Government, Law, and Politics
Government, the political system by which a country or community is administered and regulated.
Most of the key words commonly used to describe governments—words such as monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy—are of Greek or Roman origin. They have been current for more than 2,000 years and have not yet exhausted their usefulness. This suggests that humankind has not altered very much since they were coined. However, such verbal and psychological uniformity must not be allowed to hide the enormous changes in society and politics that have occurred. The earliest analytical use of the term monarchy, for example, occurred in ancient Athens, in the dialogues of Plato (c. 428–c. 348 BCE), but even in Plato’s time the term was not self-explanatory. There was a king in Macedonia and a king in Persia, but the two societies, and therefore their institutions, were radically different. To give real meaning to the word monarchy in those two instances, it would be necessary to investigate their actual political and historical contexts. Any general account of monarchy required then, and requires today, an inquiry as to what circumstances have predisposed societies to adopt monarchy and what have led them to reject it. So it is with all political terms.
This article discusses the historical development of governments, primarily in the societies of the West. (See also political science; political system; state.)
Law, the discipline and profession concerned with the customs, practices, and rules of conduct of a community that are recognized as binding by the community. Enforcement of the body of rules is through a controlling authority.
The law is treated in a number of articles. For a description of legal training and a general background, see legal profession, legal education, and legal ethics. Articles that delineate the relationship of law to political structures are constitution; ideology; political party; and political system. For articles that discuss the importance of law regarding social justice and other social issues, see human rights; land reform; and social service. For an examination of comparative legal systems and the relationship of the law to the social sciences, see comparative law. For a description of canon law, see canon law. For a description of Islamic law, see Sharīʿah. For a description of Jewish law, see Talmud and Midrash. For an analysis of the role of law in the administration of government, see administrative law. For an exposition of social restrictions and their enforcement, see censorship; crime and punishment; and police. For a description of the legal aspects of war and the military, see war, law of. For a discussion of legal philosophy, see law, philosophy of. For an exposition of various types of historical and contemporary legal systems, see Chinese law; civil law; common law; court; Egyptian law; European law; Germanic law; Greek law; Indian law; Israeli law; Japanese law; Roman law; Scandinavian law; Scottish law; Soviet law; and Welsh law. For international aspects of law, see international law; and United Nations. For an examination of the laws covering specific fields, see agency; air law; bankruptcy; carriage of goods; commercial transaction; contract; constitutional law; criminal law; family law; inheritance; labour law; maritime law; medical jurisprudence; procedural law; property law; tax law; and tort.
Political science, the systematic study of governance by the application of empirical and generally scientific methods of analysis. As traditionally defined and studied, political science examines the state and its organs and institutions. The contemporary discipline, however, is considerably broader than this, encompassing studies of all the societal, cultural, and psychological factors that mutually influence the operation of government and the body politic.
Although political science borrows heavily from the other social sciences, it is distinguished from them by its focus on power—defined as the ability of one political actor to get another actor to do what it wants—at the international, national, and local levels. Political science is generally used in the singular, but in French and Spanish the plural (sciences politiques and ciencias políticas, respectively) is used, perhaps a reflection of the discipline’s eclectic nature. Although political science overlaps considerably with political philosophy, the two fields are distinct. Political philosophy is concerned primarily with political ideas and values, such as rights, justice, freedom, and political obligation (whether people should or should not obey political authority); it is normative in its approach (i.e., it is concerned with what ought to be rather than with what is) and rationalistic in its method. In contrast, political science studies institutions and behaviour, favours the descriptive over the normative, and develops theories or draws conclusions based on empirical observations, which are expressed in quantitative terms where possible.
Although political science, like all modern sciences, involves empirical investigation, it generally does not produce precise measurements and predictions. This has led some scholars to question whether the discipline can be accurately described as a science. However, if the term science applies to any body of systematically organized knowledge based on facts ascertained by empirical methods and described by as much measurement as the material allows, then political science is a science, like the other social disciplines. In the 1960s the American historian of science Thomas S. Kuhn argued that political science was “pre-paradigmatic,” not yet having developed basic research paradigms, such as the periodic table that defines chemistry. It is likely that political science never will develop a single, universal paradigm or theory, and attempts to do so have seldom lasted more than a generation, making political science a discipline of many trends but few classics.