Formal Theory and Spatial Modeling

Formal theory still remains a common form of investigation in the political science. It developed among the first methodologies to the study in the 20th century. Formal theory is also known as a rational choice theory primarily used in positivist studies. It strives to draw logical conclusions from interrelations between political concepts. The method consists of a game theory and spatial theory. Game theory deals with strategic interaction of the subjects in a competitive and cooperative environment. Spatial theory investigates the behavior of subjects in different contexts in spatial distance.

Formal theory derives its assumptions from already existing principles. Rational choice is one of them. It prescribes that actions of individuals are intentional and motivated by the real world circumstances. In its turn, rational choice is based on three more principles – comparability, transitivity, and self-interest. Comparability is a chance to discover alternatives and make a rational choice. Transitivity points at a clear interrelation between the options. It allows people to evaluate all options and make a considerate choice. Self-interest implies that individuals are motivated to choose what is best for themselves. It is very rational that individuals seek to get the largest possible benefit.

The spatial model is used to analyze voting in a one- or two-dimensional space. Political choice is a point in the space where all subjects have their preferences. Each subject prefers the choice that lies closer to their point of interest. Spatial models are also used to determine social choice, voting, and political behavior.

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Survey Research

Survey research is a basic tool for collecting data in political science. In the 1960s, it was known as face-to-face interviewing. In the 1980s, the interview was conducted per telephone, and now digital communications have much simplified the process of polling. A mass opinion survey is the most popular type of polling applied to all voting-age population. In general, such surveys help politicians understand beliefs, attitudes, and values of the mass public. Investigators collect data from a small part of the population and apply generalized statements to everyone else.

Design of questionnaires has changed together with the polling technology, and present-day polls incorporate a complex system of collecting data. Questions contain different structure, phrasing, and order of the statements. The distinction between questionnaires begins with open- and closed-ended questions. In open-ended questions, the respondent provides a detailed opinion on the topic besides replying “yes” or “no”. While an open-ended question costs more time to record and analyze, closed-ended ones are even more common in surveys. There are options for the respondent to select the correct answer, which optimizes the polling procedure.

Face-to-face interviews and random digit dial (RDD) telephone surveys were major polling methods of the past century. Today traditional landline RDD polls are a problem because more people own wireless phones only. Despite RDD polls may cause a potential coverage bias, cell phones are unlikely to be used for surveys in the near future. Instead, researchers look forward to developing effective web surveys that will collect cheap and high-quality data. At the moment, they have not created a new comprehensive web research methodology yet so digital surveys remain a critical part of the future research.

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Qualitative vs Quantitative Research

To analyze data, we can use qualitative and quantitative approaches. Neither of them is superior to the other one, and both methods have their competitive advantages. In political science, we distinguish empirical and normative analysis. The first is used to obtain information and the last – to make some use of it. Empirical analysis brings us the data that we can further verify experimentally or through observations. It can be qualitative or quantitative.

Quantitative analysis allows us to estimate numerical data using measures and statistical techniques. It gives us an objective study of the reality refined from the subjective attitude of the investigator or the speculations of the subject. The investigator uses questionnaires or experiments while interacting with the subject. They apply deductive forms of logic to generalize theories and provide better explanation and understanding of the phenomenon.

Qualitative research generates a complex characteristic of the phenomenon and it involves investigation of words and graphical objects in their context. This inquiry helps to better understand social issues, events, or people themselves. In qualitative research, the reality is not objective but socially constructed. Investigators closely interact with the subjects of the study and collect data themselves. They also become a part of the research and may bring their subjective evaluation to it. The investigator is bound to the context and they use inductive forms of logic to draw conclusions.

Irrespective of which type of research we choose, it is always necessary to understand the research question as well as the theory behind it, create a research design, collect and analyze data, and provide the research results. The choice of research method depends on the area of investigation, the type of data we deal with, and the conclusions we aim at.

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Content Analysis

The necessity to analyze the text systematically goes beyond linguistics into political science. The value of content taken from mass media is often bigger than it seems with all the implications hidden in it. The importance of studying content arose during Nazi propaganda in World War II, and Communist ideologists also manipulated their people through mass communications.

Content analysis helps to discover everything that is beyond text, i.e. the leader’s personality or their intention. Scholars also study the impact of context through such analysis. Not only written text but also transcripts of oral communication or body language fall under content analysis. Importantly, content analysis does not alter the behavior of the subject. In fact, scholars do not require a direct communication with speakers to analyze their messages. The procedure of content analysis is relatively easy and cheap. A single investigator who has an access to texts and recorded communication can perform the analysis for an affordable payment.

Under content analysis, we understand quantitative assessment of texts performed in a systematic manner. Qualitative analysis lacks an explicit coding scheme and it cannot detect the intention of a speaker in full. Systematic nature makes quantitative analysis less dependent on the ability of the investigator to focus on the evidence they see decoding the text.

During the analysis, investigators detect manifest and latent content. Manifest is the surface meaning of the text that disguises the deeper symbolic meaning of the latent content. The manifest content is easier to code with clear and systematic coding rules. The underlying latent content is the expertise of a qualitative discourse analysis that is less transparent.

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Evolution of Political Science

A new discipline, political science emerged in the 1950s. It takes its roots from history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and economics. Though a branch of social science, the political study had clear distinctions from the disciplines mentioned above. Over the time, scholars defined scientific methods able to conceptualize politics as a science. Positivism, inductivism, and behavioralism were to explain political science at its very beginning.

The positivist approach to the science is a universal generalization of existing facts. The same approach is used in natural sciences where scholars can obtain knowledge by observation or experiment. Positivists believe that in social sciences knowledge could also emerge from inductive inference, just like in the natural sciences. They also used inductive reasoning to create theories based on the positivist practices. Behavioralism focused on phenomena where individual human behavior was observable. The three approaches have been criticized and complemented with falsificationism and deductivism.

It turned out that inductivism did not guarantee true conclusions from true observations. It only gave assumptions. Philosopher Karl Popper suggested that falsifiable theories that have not been falsified are truly scientific. Deductive reasoning comes alongside falsificationism. It allows making conclusions based on multiple assumptions that are usually true. The use of deduction gave rise to the rational choice method. Rational choice theorists referred to theoretical assumptions before they subjected the theory to empirical testing.

Though entirely different, these insights into political science were combined. Theories generated by either of these methods are considered scientific. While behaviorists and rational choice theorists may disagree on logical reasoning as they arrive at certain conclusions, interpretivists highlight the importance of contextual factors. Such a conflict lies in the basis of political science.

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