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Module Abstract Politics

1. Chapter
Defining politics

"As the title tells you, you will deal with politics in this module. For a start, everyone seems familiar with this term. But what is its concrete meaning?

Etymologically, the term politics derives from the Greek word polis which means city or city state. Aristotle for example refers to man as a political animal though he uses the term ‘political’ to define a man rather than to define what is politics. “It is only because man lives in the polis and, conversely, because the polis lives in him, that he is able to realize his full human potential” (Sartori 1973, p.7). This definition does not differentiate ‘political’ from ‘social’ and does not limit the sphere of political to ‘exercise of power’ or ‘rule-making’ by the state. The modern definition of ‘politics’ that involves the notions of power and hierarchy and is conceived as an autonomous sphere (different from religion and morality) was introduced by Machiavelli. As noted by Sartori, “Machiavelli's greatest originality lies in asserting-with unparalleled theoretical vigor-the existence of an imperative peculiar to politics. Machiavelli not only declares the difference of politics from ethics, but also arrives at a clear-cut affirmation of its autonomy: politics has its laws, laws that the statesman must apply” (Sartori 1973, p. 11).

Modern day political scientists use the conception of politics that is closer to the Machiavellian idea. Goodin and Klingemann for example see politics best “described as the constrained use of social power” (Goodin/Klingemann, 1996, p. 7). The modern definitions of politics emphasize power and conflict in social interaction and encompass all governmental decisions as well as interactions that occur outside of government purview. Some theorists still conceive of politics in a broader way. Colin Hay defines politics as encompassing “the entire sphere of the social.” For Hay, political are “[a]ll events, processes and practices which occur within the social sphere (…). The realm of government is no more innately political, by its definition, than that of culture, law or the domestic sphere” (Hay, 2002, p. 3). As with many other abstract terms, many definitions exist of what is ‘politics’ and ‘political.’ The issue of rule-making, power and conflict are however central to what is considered ‘political’ today.

Additionally, the term politics today is frequently used with certain specifications in order to distinguish individual sub-areas. For example, one talks about domestic and foreign policy, education and municipal policy, energy and climate policy. You probably noticed the different terms used here: politics and policies. Together with the third term polity, this trias describes different domains of political science (for definitions of these terms see chapter 2).

Next to the areas of interest, also the actors one might think of are diverse: One can deal with individual persons, groups of people (e.g. lobby groups, civil movements, and unions), states, confederations of state, supranational, international and transnational organizations. These distinctions are also classified by the levels of analysis. Kenneth Waltz differentiates three levels or images: the individual, the (nation) state and the international system. His definition is still employed today though it is not uncontested. One could modify Waltz’s images receiving 5 levels instead:

  • 1st level: individuals
  • 2nd level: social groups and regions
  • 3rd level: states and governments
  • 4th level: macro-regions, regimes
  • 5th level: world system

This gives a more differentiated picture of the actors involved in political processes."

Franziska Smolnik and Julia Graupe, revised by Gulnaz Sharafutdinova: Defining Poltics. © East European Studies Online; 2010.

Module Conception: Klaus Segbers