What are Political Theories?

Political philosophy, also known as political theory, is the study of topics such as politics, liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of laws by authority: what they are, if they are needed, what makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect, what form it should take, what the law is, and what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any, and when it may be legitimately overthrown, if ever. Political philosophy is a branch of philosophy (Strauss, 1959), but it has also been a major part of political science, within which a strong focus has historically been placed on both the history of political thought and contemporary political theories (from normative political theory to various critical approaches).

In the Oxford Handbook in Political Theory (2006), the field is described as: “[…] an interdisciplinary endeavor whose center of gravity lies at the humanities end of the happily still undisciplined discipline of political science … For a long time, the challenge for the identity of political theory has been how to position itself productively in three sorts of location: in relation to the academic disciplines of political science, history, and philosophy; between the world of politics and the more abstract, ruminative register of theory; between canonical political theory and the newer resources (such as feminist and critical theory, discourse analysis, film and film theory, popular and political culture, mass media studies, neuroscience, environmental studies, behavioral science, and economics) on which political theorists increasingly draw” (Dryzek et al., 2009).

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), from a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael. Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics secured the two Greek philosophers as two of the most influential political philosophers.

1. What is political theory?

At the most general level, political theory is ‘a body of knowledge related to the phenomenon of the state’. While ‘theory’ refers to ‘a systematic knowledge’, ‘political’ refers to ‘matters of public concern’. According to David Held, political theory is a ‘network of concepts and generalizations 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’1. Andrew Hacker defines it as ‘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’.2 Another writer, George Catlin expresses almost the same views. He says, ‘political theory includes political science and political philosophy. While science refers to the phenomena of control in many forms over all the process of whole social field… It is concerned with means; political philosophy is concerned with the end or final value, when man asks ‘what is the national good’ or ‘what is good society’.3 Again, according to W.C. Coker, ‘When political government and its forms and activities are studied not simply as facts to be described and compared or judged in reference to their immediate and temporary effects, but as facts to be understood and appraised in relation to the constants needs, desires and opinions of men, then we have political theory’.4 We can sum up the meaning of political theory by referring to the comprehensive definition given by Gould and Kolb who say that it is ‘a sub-field of political science which includes: i) political philosophy—a moral theory of politics and a historical study of political ideas, ii) a scientific criterion, iii) a linguistic analysis of political ideas, iv) the discovery and systematic development of generalizations about political behaviour’.

On the basis of the above definitions, we can conclude that political theory is concerned with the study of the phenomena of the state both in philosophical as well as empirical terms. It not only involves explanation, description and prescription regarding the state and political institutions but also evaluation of their moral philosophical purpose. It is not only concerned with what the state is but also what it ought to be. According to Weinstein, political theory can be viewed as an activity which involves posing questions, developing responses to those questions and creating imaginative perspectives on the public life of human beings.6 It has been probing into questions like: nature and purpose of the state; why one should prefer a kind of state than the other; what the political organization aims at; by what criteria its ends, its methods and its achievements should be judged; what is the relation between state and the individual. Political theory has been engaged in these age old questions from Plato onwards because it is concerned with the fate of man which depends upon his ability to create a kind of political community in which rulers and ruled are united in the pursuit of common good. It is not necessary that political theory can provide answers to all questions but it can at least tell us how one should go about the solution.

2. Characteristics of political theories

Political theory is an intellectual and moral creation of man. Generally it is the speculation of a single individual who is attempting to offer us a theoretical explanation of the political reality i.e. the phenomena of the state. Every theory by its very nature is an explanation, built upon certain hypothesis which may be valid (or not) and which are always open to criticism. So what we find in political theory is a number of attempts made by thinkers from Plato onwards to unravel the mysteries of man’s political life. They have given so many modes of explanations which may or may not convince us but to which we cannot pass any final judgement. Political theory is largely an attempt to seek the truth as the thinker sees it and it is usually expressed through a treatise such as  Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Hobb’es’ Leviathan, or  Rawls’ A  Theory of Justice.

Secondly, political theory contains an explanation of man, society and history. It probes the nature of man and society: how a society is made up and how it works; what are the important elements; what are the sources of conflict in the society and how they can be resolved.

Thirdly, political theory is discipline based. It means that though the phenomena which the theorist seeks to explain remains the same i.e. the state, the writer may be a philosopher, historian, economist, theologian or a sociologist. Thus we are confronted by a variety of political theories, each distinguished by a discipline on which it is based.

Fourthly, political theory not only comprehends and explains the social and political reality but is also actively engaged in hastening the process of history. The task of political theory is not only to understand and explain but also to device ways and means to change the society. As Laski put it, the task is not merely one of description of what it is but also a prescription of what ought to be.12  Thus  political  theory  recommends  agencies  of  action  as  well  as  means  of  reform, revolution or conservation. It contains programmes that embody both ends and means. Political theory  plays  a  double  role:  to  understand  society  and  to  suggest  how  to  remove  the imperfections.

And lastly, political theory also includes political ideology. Ideology in simple language means ‘a system of beliefs, values and ideals by which people allow themselves to be governed’. We find a number of ideologies in the modern world such as liberalism, Marxism, socialism etc. All political theories from Plato to date reflect a distinct ideology of the writer. Political theory in the form of political ideology includes a system of political values, institutions and practices which a society has adopted as its ideal. For example, all political theories adopted by Western Europe and  America  have  been  dominated by  liberalism  and  the  theories  accepted  by  China  and erstwhile USSR were influenced by a particular brand of Marxism. Each brand of theory or ideology in this sense claims for itself the attributes of universality and compels others to accept it, leading to what is generally known as ‘ideological conflicts’.

In short, political theory is associated with the explanation and evaluation of the political phenomena and this phenomena can be examined as a statement of ideas and ideals, as an agent of socio-economic change, and as an ideology.

3. Major schools of political theories

As mentioned above, there is considerable diversity in political theory. Political theories in the western world are a continuous dialogue extended over time. Broadly speaking, although there is more or less a continuity regarding the subject matter of political theory, yet the approaches to its study have been changing during the past 2000 years. We shall now consider some major schools which have helped in the development of certain key concepts of political theory. These are:

  • i. Classical Political Theory
  • ii. Liberal Political Theory
  • iii. Marxist Political Theory
  • iv. Empirical-Scientific Political Theory
  • v. Contemporary Political Theory


Strauss, Leo (1959). An introduction to Political Philosophy. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, p. 10.

Dryzek, John S.; Honig, Bonnie; Phillips, Anne, eds. (2009-09-02). “The Oxford Handbook of Political Theory”. Oxford Handbooks Onlinedoi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199548439.001.0001ISBN 9780199548439.

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