Could defining an established concept such as political science be perplexing? An abundance of extant literature about the matter will show that this is not a problem at all. If the American Political Science Association were asked, it would loosely define political science as “the study of governments, public policies and political processes, systems, and political behavior.” Aristotle would also reply that politics is essentially the study of the state. It is of no surprise why graduates of political science here in the Philippines need to be prepared for million-dollar questions about the 1987 Philippine Constitution and an on-the-spot recitation of the Constitution’s preamble or (if they are wretched enough) the entire Bill of Rights, if someone happens or bothers to know that they are faithful disciples of the field. There is no question as to political science being always concomitant with the State, laws, regimes, and all other institutions associated thereof, but the dominant approach and pedagogy in dealing with political science has in some way restricted the ambit of our field to the formal realms of politics. More so, there is no question to political science as being a highly academic and technical field, but sometimes our language and discourse have somehow become reflective of our unlikely status as “intellectual aristocrats.”
So let me ask first: is there a need to redefine political science? What do others really mean when they say political science or politics for that matter? For my fellow political science students, does our conception of our field capture its all-encompassing essence and social relevance? In six hundred words or so, let me expound on these issues I mentioned.
Beyond the manifest and evident
One of my professors shared to us one time the story of Nena and her back pain. Nena lives in a remote community where quarrying activities have been going on for a while. With this premise, she asked the class: what is the connection between Nena’s backpain and the grandiose rock sculptures she saw in the façade of a five-star hotel? At first, we thought Nena is one of those in her community who carry massive boulders behind her back, and that would explain her condition as well as the rock sculptures. But we were wrong. Nena’s backpain is not attributable to carrying rocks but to fetching water in the highlands. The quarry has contaminated the community’s water system and destroyed the trees so they need to go up to the mountains to get firewood and fetch clean water. While women such as Nena transport buckets of water through their fragile shoulders, their husbands work in the quarry for a living.
Can this situation be dubbed political? While people might say on top of their minds that Nena’s back pain is quite personal and trivial concern which does not invoke the primary involvement of the Congress, a military intervention of the State, or participation of a diplomatic corps, the underlying issues behind Nena’s condition make this issue so politically relevant: the failure of the government to provide basic social services, environmental destruction, the perennial issue of poverty in rural communities, and gender role issues, among others. While our inherent bias toward institutions could be an upshot of our academic upbringing, looking just at the manifest and evident relegates the latent and the unseen to the sidelines of our analysis. We learn from Nena’s story that understanding what we do not directly notice is as essential as (or far more essential than) what we outwardly see. Seen or otherwise, our field concerns everything; what we might think as fairly commonplace can somewhat become a point of political inquiry, like you grabbing a bottle of purified water out of your fridge while a quarter of the world does not have a decent water supply. As political science is above all the study of power, politics is not only limited to the formal realms of governance; it is an interplay of various factors, the society being just one.
Of scholars and intellectual aristocrats
I remember taking my first exam in my first major subject during college. One of the items in the essay part is this: “Explain political science to a driver of tricycle.” At first the question struck me as odd, but bearing in mind that it is too early to screw up I scribbled some words which I read from Axford and Giddens. I tried to extract the gist of what they are saying, simplify the words and make them sound listener-friendly but to no avail. When it finally dawned to me that I got to explain an intricate concept to a tricycle driver and not to a social science geek, I decided to answer the answer using my native language. What Axford and Giddens have told me in five lengthy chapters I comprehensively summarized in a short paragraph sloppily written in Filipino.
An academic field such as political science has a universe of its own; a universe where bystanders could find very alienating if they were not familiar to its rudiments. While analyzing political processes are what we eat for breakfast, the street vendors who are not well-versed to our field and high school students who find politics as too overwhelming might not be able to completely understand what is all happening around an elected official’s impeachment trial, an issue which is of paramount interest to the public. Scholars as we are, we have political phenomena to analyze, but our discourse could antagonize baffled minds instead of enlighten them if we were fond of rendering simple thoughts convoluted and complex ideas all the more complex. If by being “scholarly” and “academic” we mean taking the liberty of choosing obscurity over simplicity and attaining the elitism and angst of an eminent intellectual aristocrat, then we got to go back why we are political or social scientists in the first place.
Now we go back to our question: is there a need to redefine political science? Well, it depends. The term political science is so commonly used that we tend to take its meaning for granted. We need to think again and again; go back to the basics if we must. While looking for an absolute understanding of an incessantly evolving concept is the least of our concerns, knowing our identity as a social science scholar is not.
Image Source: Hope College Website