Political science is about the scientific study of political phenomena.¹ Like any scientific study, political science researchers look to develop and test theories about the causes of certain concepts, interests or phenomena. Researches do this by developing a hypothesis about a causal relationship they expect to observe based on a theory they believe to be true. Conversely, they will develop a null-hypothesis which embodies the relationship the researcher expects to observe if the theory is incorrect. The researcher will then do field work to systematically collect political information, evidence or data. This information is then used to test the researcher’s hypothesis, and determine whether the researcher’s hypothesis, or null-hypothesis, is consistent with the data. An evaluation of the researcher’s hypothesis, and its underlying theory leads to empirically tested scientific knowledge of political phenomena.
Like scientific research, no theory in political science is ever proven. A theory that best explains political phenomena today might be replaced by a completely different theory in the future. Skepticism about one’s own theories and the theories proposed by other researches is a fundamental virtue for any political researcher. Skepticism also requires that political research be conducted in a way that is unbiased and isn't influence by the partisan beliefs of the individual researcher or the desire to make a particular theory fit the facts. Evidence-based political research leads to the development of empirical knowledge about political phenomena, and researchers must avoid confusing this type of knowledge with normative ideas about politics.
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Students study political research for two reasons. Students who understand the fundamentals of political research will be able to apply this knowledge in critically evaluating claims of causal relationship and theories put forth by other researchers. Similarly, students who understand the tools and techniques of political science research may themselves become produces of research, and political knowledge, some day.
Many students who take their first political research class are frustrated by the required math and statistics skills needed to collect and evaluate political information. Political research involves an understanding of theory building, experimental research design, measurement, and statistical methods such as regression models, goodness-of-fit, and confidence intervals. Don’t be daunted! Students who grasp these tools are transformed from research skeptics to enthusiastic researchers.
1. The Fundamentals of Political Science Research by Paul M. Kellstedt and Guy D. Whitten (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).