Conclusion: the necessity of a scientific approach towards political research
Within this chapter we have highlighted the central relationship that exists between understanding the political world and appreciating how we arrive at this understanding. As Shively (1998, p. 2) claims: 'Social research is an attempt by social scientists to develop and sharpen theories that give us a handle on the universe. Reality, unrefined by theory is too chaotic for us to absorb.'
Certainly, the world of politics may often appear chaotic, and also secretive and exclusive. By appreciating the strengths and weaknesses of various political research methods we are able to justify our theories, understandings and explanations. What this text now seeks to do is identify a range of empirical methods and studies within political science which will enable you to understand how we might carry out research projects, and more importantly the advantages and disadvantages we might face by employing such methods.
Part I will introduce the topic of quantitative research. Chapter 2 focuses upon the terminology involved and some of the general strengths and weaknesses of the quantitative approach, and includes two case studies to illustrate how quantitative data is employed in political research. Chapters 3 and 4 look at particular aspects of using quantitative research. Chapter 3 focuses upon the development and employment of surveys in political research and illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of surveys by scrutinising the role of opinion polling. Chapter 4 examines the use of official data, and in particular the political nature of official statistics.
In Part II we consider the use of qualitative methods in political research. Chapter 5 provides a general overview of the advantages and limitations of such an approach in political research. Chapter 6 offers a practical guide to using interviews as a method of gaining political information.
In Part III, Chapters 7 and 8 focus upon how we can employ existing information in our research, through employing sources such as the media, official documents and personal accounts.
The final section of this text provides some practical hints and suggestions for those about to embark on their own research project (usually referred to as a dissertation). This is not a simple, all-embracing account of what a dissertation should be like, but it does cover some of the most common mistakes which dissertation
students regularly make, and which (with sufficient preparation) can easily be avoided. The final chapter of this book provides a reference section of useful information sources which are commonly used by political scientists.
There is a plethora of social science research texts which vary in both their accessibility and appropriateness for undergraduate politics students. J. Blondel's Thinking Politically, Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1976, is a useful text to start you thinking about what the study of political science entails and how the academic study of political science institutions and behaviour has developed historically.
D. Marsh and G. Stoker (eds), Theory and Methods in Political Science, London: Macmillan, 1995, provides a thorough account of the different theoretical approaches to political research which were briefly mentioned in this chapter, and also includes an introduction to the methodological issues which will be dealt with in greater detail in this text.
The journal Political Studies (volume 39 no. 3, September 1991) includes a number of articles which consider the issue of methods in political science (covering topics such as comparative analysis, international relations, the relationship between the study of history and the study of politics, the rational choice and feminist approaches to political analysis, and the theory and methods employed in the study of public administration).