Behavioural Approach in Political Science

The full import of the Behavioural revolution became clear in the 1950s, the roots of the movement emerged in the early years of this century. It reaffirmed many of the basic ideas of American political science, though it brought about a significant change in the research programs within the discipline. In the process, it represented a conservative revolution.

Behaviouralism, as articulated by Easton, tries to organize research in political science on the model of the natural sciences. It emphasizes the need to develop a pure science of politics, giving a new
orientation to research and theory-building exercises within the discipline.

In the process, it rejects political theory as a merely chronological and intellectual history of ideas, with no practical

relevance in comprehending contemporary political reality. Throughout the fifties, those who were committed to evaluative and prescriptive analysis and study of the classical tradition perceived scientism of behaviouralism as a threat to political theory.

The behaviouralists, on the contrary,
claimed that normative political theory was a serious hindrance to scientific research.

It was from these debates that many of the subsequent images of political theory—whether as a world-historical activity concerned with criticism and restructuring of political life or as a model of cognitive science—would emerge.

Behaviouralism remained the dominant theme even in the sixties in the United States. It focused on the simple question: Why do people behave the way they do? It differed from other social sciences by its insistence that:

(a) observable behaviour both at the level of an individual and a group was the basic unit for analysis, and

(b) that it was possible to empirically test any explanation of that behaviour. It rejected a priori reasoning about human beings and society and preferred factual and statistical inquiries. It believed that experience alone could be the basis of knowledge. Within this framework, behaviouralists analyzed the reasons for mass political participation in democratic

countries, elite behaviour in the contexts of leadership and decision-making processes, and activities of non-state actors in the international arena, like the multinational corporations, terrorist groups and
supranational organizations.

The Behavioural movement, which came into prominence in the 1950s and 1960s, had its philosophical origins in the writings of Comte in the nineteenth century, and the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle in the 1920s.

Behaviouralism did not accept all the philosophical arguments of the positivists. At a time when behaviouralism was gaining wide currency, many social scientists

subjected positivism to critical scrutiny, though behaviouralism was strongly influenced by positivism.

A behaviouralist, like a positivist, will ascertain the correctness of an explanatory theory.

He will evaluate explanatory theories in three ways: internal consistency, consistency for other theories that seek to explain related phenomena, and capacity to generate empirical predictions that can be tested against observation.

Only empirical testing can decide between competing theories. It is the stress on empirical observation and testing that characterize the behavioral approach.

A behaviouralist systematically compiles all the relevant facts, quantitative and qualitative, for an evaluation of a theoretical statement. Furthermore, behavioural analysis asserts that all scientific theories and/or explanations must in principle be capable of being falsified.

This reflects behaviouralism’s commitment to Popper’s revision of traditional positivism, whereby he (a) substituted the principle of falsification for that of verification, and (b) simultaneously identified falsification as the criterion for deciding a scientific from a non-scientific theory. A scientific theory will generate empirical predictions that are capable of being falsified. If they do not do so, they are sophisticated tautologies, elegant and detailed, but unable to explain anything meaningfully.

Behaviouralists emphasize that a theory should explain something and should be capable of being tested against observation.

In the strict sense, positivists and behaviouralists would rule out normative theories, as they do not contain empirical and definitional statements, for there can be no room for moral arguments that form the core of the normative theory.

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