Approaches to Political Theory: Normative and Empirical

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  • 0:01 Political Theory Defined
  • 0:38 Empirical Theory
  • 1:53 Normative Theory
  • 2:37 Interaction of Approaches
  • 3:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Theories attempt to explain the world around us. In this lesson, you'll learn about political theory. An overview of the normative and empirical approaches to political theory will also be examined. A short quiz follows.

Political Theory Defined

Elaine and Nathan are professors of political science at a university. They both focus their studies on political theory, which is the study of the ideas and values concerning concepts of the state, power, individuals, groups and the relationship between them. Furthermore, political theory is not only concerned with how these relationships work, but also how they ought to work.

Even though Elaine and Nathan both study political theory, they take different approaches. Let's take a quick look at each.

Empirical Theory

Elaine focuses her studies and research on empirical political theory. In the simplest terms, empirical political theory is focused on explaining 'what is' through observation. In this approach, scholars seek to generate a hypothesis, which is a proposed explanation for some phenomena that can be tested empirically. After formulating a hypothesis, a study will be designed to test the hypothesis. Let's look at an example.

Elaine is interested in the role of money in modern Senate elections. She develops a hypothesis that candidates who spend more money on their campaigns than their opponents will win. Elaine then goes about designing a study to test her hypothesis by examining election results and campaign finance reporting disclosures. Elaine must be careful to control for other variables that may affect the result, such as incumbency, and focus on states with a relatively equal balance of political party membership. After collecting the data, she will determine through statistical analysis if it tends to support or not support her hypothesis.

Normative Theory

Nathan's focus is on normative political theory. While empirical political theory is concerned with 'what is,' normative political theory is concerned with 'what ought to be.' In other words, normative political theory is concerned about how the world should be and focuses on the exploration of values and what should be done based upon those values.

Nathan is also interested in the role of money in democratic elections. However, remember that his focus is on normative theory. So while Elaine wants to explore whether candidates that spend more, win more, Nathan explores whether the influence of money in modern campaigns is a threat to the American values of democratic choice and fair, open elections.

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