What is political theory?

I think the most difficult question in the study of politics is what is political theory and what is political science. The answers to these questions have never been unanimously accepted and remains contested. What I try here is to give the most elementary understanding of political theory. After reading this piece, you will be able to understand the essence of political theory.


Here, let’s first understand the terms ‘political’ and ‘theory’.

The terms ‘polity’, ‘politics’ and ‘political’, are derived from the Greek word ‘polis’ which denoted ancient Greek city-state. Politics in ancient Greek understanding aimed at securing the good life for the community. Political thus meant anything that had to do with the city-state. Today, politics refers to something which is of public concern.

On the other hand, theory in general is an explanatory tool. It seeks to understand and make sense of the complex phenomena happening around us.

Now, let’s define political theory.

In the most basic sense, political theory denotes the systematic knowledge of political phenomena. Political theory seeks to understand, analyse and explain the political phenomena and prescribe ways and means to rectify the shortcomings. In political theory, we try to know the political aspect of human life.

Political theory is concerned with ethical or normative questions.

Political theory involves the analytical study of ideas and concepts that have been central to political thought. One of the core areas of study in political theory has been state and government.

With the emergence of behaviouralists especially after the Second World War, the focus of political theory has been shifted to the study of politics as processes and behaviours. However, there are scholars like Leo-Strauss, Gettel etc. who argue that the study of state and government remains central to the study of political theory. This view has been acknowledged by post-behaviouralists as well.

Key Definitions of Political Theory

David Held

“Political theory is a network of concepts and generalisations about political life involving ideas, assumptions and statements about the nature, purpose and key features of government, state and society, and about the political capabilities of human beings.”


‘Political theory is the most appropriate term to employ in designating that intellectual tradition which affirms the possibility of transcending the sphere of immediate practical concerns and viewing man’s societal existence from a critical perspective.’

Andrew Hacker

“Political Theory is a combination of a disinterested search for the principles of good state and good society on the one hand, and a disinterested search for knowledge of political and social reality on the other.”

George Catlin

“Political theory includes political science and political philosophy. While science refers to the phenomenon of control in many forms over all the processes of whole social field. It is concerned with the end or final value, when man asks, what the national good is” or “What is good society.”

John Plamenatz

“The function of political theory has come to be restricted to the analysis and clarification of the vocabulary of politics and the critical examination, verification and justification of the concepts employed in political argument.”

Norman Barry

“Political theory is an electric subject which draws upon a variety of disciplines. There is no body of knowledge or method of analysis which can be classified as belonging exclusively to political theory.”

George Sabine

“Political theory is, quite simply, man’s attempts to consciously understand and solve the problems of his group life and organisation. It is the disciplined investigation of political problems….. not only to show what a political practice is, but also to show what it means. In showing what a practice means, or what it ought to mean, political theory can alter what it is.”

Political theory is an evolving discipline. What it should study has been challenged. There are different approaches to the study of political theory.

(Please keep tune to new articles to read more about the approaches/methodologies).

For best readings on political theory and concepts in political theory, you may refer the following books:

Politics by Andrew Heywood.

Political Theory by Andrew Heywood.

A History of Political Theory by George Sabine (first chapter).


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