This chapter examines the ways in which political scientists gain knowledge in their subject matter. It begins by introducing the “scientific approach to politics”—the use of critical thought as a guide to our perceptions of the political world. It goes on to distinguish between normative and empirical analysis, highlighting the prescriptive nature of the former and the descriptive nature of the latter, as well as the ways in which both forms of analysis may overlap in the study of politics.
This chapter also reflects on the concept of “science” and its meaning and application in the social sciences. It identifies a number of features that make the scientific approach an attractive epistemology and methodology and examines the philosophical basis of the scientific approach (i.e., positivism). The chapter then discusses the core beliefs of the scientific approach, and how those core beliefs are connected to the methodology that political scientists use to learn bout the world.
There are limitations of the scientific approach, and other ways of thinking about social science research exist. However, the text argues that, despite these criticisms, the scientific approach is the best means by which we can work to understand the incredibly complex social world around us.