1.4: Political Science as a Social Science (2023)

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    “Science is extraordinarily effective at rooting out rubbish.”

    –David J. Helfand (1)

    “Political science” is a branch of the social sciences, which includes sociology, psychology, anthropology, and economics. Social scientists study individual and social behavior. They explore questions that often come from established theoretical perspectives consisting of concepts, definitions, and a body of scholarly literature developed over time. As you engage in this political science class, make sure you pay attention to the various theoretical perspectives that exist in the discipline.

    The Attenuated Democracy portion of this textbook approaches political science from a modified version of elite theory—namely, that a struggle exists between elites and ordinary people. The conflict is over who and how they use their votes to push the government to serve their interests.

    The political world is not as predictable as the physical world studied by chemists and physicists. Political scientists often look for patterns and relationships in what may appear to be a blizzard of random events. They carefully observe phenomena such as voting, political opinions, legislative decisions, campaign finance disclosures, presidential vetoes, Supreme Court decisions, and so forth.

    The Scientific Method

    Many social scientists employ the scientific method in the same ways that natural scientists do. Other social scientists are more in favor of rigorous interpretations, analyses, or in-depth case studies because historical events and contemporary social phenomena are too complex for simple causal models to address or because people are too self-aware to be measured and studied without distorting results. Nevertheless, all social scientists adhere to empirical, formalized methodologies. Science historian and philosopher Lee McIntyre argues that “the challenge in social science is to find a way to preserve our values without letting them interfere with empirical investigation. We need to understand the world before we can change it.” (2)

    You might have learned these scientific method steps in elementary school:

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    • Ask a question
    • Research what others have learned about the question
    • Formulate a hypothesis
    • Conduct an experiment
    • Collect and analyze data
    • Communicate results

    Regarding political science, the scientific method is a systematic, logically driven process to gather information and make conclusions about natural and social phenomena. Rather than focusing on an artificial step-by-step approach to understanding the scientific method, we can go into more detail on the features that distinguish science in political science from other ways of knowing.

    The words empiricism, noun, and empirical, adjective, mean that scientists base their conclusions on careful verifiable observation and experience, rather than on intuition, revelation, prejudice, superstition, or anecdote. To westerners, empiricism is a cherished gift of the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. For example, through his telescope, Galileo patiently observed four “stars” dancing around Jupiter, which led him to make the empirical statement that they were in fact moons orbiting around the planet. In addition, English physician Edward Jenner observed that farmhands who contracted cowpox earlier in life did not get smallpox, which led him to make the empirical statement that inoculating individuals with cowpox could protect them against smallpox. He tested this proposition on an 8-year-old boy named James Phipps. Phipps did not get smallpox. The result was the insight that inoculation made a person immune from the disease. These and many other examples illustrate empiricism’s power over other forms of knowing such as tradition or revelation.

    Hypotheses, Concepts, and Variables

    Aside from making careful and patient observations, the scientific method requires that we formulate hypotheses, conceptualize complex phenomena, and analyze constantly changing variables. Political scientists generate a hypothesis by asking a research question—an inquiry that asks how the political world operates or why it works the way it does.

    The hypothesis posits an answer to the research question that you then test by conducting studies or experiments. The kinds of why or how questions that make good hypotheses are distinct from questions that elicit factual answers. For example, questions such as “What interests or organizations contribute the most money to political campaigns?” or “How many Supreme Court justices have been women?” are important. But they are the kinds of questions that typically elicit straightforward answers. Rather, here are some examples of large research questions in political science that make good hypotheses:

    • Why does the United States—uniquely among advanced democracies—not have universal health coverage? A hypothesis might be that entrenched interests have been able to use the political system to block broad health coverage.
    • Why do congressional incumbents have high reelection rates? A hypothesis might be that their financial advantage contributes greatly to their high reelection rate.
    • How does the constitutional structure benefit some interests over others? A hypothesis might be that the constitutional structure privileges certain interests over others, particularly those who want to stop new policy over those who want to start it.
    • How did conservatives go from spectacular defeat in 1964 to preeminence in all three government branches by 2000? A hypothesis might be that the conservative movement simply expanded to reflect real shifts in popular support on key issues that were favorable to the conservative point of view. In other words, shifts in public opinion caused the success of conservative politicians.

    These kinds of questions are complex and require that scholars gather evidence from a variety of sources. Hypotheses must be supported systematically through a process of argumentation with political scientists who might disagree.

    Not all hypotheses are the same. Here are the major categories of hypotheses:

    Null hypothesis: There is no relationship between the two variables. On the question of money and incumbent reelection rates, the null hypothesis would be that there is no relationship between campaign budgets and chances of succeeding at the polls.

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    Correlative or correlational hypothesis: This simply suggests that two variables vary together. For example, a hypothesis may state that there is a relationship between religious fundamentalism and acts of terrorism. In doing so, the scientist is not speculating which variable is causing movement in the other.

    Directional hypotheses: Since correlative hypotheses are not especially powerful, directional hypotheses posit a direction to the relationship in question. For example, a hypothesis could be that as religious fundamentalism increases, acts of terrorism increase. This is called a positive relationship—the value of one variable increases along with the value of another variable. A negative relationship involves the value of one variable decreases as the value of the other variable increases. For example, we might hypothesize that as personal income increases, willingness to support public transit decreases.

    Causal hypothesis: Sometimes some of the variances in one variable is caused by the variance in the other variable. The two variables do connect. Causation is extremely difficult to establish. For example, let’s say that we could somehow measure the rise and fall of religious fundamentalism in the world and we have an accurate count of terrorist incidents over time. To establish causation, we would have to show a statistical relationship between the changing values for each variable and convince our readers of a valid link between the two variables. On top of this difficulty is the problem of social complexity. Rarely can a complex phenomenon such as terrorism be explained by one variable! Political scientists are much more likely to say that a certain percentage of the variance in terrorism can be explained by the variance in religious fundamentalism than they are to say that fundamentalism causes terrorism.

    Hypotheses require the political scientist to conceptualize certain terms. A concept is a word or phrase that stands for something more complex or abstract. Political science is often concerned with big concepts such as liberty, democracy, power, justice, equality, war and peace, and representation. But there are many mid-level concepts in the discipline such as political development, political legitimacy, electoral realignment, and globalization. In addition, terms related to political ideologies—liberal, conservative, socialist, fascist, feminist, libertarian, and so forth—are also key concepts.

    In turn, researchers need to define or operationalize concepts into measurable concrete variables. For example, earlier we hypothesized that as people’s income increases, their tendency to support public transit programs would decrease. How are we going to operationalize “income” as a variable that we can use in our analysis? We could ask a sample of people to tell us their income and then ask them questions about public transit. But, let’s say we wanted to rely on more concrete income records. We’ll still have questions to consider: gross income before taxes? Only wage income? Family income or individual income? As you can see, operationalizing concepts into measurable variables is not always easy.

    A final comment about variables and testing hypotheses: the political scientist must control other relevant variables in the research design or methodology. For example, we might hypothesize that higher income causes people to tend to turn out to vote more, and indeed that’s what the data show. However, income also correlates well with higher formal education. How do we know whether we’re seeing the impact of income or education on voter turnout? We need to set a 'control' for education. One way to do that would be to sample only people with similar formal education levels and then break down the voting data by income within that educational stratum. Thus, we could look at only people with a bachelor’s degree but no graduate degree and see whether the tendency to vote within that group increases as personal income rises. Statisticians have developed mathematical techniques to control the effects of unwanted variables, but those techniques are beyond this textbook’s scope.


    Generally speaking, experiments come in two flavors: controlled and natural. A controlled experiment is one that is carefully set up by the scientist to control the variables that might affect the outcome, thereby isolating and evaluating the variable in which she is most interested. For example, we are interested in how conservatives and liberals respond to new information about health policy. We could survey 100 people from two groups: one conservative and one liberal. Then, we could develop an instrument to gauge the responses of conservatives and liberals. That instrument might be a knowledge questionnaire, a survey, or a behavior observation, depending on our hypothesis.

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    A natural experiment is an observational study in the real world where the scientist does not control the variables, but where natural processes or social events provide an opportunity for him to see the effect of a variable in action. Natural experiments are often compelling because they happen in the world around us rather than in a laboratory setting. For example, the Affordable Care Act—ACA or Obamacare—unintentionally created a natural experiment. The ACA required states to expand Medicaid to a larger percentage of poor people and funded them to do so. However, the Supreme Court struck down the mandate in 2012, thereby allowing states to choose whether or not to expand Medicaid. As it happens, states controlled by Republicans generally chose not to expand Medicaid, while states controlled by Democrats or that had a Democratic balance tended to expand Medicaid. Over a four-year period, researchers found that states that had expanded Medicaid reduced their mean annual mortality rate by 9.3 percent. Effectively, the 14 states that did not take advantage of the ACA had 15,600 people die who would not have died had the states expanded Medicaid. (3) This natural experiment allowed us to see the variable’s impact at the state level—was Medicaid expansion a net positive or negative on people’s health?

    Falsifiability and Professional Responsibilities

    1.4: Political Science as a Social Science (1)

    Snarky Demonstrators in Favor of Science.

    Science’s emphasis on empiricism, conceptual clarity, variables, hypotheses, and experiments underscores another characteristic: falsifiability. Falsifiability—also known as testability—refers to the fact that scientific knowledge claims are subject to being proven wrong. Science philosopher Karl Popper argued that “A system is to be considered as scientific only if it makes assertions which may clash with observations: and a system is, in fact, tested by attempts to produce such clashes; that is to say, by attempts to refute it.” (4)

    Scientists make claims about the natural or social worlds and how they work. Those claims are so carefully documented that another scientist can either replicate the original study or marshal another set of observations with the explicit goal of testing whether or not the first scientist’s claim was correct. Systematically falsifying incorrect claims makes science progress toward greater understanding. We can empirically test a claim to see if it can either be refuted or confirmed.

    What does an untestable claim look like? Namely, it is a theory that cannot be refuted. A couple of years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection in 1859, Gosse published a book called Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. Like Darwin, Gosse was trying to explain the increasing evidence that life had evolved over time. But Darwin used careful observations to explicate his theory of natural selection—a theory that was eminently falsifiable. Gosse, on the other hand, put forward a theory that God had created the currently existing plants and animals as well as fossils to look like evolution had taken place over a long period, but that in fact, God had created all life relatively recently. He reconciled his religious beliefs with empirical observations by developing a theory that could not be refuted.

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    When Darwin came along and wrote that finches on the Galapagos Islands had, through natural selection over time, modified their morphology to suit the kinds of things they ate on the various island ecosystems, Gosse’s adherents could simply say, “God just made the finches look that way.” Gosse’s claim is not falsifiable through any observation or experiment, whereas the theory of natural selection has passed literally thousands of tests for over 160 years. (5)

    Scientists of all stripes engage in common behaviors that support their work and to better understand each discipline’s study.

    • professional conferences, scientists present their findings to their peers. There, they challenge each other, share new ideas and data sets, and develop common research interests around which they can collaborate.
    • peer-reviewed journals publish peer-reviewed articles. If a political scientist sends a manuscript to International Studies Quarterly or any of dozens of political science journals, that manuscript will be farmed out to at least two other political scientists who have published in that field. They will review the manuscript and make comments on the methodology, the data, and the conclusions it offers. They will tell the editors of International Studies Quarterly whether the manuscript should be published, rejected, or sent back to the author for revisions. This is a blind process—the author of the manuscript does not know who is reviewing it, and the reviewers do not know who wrote the manuscript. The peer-review process is a robust way of ensuring credibility.

    Political science is a member of the social sciences. While not all political scientists use the formal scientific method, they all adhere to empirical, falsifiable methods that are peer-reviewed. Political scientists at universities focus primarily on research and secondarily on teaching. Political scientists at community colleges focus primarily on teaching and secondarily on research.

    What if . . . ?

    What if we did a better job of developing scientific literacy among the American population? What impact would that have on our conversations about political issues that have scientific dimensions to them? How might those conversations be different? How would you go about promoting scientific literacy in America?


    1. David J. Helfand, A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age. Scientific Habits of Mind. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. Page 22.
    2. Lee McIntyre, The Scientific Attitude. Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2019. Pages 193-194.
    3. Sarah Miller, Sean Altekruse, Norman Johnson, Laura R. Wherry, “Medicaid and Mortality: New Evidence from Linked Survey and Administrative Data,” Working Paper No. 26081. The National Bureau of Economic Research. July 2019.
    4. Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge.London: Routledge, 2002. Page 345.
    5. Donald R. Prothero, Evolution. What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, Page 9.

    Media Attributions

    (Video) What do political science majors actually do?


    What is political science * Your answer? ›

    What is political science? Political science is the study of politics and power from domestic, international, and comparative perspectives. It entails understanding political ideas, ideologies, institutions, policies, processes, and behavior, as well as groups, classes, government, diplomacy, law, strategy, and war.

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    Is Political Science a Hard Major? Political science is a social science, so the degree program does not require upper-level math or science courses like an IT or engineering program would. This major relies on reading, research, critical thinking, logic, writing, and effective communication skills.

    Do you think political science is a science? ›

    Like other social sciences, political science uses a "scientific" approach, meaning that political scientists approach their study in an objective, rational, and systematic manner. Some political scientists focus on abstract and theoretical questions, while others study particular government policies and their effects.

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    A political party is an organized group of people or bodies who seek to capture political power through an election in order to run the affairs of a country. It often puts forward candidates for public office.

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    Politics is the way that people living in groups make decisions. Politics is about making agreements between people so that they can live together in groups such as tribes, cities, or countries. In large groups, such as countries, some people may spend a lot of their time making such agreements.

    How can I get good marks in political science? ›

    Make sure you fully comprehend the curriculum so you know exactly what to study. In addition to textbooks, study from your notes; teachers are aware of crucial points and will have incorporated them in your notes.

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    No, it isn't easy because it is part of higher education which naturally means thorough studying of the field.

    How can I be good in political science? ›

    The study of political science requires an in-depth understanding of numerous topics. First, it's important to understand the levels of government that exist. Second, you have to understand different political ideas and theories. Third, you have to understand the different groups that influence the government.

    Why is political science a social science? ›

    Political science is a social science subject that involves the study of political institutions, government systems, and political behavior. These scientists use qualitative and quantitative research to understand political trends and decision-making.

    Why is it important to study political science? ›

    Political Science is excellent preparation for effective citizenship. Studying political science grounds students in the importance of political participation and prepares them to take part in the political life of their communities and the nation.

    What is the importance of political science as a student? ›

    Political Science equips students with an understanding of the political institutions and laws that govern all businesses function. It also sharpens students' understanding of organizational dynamics and human relations, and hones their writing, communication, and statistical skills.

    What are the 3 purposes of political science? ›

    Political science majors should be able to: Understand and use the methods that political scientists use to answer questions about politics. Use critical thinking and evidence to understand and evaluate rival theories and interpretations. Formulate and express in writing a well-organized argument, supported by evidence.

    What is political science all about? ›

    A comprehensive survey of American national government; its institutions, functions, and processes, including constitutionalism, federalism, elections, pressure politics, social and economic policies, and national security.

    What are the 5 types of politics? ›

    The major types of political systems are democracies, monarchies, oligarchies, and authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.

    What is political in simple words? ›

    Politics (from Greek: Πολιτικά, politiká, 'affairs of the cities') is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations among individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status.

    What are types of political? ›

    The major types of political systems are democracies, monarchies, and authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are more unstable politically because their leaders do not enjoy legitimate authority and instead rule through fear.

    What are your political meaning? ›

    : of or relating to government, a government, or the conduct of government. : of, relating to, or concerned with the making as distinguished from the administration of governmental policy.

    How do you answer a 30 mark question in politics? ›

    A great way to structure 30 mark essays to show you have acknowledged the whole arguement is to follow a simple: Introduction, Agree with statement, disagree with statement, problematise/alternative, conclude.

    What is political power? ›

    For Sharp, political power, the power of any state – regardless of its particular structural organization – ultimately derives from the subjects of the state. His fundamental belief is that any power structure relies upon the subjects' obedience to the orders of the ruler(s).

    What is political essay? ›

    A political essay deals with political or governmental issues. It is a piece of writing made as a way to practice in interpreting specific political theories. It is usually composed of historical information and statistics and is somewhat similar to writing a rhetorical analysis essay.

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    How do you get an A * in A Level politics? ›

    Practicing exam questions and completing practice papers is the best way to revise for A Level Politics. We at Study Politics passionately believe in practice makes perfect. Completing a practice essay question and understanding where you're missing the mark is the best way to improve for the real exam.

    Which is the most difficult course in the world? ›

    It is believed that a Bachelor of Science in Nursing or BSN is the toughest course in the world as per the Guinness Book of World Records along with courses like MBBS, BCom, IAS, IPS and Engineering, etc.

    Does political science have math? ›

    Political science and sociology increasingly rely on mathematical modeling and sophisticated data analysis, and many graduate programs in these fields now require students to take a "math camp" or a semester-long or yearlong course to acquire the necessary skills.

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    Political Science specialisations

    Political Science Bachelors take 3 years to complete in the European Union, and 4 years in the U.S., in most cases. Students enrolled in Bachelors in Political Science can benefit from different specialisations, based on the university focus and degree offer.

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    When it comes to pursuing a law career, Political Science remains one of the most popular pre-law courses among college students because of how closely linked it is to the legal system. Political Science focuses on various government systems and the analysis of political behaviors.

    What skills do I need to study political science? ›

    Analytical ability
    • Interpret data.
    • Understand components of complex problems.
    • See problems from a variety of perspectives.
    • Synthesize themes from complex issues.
    • Think "outside the box"
    • Think internationally.
    • Assess policy and propose options.
    • Analyze and solve problems systematically and logically.

    Who said political science is a social science? ›

    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy reveals that the field of political science is a social science that dates back 2,500 years with the works of Plato and Aristotle, who defined it as the "study of the state" and were interested in the greater good of their citizens.

    What is social science Short answer? ›

    Social science is, in its broadest sense, the study of society and the manner in which people behave and influence the world around us.

    Who define political science as that part of social science? ›

    “Science is extraordinarily effective at rooting out rubbish.” –David J. Helfand (1) The discipline called “political science” is a branch of the social sciences, which includes sociology, psychology, anthropology, and economics.

    What is the most important goal of political science? ›

    Its goal is to deepen human understanding of the forms and nature of political action and to develop theoretical tools for interpreting politically meaningful phenomena. The discipline deals with the traditional fields of public national life, such as democracy, parliaments, politicians, elections and the government.

    Why do we need to study political science Brainly? ›

    political science educates the common public about their political rights and shapes them into well-informed individuals who can be trusted to take the right decision and select the government that helps the country progress at a global level.

    What is the meaning and importance of political science? ›

    Political science focuses on the theory and practice of government and politics at the local, state, national, and international levels. We are dedicated to developing understandings of institutions, practices, and relations that constitute public life and modes of inquiry that promote citizenship.

    How important political science to you as an individual and in the society as a whole? ›

    Understanding political science is important because we all live within a political system. We are therefore, affected by changes in the global political economy. Political scientists provide us with a lens through which we can understand the global political economy.

    Which of the importance of studying politics is the most important to you and why? ›

    It is very important to care about politics because you should know what is going on around you. Also, it is important to have a say in what is going on around you. The political decisions people make will affect many lives.

    What is the two goals of political science? ›

    The Political Science Department has two main sets of learning goals. The first is the acquisition of specialized knowledge in the field of political science. The second is the development of general skills that will serve students regardless of their future course of study or employment.

    Why is it called political science? ›

    Political science is called political science because it deals with the study of politics and government. Not so much how politics and government are organized but how they are related to people and communities. Political science studies and analyzes political thought, political behaviors, and political activities.

    What is the objective of political science? ›

    Political science encompasses the study of governments, public policies and political processes, systems, and political behavior. Our discipline is rooted in the study of power and our faculty are interested in helping students understand the complexity associated with its exercise.

    What is the most common definition of political science? ›

    Political science is that branch of the social sciences that studies the state, politics, and government. Political Science deals extensively with the analysis of political systems, the theoretical and practical applications to politics, and the examination of political behavior.

    What are the important subject in political science? ›

    A: Political science has many branches and sub-branches; majorly it includes topics like state politics, political economy, comparative politics, political philosophy and international relations.

    What are the 3 political groups? ›

    In the U.S. these two parties are the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Other parties, often generally termed “third parties”, in the U.S. include The Green Party, Libertarians, Constitution Party and Natural Law Party.

    What are the 3 main types of government? ›

    According to Yale professor Juan José Linz there are three main types of political systems today: democracies, totalitarian regimes and, sitting between these two, authoritarian regimes with hybrid regimes.

    What are the 3 system of government? ›

    They are the Executive, (President and about 5,000,000 workers) Legislative (Senate and House of Representatives) and Judicial (Supreme Court and lower Courts). The President of the United States administers the Executive Branch of our government.

    What is political science? ›

    Political science is the scientific study of politics. It is a social science dealing with systems of governance and power, and the analysis of political activities, political thought, political behavior, and associated constitutions and laws.

    How is political science defined? ›

    Political science broadly refers to the study of governments, public policies and political behavior both in the United States and abroad, according to the American Political Science Association.

    What is political science known as? ›

    Political science is one of the social sciences meaning sciences that study various types of social aspects. In this case, this branch deals with all activities related to politics like political thinking, political behavior, government system, constitution, laws, etc.

    Why is political science important? ›

    Political Science equips students with an understanding of the political institutions and laws that govern all businesses function. It also sharpens students' understanding of organizational dynamics and human relations, and hones their writing, communication, and statistical skills.

    What is political science write its importance? ›

    It provides knowledge about the state's constitution, laws, and duties. It helps people understand the significance of Political institutions like political parties, federations, and local bodies in our state. In light of past and present activities, the government helps to establish a modern welfare state.

    Why political science is a social science? ›

    Political science is a social science subject that involves the study of political institutions, government systems, and political behavior. These scientists use qualitative and quantitative research to understand political trends and decision-making.

    What is political science essay? ›

    Political science includes a wide range of topics that attempts to describe and explain the political process, politics, and the relationship among governments. As American citizens we should all be informed and be educated about all these above topics.

    How do we study political science? ›

    The study of political science requires an in-depth understanding of numerous topics. First, it's important to understand the levels of government that exist. Second, you have to understand different political ideas and theories. Third, you have to understand the different groups that influence the government.

    What are the 3 purpose of political science? ›

    Political science majors should be able to: Understand and use the methods that political scientists use to answer questions about politics. Use critical thinking and evidence to understand and evaluate rival theories and interpretations. Formulate and express in writing a well-organized argument, supported by evidence.

    Who called political science as a science? ›

    Aristotle was one of the first people to give a working definition of political science. He believed that it was a powerful branch of science, and that it held special authority over other branches, such as military science.

    What is science simple answer? ›

    Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence. Scientific methodology includes the following: Objective observation: Measurement and data (possibly although not necessarily using mathematics as a tool)

    Who said political science as a science? ›

    Aristotle was the one who said that Political science is the master science. He is regarded as the father of Political Science because of his far reaching and permanent contribution to the field of politics.


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