A New Handbook of Political Science

By Robert E. Goodin; Hans-Dieter Klingemann | Go to book overview

Chapter 22
Political Theory:
Empirical Political Theory

Klaus von Beyme

EMPIRICAL political science divides into two mainstreams. The Weberian tradition is interested primarily in a reconstruction of social reality in a historical perspective and works ex post facto with typologies and ideal types. The Durkheimian tradition, deeply affected by French positivism after the fashion of Comte, takes as its motto savoir pour prévoir and is interested primarily in modeling reality by isolating dependent and independent variables.

This Durkheimian style of empirical political theory, in particular, supposes that models "should be tested primarily by the accuracy of their predictions rather than by the reality of their assumptions" ( Downs 1957: 21). It, accordingly, has been particularly embarrassed by political science's failure to predict any major political events since 1945. The student rebellions of the 1960s, the rise of new fundamentalism, the collapse of communism, the peaceful revolution of 1989--all came as a surprise to political scientists.

Political science takes little comfort, either, in new tendencies in the natural sciences. Abandoning the old Baconian optimism that science does battle against ideology and superstition in the service of truth and utility, natural scientists influenced by autopoietic systems theory and chaos scenarios have given up on the idea of predicting major events on the macro level ( Maturana 1985). Many social scientists have belatedly come to think similarly that macro-theoretical predictions are little more than informed guesswork. The evolution of events can be reconstructed only ex post facto, and the task of theory is to keep open various options ( Luhmann 1981: 157).

Political scientists face further systematic distortion of theory-building peculiar to their own field. While the positivistic mainstream endlessly

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