Editors’ Introduction: A Relational Political Science


Political science is diverse in its methods, theories, and substantive interests. A quick perusal of our flagship journals reveals just how heterogeneous we are, with articles ranging from mathematical treatments of theoretical problems to textual exegesis of Plato, and qualitative studies of single countries standing in contrast to quantitative analyses of experiments designed to mobilize voters. At times, the discipline’s boundaries are so fuzzy that our territory is alternatively claimed by philosophers, anthropologists, economists, sociologists, and psychologists. Yet we persist in our inquiries, leadingmany of us to search for the common threads that bind us together. And while we do not agree on many things, we would probably all agree that one primary tie among political scientists is our emphasis on power, and understanding how and why power is used. We are all inherently interested in the exercise of power between and among individuals and groups and the implications that this exercise holds for social outcomes. We contend that this unifying concept is, at its very core, relational. For any individual actor or institution to meaningfully exercise power, the action can only be defined in terms of how it affects some other actor or institution. This characteristic implies that our discipline should, to a significant degree, focus on describing and explaining the evolution of relationships at work in political processes, as well as the consequences these relationships hold for individual decisions and aggregate outcomes. It is somewhat ironic, then, that a relational turn inpolitical science appears to be absent. Arguably, the most important intellectual developments in political science—behavioralism, rationalchoice,newinstitutionalism—arebuiltonthecorebelief that political decisions are made by self-interested, if cognitively limited, actorswhooperate independently of eachother. To thedegree thatdecisions inpolitics are seenasbeingdependent, thisperception isnotbasedonthe ideaof relational influence. Instead,webelieve thatpolitical sciencemaintainsaclear (and understandable) focus on either institutional constraints or strategic interaction. Such approaches to politics have served the disciplinewell, leading to numerous intellectual advances across substantive areas. But these approaches are limited by the assumption of independence between the actors and institutions that exercise power.Tomove forward inunderstanding the role of power in politics, wemust begin to account for interdependence among actors and institutions. This insight leads to a whole host of questions for the discipline that have not been part and parcel of the core. To what degree are the decisions of individuals and institutions dependent upon their network of connections? Are these dependencies causal, or are they reflective of other processes, such as mutual attraction based on common attributes (homophily) or the need to assimilate to divergent views and political positions? How do these relationships develop, particularly under different institutional and environmental constraints?When do networks help people exercise political power and when do they constrain its use? In this symposium, we seek to illuminate the ways in which a particular brand of reasoning about these relationships— social network analysis (SNA)—is useful across the broad spectrum of topics in political science. Each contribution focuses on core questions from one of the main subfields of political science or considers the sociology of knowledge within our discipline, demonstrating the benefits that can accrue from a relational turn. In this introduction, we focus foremost on the potential of SNA to bind the discipline more closely around the subject of power, as well as the steps that we should take to encourage more work along these lines.

Cite this paper

@inproceedings{DMcClurg2011EditorsIA, title={Editors’ Introduction: A Relational Political Science}, author={Scott D.McClurg and Joseph Keith Young}, year={2011} }