Why Study Political Science? Answers for Homo Politicus and Homo Civicus

Why study political science? This question is deceptively complex. To answer it, we must first define political science and then consider the question from the perspective of two very different types of people, what Robert Dahl once called “homo politicus”—individuals who are naturally interested in politics or self-proclaimed “political junkies”—and “homo civicus”—individuals who are responsible citizens but do not have any burning interest in the minutiae of politics or policy-making processes.[1]

Defining political science is a daunting task. It is an eclectic discipline at best, and a somewhat incoherent one at worst. It includes everything from philosophical inquiries into Plato to mathematical treatises on state-of-the-art statistical methods. Along the way, political scientists study nearly every aspect of political behavior, political institutions and policy-making processes in nearly every society in the world. Under these circumstances, we can only offer a working definition, recognizing that any definition will be problematic. Nevertheless, we need to start somewhere, so, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that political science is the systematic study of the processes, principles, and structures of political institutions and government.

For homo politicus, the question of why study political science can be reframed as follows: why not just browse the web or tune into the media? In a digital age, we have unprecedented access to information about government and policy-making processes. Given these options, it seems a waste of time to read arcane studies by political scientists, especially when the peer review process ensures that scholarly work often takes years to see the light of day, making it seem hopelessly out of date in today’s fast-paced world.

The answer stems from the systematic nature of political science. Media usually—although not always—offer a reasonable sense of the who, what, and where of current events, but these accounts are typically thin, providing episodic coverage that lacks critical context and rigorous research methods that give us greater purchase on the underlying causes of events and their broader implications. Put differently, media often fail to gives us any insight into the crucial questions of why? and so what?

For example, I recently wrote a book for undergraduates about the politics of asbestos litigation reform in the United States.[2] Asbestos has been called a “magic mineral”: [3] it is a fiber made of rock, which is flexible enough to be woven into cloth yet is stronger than steel (as well as fireproof, resistant to corrosion, naturally abundant and easy to mine). It has been used in a dazzling array of products, including building materials, car parts, and consumer goods ranging from hair driers and children’s modeling clay to soil conditioner. The problem is that exposure to asbestos can be lethal and literally millions have been (and continue to be) exposed to asbestos worldwide.

In contrast to other countries, the United States has relied heavily on litigation to address the problem of asbestos injury compensation.[4] At first, litigation served heroic functions. It provided victims a means to bypass stingy government programs and receive some compensation. It also revealed decades of corporate wrongdoing and raised awareness about a major public health problem. However, litigation has been a woefully inefficient and inconsistent means of compensation, which has failed to provide reliable relief to victims while dragging many companies that had little to do with creating the problem into bankruptcy. As the costs of litigation have continued to mount, judges have repeatedly begged Congress to provide a national solution to what has been called “the worst industrial accident in American history.”[5] And yet Congress has failed—time and time again—to respond.

Homo politicus, especially those from the United States, probably would be vaguely aware of Congress’ failure to act. Accounts of reform efforts were readily available and followed a familiar pattern. Advocates would introduce a bill, such as the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Reform Act (or FAIR Act), with some fanfare. But their efforts would eventually fizzle, usually because the bills would die in committee or proponents could not muster the needed two-thirds majority vote to overcome procedural requirements in the US Senate. Homo politicus would be tempted to file the story away as another instance of legislative gridlock in Washington.

This understanding would be incomplete at best and misleading at worst. It would be incomplete because the story of the fate of bills like the FAIR Act would give little insight as to why they failed. On its face, the FAIR Act promised to save victims and businesses billions of dollars in transaction costs by replacing litigation with a relatively streamlined compensation scheme and capping lawyers’ fees. Yet interest groups of all stripes badly divided over the bill. Nor would it explain why many prominent Democrats broke ranks with trial lawyers, their political allies, to push the bill, while conservative Republicans, political adversaries of trial lawyers, joined forces with them and fought it. Put simply, the fragmented politics of asbestos litigation reform defied conventional wisdom in ways that the media’s sound bites glossed over. (The book argues that the key to understanding the puzzling politics of asbestos is seeing how litigation has shaped political interests over time, creating a patchwork of winners and losers in the courts who have cross cutting interests that divide them within and across political party lines.[6])

The conventional understanding would be misleading on the issue of so what, mischaracterizing the case’s broader implications. Media accounts of the asbestos story tend to stress the theme of legislative gridlock, which implies policy inertia. Yet the case is a story of policy innovation not inertia, because courts have been proactive implementing what I have called “court-based tort reform” since the 1970s: the use of existing rules and procedures to change who decides, who pays, how much and to whom.[7] So, as congressional action has visibly ebbed, judicial policy-making has subtly flowed. From this vantage, the case of asbestos is not a simple example of legislative gridlock and the status-quo orientation of American politics; rather it is part of a much broader story of the judicialization of politics and policy-making in the United States and abroad. In sum, political science provides homo politicus something that is likely to be missing from the media: systematic accounts of the why and so what of politics.

The much tougher question is why should homo civicus study political science or at least take it seriously? It is one thing to ask political junkies to wade through systematic studies of the processes, principles, and structures of political institutions and government, but why should anyone else?

There are at least two reasons why homo civicus should invest some time studying political science. The first is that even if one is not keenly interested in politics generally, most of us care about some policy issues regardless of our ideological bent. If you are liberal, you are probably concerned about the effects of climate change. While this problem has many dimensions, including meteorological issues that fall outside the purview of political science, politics are at its center. After all, many policy responses to climate change are well-known, such as imposing a carbon tax on activities that release greenhouse gasses, investing in alternative energy sources, and, especially in a country like the United States, consuming less energy. None of these measures is likely to “solve” the problem, but they could help. The main impediments to pursuing them are political not technical, and political science is uniquely poised to reveal the opportunities for (and constraints upon) pursuing policy change at the national and international level.

If you are conservative, then you are likely to be concerned about the size of government and the need for reforming welfare programs. Again, the problem is not technical. We know what to do: to bring government into fiscal balance, programs must be cut, taxes raised, and/or waste reduced. Deciding on the mix of these remedies is, of course, inherently political and, once again, political science can offer useful insights into the opportunity structure for reining in the costs of government as well as analyses of how different countries have tried to respond to this issue. The point bears emphasis: to make a difference on issues that you care about, you must be able to identify policy options and read the institutional landscape to see when and where there are chances to act; political science offers a powerful lens for seeing the range of policy options and the institutional opportunities for action.

There is another, more general reason for homo civicus to consider political science, one that transcends any particular policy issue and speaks to the broader goals of higher education. We live in an age of enormous complexity and thus need strategies for making sense of modern life. For all of its faults, political science embraces diverse strategies for studying complexity because the processes, principles, and structures of political institutions and government are nothing if not complex. On this score, political science’s eclecticism is a disciplinary strength, not a weakness. By studying political science, homo civicus can gain exposure to diverse analytic methods that run the gamut from highly deductive modeling and lab experiments to careful ethnographies and historical case studies. Studying these strategies in depth can give students tools for understanding the world around them and isn’t that why we studying anything?


[1]Robert Dahl, Who Governs? New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 223-226.

[2] Jeb Barnes, Dust-Up: Asbestos Litigation and the Failure of Commonsense Policy Reform Georgetown: Georgetown University Press; see also Jeb Barnes and Thomas F. Burke, How Policy Shapes Politics: Courts, Rights, and Litigation and the Struggle over Injury Compensation New York: Oxford University Press 2015.

[3] Geoffrey Tweedale, Magic Mineral to Killer Dust: Turner & Newall and the Asbestos Hazard, New York: Oxford University Press 2000.

[4] Robert A. Kagan, Adversarial Legalism: The American Way of Law, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; see also Andrea Boggio, Compensating Asbestos Victims: Law and the Dark Side of Industrialization Surrey, UK: Ashgate 2011.

[5] Dennis Cauchon, “The Asbestos Epidemic: An Emerging Catastrophe,” USA Today, February 8, 1999.

[6] Barnes, Dust-Up at Chapter 4.

[7] Ibid. at 33-42.

Comments are closed.