Last Updated 17 Aug 2022

Behavioralism & Political Science

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The field of Political Science is a field that is rich in issues and knowledge. It contains many issues that may be subject of inquiry. In this field, many queries have been made and many researches have been performed. The years have shown an evolution of research processes involving many different methods and approaches, targeting different goals, and focusing on different aspects of an issue.

One of the most popular of these approaches is the behavioralist approach. The behavioralist approach has been used in many inquiries in Political Science and has been subject of analyses of many scholarly works pertaining to the field.

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In this essay, I will examine two of such works. The first of them is David Sanders “Behaviouralism”; and the second is Robert A Dahl’s “The Behavioral Approach in Political Science: Epitaph for a Monument to a Successful Protest”. David Sanders’ “Behaviouralism” is a quick look at some of the important concepts involved in behavioralist studies. This involves an examination of the core question “what do actors involved actually do and how can we best explain how they do it? ” It emphasizes the quest of behavioralists for reliability and truth.

This can be shown through the use of quantitative, in addition to qualitative, measures or statistical techniques, the attempt to explain all empirical evidence or at least a representative sample, and the requirement of falsifiability. It emphasizes on the criteria of being internally consistent, consistent with other theories explaining related phenomena and capable of generating empirical predictions. The article also delved on the criticisms thrown against behavioralism. Among these is the tendency to emphasize what can be easily measured and what can be easily observed.

This results to a failure to comprehend the “big picture” because of the focus on smaller aspects of an issue that is capable of measurement. However, as the Sanders wrote, this is not to say that “all examples of behavioral research are flawed”. Behavioral research has vast contributions to the understanding and explanation of social behavior.

This strength, according to Sanders, is derived mainly from the “determination to pursue forms of analysis that are capable of replication”. On the other hand, Robert A. Dahl’s “The Behavioral Approach in Political Science: Epitaph for a Monument to a Successful Protest” is a historical and evolutionary account of the theory of behavioralism. It touches on the main concepts and ideas behind the theory, such as the main question involved in behavioral research, the scientific nature of its purpose, the goal of discovering uniformities and indicating the consequences of such patterns, and use of quantitative tools whenever possible (767). However, the article’s main focus is on how the approach has originated and evolved through time.

According to Dahl, the behavioral approach was originally a “protest movement within political science”. It resulted from “a strong sense of dissatisfaction with the achievements of conventional political science… and a belief that additional methods and approaches either existed or could be developed” (766). The article then goes on to discuss the reactions to the behavioral approach and its contributions in the field of research, especially in voting studies (769-770). It finished its discussion with a prediction of the future of behavioralism as a research approach in the field of political science.

Dahl believes that, from being a movement of protest, the behavioralist approach will “slowly decay as a distinctive mood and outlook” and “will become, and in fact already is becoming, incorporated into the main body of the discipline,” thus marking its success as a research approach (p. 770). The introduction of behavioralism provided a good bridge between the purely qualitative approach to social science research and the systematic, reliable and verifiable methodologies of quantitative research.

It is undeniable fact that social science research is a complex arena where various actors, factors and circumstances interact to produce results that is often not uniform and regular, unlike in the field of hard science. Most factors are difficult to isolate and measure. Trends are difficult to establish and changes easy and research results have a higher margin of error. This is due to the fact that the subjects of social science research are mostly individuals or entities composed by individuals.

This is why, for a very long time, most research methodologies in social science are too flexible and indefinite. The inherent difficulty of measuring social science phenomena prevented the field from developing a research methodology as rigid as that in the hard science. This difficulty is the reason why, despite the attempts to achieve the reliability of the scientific method, behavioralism remains to be mostly qualitative, thus using quantitative methods only when possible.

While many people recognize the contribution of behavioralism in the field of political science, many people also throw criticism to its validity as a method. The main contribution of behavioralism that sets it apart from other approaches is also the source of these criticisms—measurability and verifiability. While these criticisms may actually true, they do not render behavioralism useless. The task of a researcher is not only to employ a research method and accept the results as it is. A good researcher knows that his data may be polluted or compounded.

Due to the complexity of political science phenomena, a researcher should not only be able to identify and isolate the factors that should be measured, it should also know the other factors that may affect or even pollute the results of his research. He should know that his methods are not perfect and there is probability for mistakes. This is especially necessary in the field of political science where the possibility of compounding is high the opportunity to make a research that encompass all factors is low. Both Dahl’s and Sander’s articles are incomplete discussions of the Behavioralist approach.

This is partly due to the fact they are only parts of a whole collection of articles in a book. Therefore, their goal is not actually to give a comprehensive discussion of behavioralism, but rather to give and discuss only a few of its aspects and main features. Their foci are only on certain aspects of the approach. Therefore, while the discussion may not be said to be exhaustive and comprehensive as regards behavioralism as the articles’ subject matter, they are exhaustive and comprehensive within their respective limits.

First, Robert A. Dahl was able to provide a comprehensive presentation of the origin and development as an approach. He was able to identify the reason the approach was introduced and the factors that facilitated its growth. He was also able to note the changes that the approach has undertaken and some of its most notable contributions in research. It even provided a prediction of the future of behavioralism. On the other hand, David A. Sanders provided a very brief but complete discussion of the essence of behavioralism, including its strengths and weaknesses as a research approach.

While the discussion is not too in-depth to the point of being technical, the discussion is sufficient for a person, even with a non-political science background to understand what behavioralism is and what sets it apart from other theories. The articles by both authors are well-supported. Dahl’s article was supported by specific facts in history that are cited to facilitate the discussion about the development of behavioralism. These facts and details show the quality of research that went into the work.

Sanders’ article, on the other hand, is supported by illustrations. Since the discussion is as regards relevant concepts, the approach is more of illustrating the dynamics of behavioral approach through the use of examples. As for the style of writing, Robert Dahl's article reaches more to the audience because of its style of writing. The use of the word “I” and the insertion of several personal insights while discussing hard facts contributed to the dynamic and smooth reading process that the reader may experience while reading the article.

The paradox one may experience while reading is that, while the article tackles about development, something which may be done with just a recital of facts, Dahl was able to made the discussion something that is not a mere recital of facts, but an expression of his own insights. Therefore, the author avoided putting distance between him and his article and made the article his own. The audience of the article is those that belong to the field. This may be gleaned from the fact that the focus is on development and not on concepts.

There is an assumption that the readers already have basic understanding of the theory of behavioralism, and can thus relate to what the author is saying. Such initial understanding of behavioralism is necessary for the reader to be able to relate to what the author is discussing and form a personal evaluation as regards the validity of the author's observation. Sanders' style of writing takes the opposite form of than of Dahl's. His is a more formal discussion of the concepts. His article is more appropriate for readers who are just being introduced to behavioralism.

The discussion may be as formal as a discussion in political science may allow, but the language used is simple and easy to comprehend. It discussed behavioralism from its core concepts to the ideas which revolved around it such as scientific approach and quantitative research. Unlike Dahl, Sanders places a distance between him and his article by using a formal format in the discussion. Dahl and Sanders articles offer a comprehensive discussion of behavioralism. However, read apart, they are limited only as to their specific purposes—Dahl’s as to the development of behavioralism and Sanders’ as to the core concepts and ideas involved.

All in all, both articles are satisfactory pieces about behavioralism. They are clear, concise and informative, without being too rigid and technical. They are straight to the point, elaborating only when needed. They are both useful, especially for new students of Political Science.


Dahl, R. A. `The Behavioural Approach in Political Science: Epitaph for a Monument to a Successful Protest`, American Political Science Review, vol. 55, no. 4 (1961), pp 763-772.

Sanders, David `Behaviouralism` in Marsh, David and Gerry Stoker, Theory and Methods in Political Science (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002) ch. 2..

Behavioralism & Political Science essay

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