Political Science: The State of the Discipline II

By Ada W. Finifter | Go to book overview
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theory has made indelible marks in such widely scattered areas of political interest as
A. the level of participation and information we can expect of voters,
B. the level of political organizing we can expect endogenous to a group,
C. the expectations we can have of simple democratic processes,
D. how to design better public policy and institutions,
E. how to harness the power of markets for the use of policy goals.

We have not discussed the many non- experimental, empirical studies either conducted on or informed by formal theory. This too is an important part of the record of the field. Repeatedly, formal theory models have led to better specification of statistical models, even to the point of specifying the functional form to be estimated. Many new (at times non-obvious) relationships have been uncovered through the use of formal methods. What is important, of course, is that rational choice provides a unified theory of political behavior. Applications to different areas do not require a new theory. New applications are new contexts and as such are introduced as constraints on the basic theory. Though it continues to be improved and refined, the theory remains vibrant. As it leads to more and better knowledge claims in seemingly disparate areas of political life, our confidence in the theory improves.

By now, the field of formal theory has established itself. Its accumulated knowledge claims are relevant to practitioners who would wish to study disparate areas of the discipline. Increasingly, students of politics must be able to read, understand, and even manipulate the theoretical arguments of this field to understand the substantive claims of political analysis.

A Science of Politics

We have attempted here to present formal theory in a way that would make further comment unnecessary. But in the fear we have failed, we offer the following coda. The essence of any science is the explanation of the world around us. The motivations for seeking these explanations range from simple curiosity to pragmatic considerations of how to manipulate better our surroundings. The simply curious may be more attracted to the structure of the abstractions created than the more practically oriented. Good science is rigorous in its argumentation and in its testing, because it is the rigor that is most responsible for the truth value of the theory. For practical matters, more than a bit of skepticism in matters of evidence is also well advised.

Formal theory, we have tried to indicate, has these features. The theory is constructed and interpreted to be correctable. Imprecise postulates, faulty proofs, ambiguous links between the theory and the real world all get challenged -- not on the basis that we do not like the answers so much as that we do not believe that the methods of science were used properly. After all, science is not an answer so much as it is a method of obtaining answers, tentative as they may be. In this way, science has the power to change what we believe about the world. The present authors agree on very little about the state of formal theory, or where it is going, but they do agree that rational choice theory has fundamentally changed how the discipline ought to proceed in studying politics and training students.


The authors wish to thank Michael Alberty, Norman Frohlich, John Guyton, and Kenneth Shepsle for their very timely and solid critiques of the first sketches of this paper.

These would include (the year in brackets is the year in which the Prize was awarded) Paul Samuelson [ 1970] and Kenneth Arrow [ 1972], who both received the Nobel Prize for a variety of contributions. Their respective contributions to the theory of social choice (see Arrow 1963, 1977) and public goods (see Samuelson 1955, 1954) were conspicuous, however. James Buchanan [ 1986], another Nobel laureate, was given the prize explicitly for his work in the public choice area (see Buchanan 1965, 1968; and Buchanan and Tullock 1962). Ronald Coase [ 1991] (see Coase 1960) and Gary Becker [ 1992] are the latest to receive the prize for work which most would consider in this field. Some would also include Herbert Simon [ 1978] and Maurice Allais [ 1988].
Other journals are devoted specifically to publishing results in formal theory. Public Choice (published since 1966) the pioneer journal in the field, has been joined in the last decade by Social Choice and Welfare (since 1981), Rationality and Society (since 1988), The Journal of Theoretical Politics (since 1988), and numerous others. Important articles in the field are scattered across journals in economics and the other social sciences, as well as a number of interdisciplinary journals. Barry and Hardin ( 1982, 387-390) provide a dated but useful guide to the classic readings and standard periodicals in the area.
Enelow and Hinich ( 1984) provides an introduction to spatial models of elections, Mueller ( 1989) gives an overview of non game-theoretic rational choice theory, Ordeshook ( 1986) explains game theory and how it can be used to explain political phenomena. Other texts in game theory include Fudenberg and Tirole ( 1991), Kreps ( 1990a, 1990b), Myerson ( 1991), Owen ( 1982), Rasmusen ( 1989), Shubik ( 1982), and Van Damme ( 1987). We should also note that the classic textbook by Luce and Raiffa (originally published in 1957) has


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Political Science: The State of the Discipline II
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