Politics is difficult to define, because its influence extends into public life and it also structures the values and practices of the private sphere. Politics can be conceptualised as a specific sphere of society incorporating the workings of formal institutions and their legal relationships. Politics in this sense is limited to ‘the state’, to the realm of parliaments and their constitutional basis, cabinet, political parties, the public service, and associated political actors such as unions and employer associations. Alternatively, politics can be broadened so that it incorporates the struggle over the values that inform all social relations. Understood this way, politics is part of general social and psychological behaviour and arises out of our relationship to basic material needs and desires. Politics is practised at various levels in society: from the neighbourhood to the regional and state levels, through to the national and international arenas.
The study of politics has long been the subject of scrutiny: Aristotle (1981) wrote on the subject over 2000 years ago, calling politics the ruling discipline and labelling man a ‘political animal’. As Graham Maddox notes, Aristotle did not mean to label humans as devious and power-hungry—rather to say that humans are social animals who work towards the common good and the ‘good life’: ‘Aristotle's argument was that the human is a creature born to live in complex organisation with his or her fellow creatures, in community and harmony, through compromise, but united through a common purpose, which is to live a shared life’ (Maddox 1996, p. 5).