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Why Study Politics

This explanation of the study of Politics appeared in the Monash University Arts Faculty Handbook in 2000.

Politics and the Reasons for Studying It

Politics at university is different from political studies at school in two main ways.

First, it is less concerned with current affairs or daily events, and less concerned also with what appears on the surface level of politics. It is much more concerned with what happens below the surface, or out of sight. This does not mean that we study what goes on in secret. Rather, it means that as well as looking at what happens, we also investigate why things happen and when they do: so we study the causes of political events and the structure of politics, as well as looking for hidden meanings and motivations.

Politics at university is more concerned with explaining how different political systems are constructed, why they take different forms in different societies, how they work and so on. As one of the social sciences, it analyses the structures and practices of a range of human societies.

It overlaps continually with other subjects. Like Economics, it studies the problem of resource allocation, but more from the perspective of power: what factors determine who gets what, when and how. It deals with all aspects of organisation and administration, struggle and conflict, leadership and authority, policy and decision- making, wherever these things occur, in the private as well as the public sector, within nation-states and in the global arena. It is not confined to the study of government or politicians alone.

It is, therefore, a multifaceted subject, very much concerned with developing the kind of knowledge which is directly relevant to managing and criticizing the kind of complex, organisational society in which we live.

Its special focus is trying to make sense of, and to solve, the kinds of complicated ethical and organisational problems which must be overcome for large numbers of people to live and cooperate successfully with one another in a common territory, or state, as well as those associated with the complex interactions between states. It is very much concerned with the problem of how best to achieve, in practice, such desirable values as political freedom or equality. Politics analyses the relative merits of different forms of government, and international organization. Therefore, it has an important value dimension. Its overall aim is to build up a more reliable, systematic knowledge of the way political organisations emerge, develop and work, hoping this knowledge will assist in developing more attractive and more viable societies in the future.

Second, politics at university is different because it is less concerned with plain facts of description. It is more concerned with ideas and concepts. Having done politics at school will make you more familiar with some terms or issues. However, most people find university subjects, especially in the social sciences, very different from school work, mainly because at first they seem more abstract.

This abstraction is due to several things. We are training you to ‘distance’ yourself more from what you are studying. This is meant to increase your capacity for discrimination and judgment, so that you will be able to distinguish between more and less important facts, and avoid being swamped by detail or complexity. We are trying to make you more aware of the gap between appearance and reality, so that you are less at the mercy of first impressions; and more aware of relations of cause and effect, or the significance of first principles. We are trying deliberately to get you to think (or conceptualise) at a more general (or theoretical) level because this increases your ability to explain things. Understanding – and intellectual capacity – grows with the ability to develop broader-range explanations which incorporate a knowledge of causal relations.

Studying Politics is meant to teach the following broad skills:

  1. An analytic or logical capacity. Being able to draw relevant or significant distinctions between different classes of information or arguments. Being able to sort things out, impose some control or schema on what is otherwise an overwhelming or confusing set of materials. Being able to impose intellectual control and categories on the data confronting you.
  2. A synthetic capacity. Being able to see connections, to see what goes with what. Being able to make surprising or unexpected connections by grouping like with unlike according to conceptual or classificatory schemes you are able to construct. Politics is especially valuable for teaching people the kind of conceptual skills or thinking used in complicated decision-making situations. Someone has to be able to speak to the different categories of specialists, and co-ordinate their various contributions within a common framework of decision.
  3. The skills of critical detachment and perspective. To make decisions one has to be able to separate oneself and one’s emotions from events, or the situation. One has to be able to escape the pressures of immediacy, see the background to the events, see the broader chain of cause and effect. At the same time, paradoxically, developing a capacity for ‘critical detachment’ should involve an assessment of the problems of engaging in abstract detachment for its own sake. Politics is ultimately therefore an ‘engaged’ discipline, engaged in understanding the world.

There are, too, other skills which derive from getting more and better knowledge about such specific matters as the way policies are made, or the way governments or states do business (or make war) with one another. Politics brings you into contact with virtually all other subjects, including the sciences as well as the humanities. It is a surprisingly good subject for collecting all manner of information about the world, and the more you study it, the more it helps you to create the conceptual apparatus, or the kind of intellectual grid, for sorting and co-ordinating all this information. Politics is a particularly good subject for the creative and critical mind. It assists intellectual self-development because it continually combines elements of theory with the practical study of concrete problems and events.

Studying Politics provides the kind of information and the broad skills especially important for citizens in a democracy who are supposed to show an interest in what their government does, and to vote accordingly. It is also important to learn something about the ideas and values which help comprise our own political tradition, as well as learning more about other countries, and thereby gaining a comparative perspective on ourselves. Studying Politics should help you to penetrate a little deeper beneath the outward appearance of things. You should learn more about why matters which seem straightforward enough generate unexpected passion and conflict; why policies put forward in good faith by government turn out to be counter- productive; where power lies; how power is converted into authority; and so on. And all this should help you develop a more perceptive view of the world in which you live.
Malcolm Farnsworth
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