these issues. Interdisciplinary studies have become very popular. A resurgence of political theory has been taking place. Political Theorists have been trying to redefine and reconstruct the concepts and  approaches and issues of Politics.

The above analysis clearly brings out the fact that nature and scope of Political Theory has been continuously changing and expanding.


Political Science has been both a very old as well as a new discipline. While its historical roots date back to Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle, its newest dimensions are found in the form of Behavioural-scientific-empirical political theory. In contemporary times a synthetic approach-Empirical-normative or scientific-classical approach i.e. an integrated approach, is being followed for studying and theorising all aspects of politics comprehensively, realistically and precisely.

Let us study five major streams of Political Theory.

(1) Classical Political Theory

(2) Liberal Political Theory

(3) Marxist Political Theory

(4) Scientific-Empirical-Behavioural Political Theory

(5) Contemporary or Integrated Political Theory

1. Classical Political Theory

Classical Political Theory emerged in ancient Greek and continued till the beginning of 19th century. It remained engaged in the search for a perfect and ideal state. The basic issues which are described and explained by various thinkers, philosophers and contemplators have been : the nature and purpose of state, the nature of ideal state and other political organizations, the basis of the authority of the state, the problem of political obligation, the issue of revolution, and the relation between the individual and state.

The exercise began with Plato and Aristotle, and continued up to the 19th century. Plato in his work ‘Republic’, presented the picture of an ideal state and that of a sub-ideal state in his ‘the Laws’. Aristotle in his work ‘Politics’ presented theories of ideal state, best practicable state, revolution, citizenship, slavery and justice. The Roman thinkers, like Cicero, Speculated on the theory of natural rights.

In the medieval period, the issue of relationship between the church and state occupied the attention of the church fathers, particularly Pope Glasius, St. Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas and the secularist Marsiglio of Padua. The modern age of the study of political science began with Machiavelli who in his work ‘The Prince’ presented the theory of a strong centralised, unmoral and non-religious government of a ruler acting for the unification of all the Italian states into one nation-state. In his work ‘Discourses’ he presented a theory of democracy’.

The emergence of several nation states in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries influenced several political thinkers to speculate about the origin and nature of state and the issue of sovereignty. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau came out with their social contract theories of origin and nature of the state. All the three projected that the birth of the state came through a social contract. However, each one of them offered a particular explanation of the social contract, the state and government. While Hobbes built up case in favour of absolute sovereignty of the ruler, Locke came out with a theory of limited government, a government based upon consent of the community and the right of the people to revolt.

Rousseau came out with a theory of popular sovereignty-the sovereignty of the General Will.

In the 18th century, the American Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution and the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen set the stage for the emergence of theories of rights of man and citizen and issues of liberty, equality, and law. Montesquie‘s ‘The Spirit of Laws’ came as a theory of relationship among the three organs of government. He favoured a complete separation of legislative, executive and judicial organs in the interest of the rights and freedom of the people. He also wanted that three separate organs of government should have a mutual a system of checks and balances which should prevent each organ from becoming despotic.


Classical Political They continued to be a normative theory of state, government and rights of the people. Its was government by the goals of projecting the best form of polity.

2. Liberal Political Theory

In the 18th and 19th centuries democratisation of political process took place in several European states. The increase in the size of a modern democratic nation-state and the progress of industrial revolution created an environment which produced a big change in the nature of Political Theory. The classical Political Theory began giving place to a liberal theory of Politics with its main focus on such issues as rights, liberty, equality, property, justice, functions of the state, democratic state, state welfareism, etc.. Relation between law and liberty, law and morality, liberty and equality, rights and duties, justice and equality, property and equality, role of the state as a police state or a welfare state, became the key areas of speculation, explanation and normative prescription.

3. Marxist Political Theory

Liberal political theory was rejected by Karl Marx, Engels and their followers Lenin, Stalin and others. They formulated, adopted and used Marxian Political Theory, which projected itself as a theory of scientific socialism. It had for its basis several fundamental theories-Dialectical Materialism, Historical Materialism, Economic Determinism, Class Struggle and Surplus Value. It rejected capitalism as an evil system and projected the state as the tool, an organized power of the capitalists for exploiting and ruling the poor. Marxian Political Theory strongly criticised and rejected the liberal theory which was projected as the ideology of capitalism.

Liberalism-Capitalism is condemned and rejected by the Marxian Political Theory as an evil system based on property, inequality and exploitation which used the state power to serve the interests of the rich. State, religion and property are held to be the three evil instruments of exploitation used by the rich for maintaining their system of exploiting and ruling the P

Adopting socio-economic approach to politics, Marxian political theory presents a theory of social change. It interprets social relations in terms of relations between the two economic classes, the rich and the poor, and holds that class struggle between these two classes is the law of evolution in every society. Theories of Dialectical Materialism and Historical ’ Materialism are used by the Marxists to analyse the evolution of society. They accept and advocate revolution as the means for giving a push to the on-going process of social evolution towards its final destination-the emergence of classless and stateless society. They advocate that the end of capitalism is to be secured through a workers revolution which is to lead to the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. However, this in itself is to be a temporary stage. It is to lead to the establishment of a classless and stateless society i.e. a society characterised by ‘real justice, equality, and freedom.’

Marxian Political Theory provided roots and shape to the socialist states which came to be established in (erstwhile) USSR and several countries of Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea. However, it failed to provide a real strength to these countries. In each of these, the state began working as a monolith centralised political power with a fully centralised command economic system. Single party authoritarianism was put into in operation in the name rule of the communist party as a party of workers, peasants and the proletariat. In the last decade of the 20th century, all the socialist states found themselves in deep political and economic crises. They felt compelled to go in for political and economic liberalisation. The collapse of the USSR as a socialist state and political economic and social liberalisation of Eastern European states set the stage for the termination of socialist regimes in all the socialist states. Now the people of these states found it essential and useful to reorganise their political and economic systems on the basis of the principles of liberalism, political pluralism, market economy, free trade and decentralisation. Even communist China found it essential to adopt controlled economic liberalism which was however described as Market Socialism. Marxian political theory suffered a big decline. The position continues to be so till today. However some scholars, particularly several scholars belonging to the developing countries, still continue to patronize Marxian Political Theory.

4. Behavioural or Empirical-Scientiflc Political Theory

In the 20th century, particularly after the end of Second World War, a revolt developed against the classical tradition of Normative Political Theory when several political scientists-the behaviouralists. got involved in building a Scientific-Empirical Theory of Politics. They became occupied with the study of such issues and concepts like human behaviour in politics, political relations, group theory of politics, power, influence, authority, legitimacy, elite behaviour, political culture, political socialisation political system, political development, political modernisation, role of facts and values, problem of objectivity, explanation and prediction as the goals etc; The behaviouralists advocated the need for building a true science of politics through the use of empirical scientific methods. They rejected the study of values and advocated concentration on facts of politics.

The rejection of classical and traditional political theory by the behaviouralists invoked a strong protest from the classicalists. They vigorously challenged the behavioural advocacy of total empiricism and scientism. For about two decades, Normativism vs. Empiricism remained a very hot topic of debate. In 19603, Behaviouralism itself got transformed into Post-Behaviouralism and it accepted the importance of values and social change. The classicalists also came forward to recognise the value of Scientific-Empirical methods This gave rise to the attempts directed at the development of an integrated political theory, Le. a Normative-Empirical theory of politics. _

5. Integrated Political Theory

The contemporary school can be described as the Normative-Scientiflc school as it accepts the utility of both the classical tradition and the scientific approach. It affirms a new interest in normative political science while at the same time using and advocating the value of Scientific-Empirical approach. It admits the importance of history and values in the study of politics even while advocating an empirical study of all the processes of politicsdecision-making, policy making, political participation, electoral behaviour, voting behaviour, leadership recruitment, socialisation and others. It accepts the importance of studying such values as justice, equality, liberty, and fraternity and the like.

In its contemporary form both empirical and normative studies are being conducted. It now definitely reflects a new interest in normative political theory. A number of political issues and problems : Human Rights, Environment, Ecology, Feminism, Sustainable Development Terrorism, Globalisation, and others are being systematically described as well as analysed. The issues of J ustice, Liberty Equality and Development are currently being reevaluated, defined and analysed.

Thus, in every period of history several political thinkers have been coming up with their theories of politics, political institutions and their activities. Right from the times of Plato and Aristotle to the present, Political Theory has been continuously evolving. Changes in the socio-economic environment have been continuously coming and these have been influencing the process of evolution of Political Theory. Initially, political theory developed as a normative theory of state and government and in the mid 20th century, it came to be developed as a scientific-empirical theory of Politics. Presently, it has been evolving as an integrated theory of Politics involving both normative as well as scientific-empirical studies.


Political Theory it can help the society to reform its institutions and relations by adopting values and concepts in social, political and economic processes and relations.

‘Further, by offering descriptions and explanations about political institutions, processes .as well as about political goals and values, political theory can provide a useful guide to the people in the process of designing and directing their systems of politics. It can provide standards for judging the worth of political institutions politics and goals.

Political Theory can play an important role in the development of Political Science as a social discipline. Political Theory is a tool of Political Science. It is a valuable sub-field of Political Science. It places before Political Science various alternative principles, concepts and approaches regarding the nature and purpose of state, the organization, functions and powers of the government, basis of political authority, and the relationship between the individual and the state. It offers a vision of ideal political institutions and can guide the \

process of political change. It also offers empirical explanations of various processes and dimensions of politics. ‘

Political Theory can offer several alternatives, methods and reforms for meeting the problems of poverty, under-development, corruption, terrorism, violence, ethnic violence, and similar others, which are being faced by contemporary states.

1. Study of Political Theory helps us to discover scientific laws and alternative public policies.

2. Political Theory acts as a source of Organization. It helps us to know the kind of facts which are to be observed and analysed in politics.

3. Political Theory helps usin the study of such theories, concepts and approaches as can be productively used for the study of politics.

4. Political Theory brings out the gaps in existing knowledge, and we come to know as to which areas still need exploration and research.

All these points reflect the important place that Political Theory enjoys in the study of politics.

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