The Empirical Approach to Political Science

Chapter 2 The Empirical Approach to Political Science

In chapter 2 of the textbook, we describe the scientific method and argue that it underlies empirical political science research. We note that empiricism is not the only method of obtaining knowledge—there are others that lots of people fervently adhere to—and a case can be made against trying to study politics scientifically. (There are even disagreements about the definition and nature of the scientific method.) Nevertheless, this way of acquiring knowledge is so common that many social scientists take it for granted, as do many average citizens. The problem is that scientific claims are sometimes difficult to distinguish from other kinds of statements. Nor is it always clear whether and how empirical analysis can be applied to propositions stated in theoretical and practical terms. The following questions, problems, and assignments therefore offer opportunities for you to think about the application of the empirical approach. Note that not all of the questions have one “right” answer. Many, in fact, require a lot of careful thought. And it is often necessary to redefine or clarify words or phrases, to look for hidden assumptions, and to consider whether or not statements can be “translated” into scientific terms.

Exercise 2–1. Make a list of the characteristics of scientific knowledge. The list may help organize your thinking for other questions in this chapter.

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Exercise 2–2. The chapter mentions several characteristics of scientific knowledge. It also warns about confusing commonsense and casual observations with verified or potentially verifiable claims. In this exercise you will try to identify and differentiate between normative statements, which are statements that suggest how things should be, and empirical statements, which are statements that can be measured, tested, or verified through observation. For each of the following statements, decide if the statement is normative, empirical, a combination of the two, or if there is not enough information in the statement for you to decide. Write your responses in the space provided after each statement and briefly explain why you think your answer is correct.

a. The Republicans won a majority of seats in the U.S. Senate in the 2014 midterm elections.

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b. Offshore drilling should be banned in Alaska because it is immoral to risk damaging an otherwise pristine natural environment.

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c. Early voting periods should be shortened because they disproportionately favor Democratic candidates for office.

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d. Multiparty systems are better for representation than two-party systems.

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