By Categories: Limelight

Behaviouralism in politics implies a search for realism based on a scientific outlook. It refers to a break from the dominant concern with law, ideology and governmental institutions into an examination of all the structures and processes involved in politics and policy-making.

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Behaviouralism has been one of the most important developments in Political Science during the Twentieth Century. The study of political behaviour in the USA started when Graham Wallas and A.F. Bentley advocated the study of actual phenomenon of politics in 1908. Graham Wallas held that politics without the study of psychology of individuals was meaningless. As behaviour played an important role in political phenomenon, Bentley highlighted its significant role among groups.

He advocated his ideas at various conferences on political science during the 1920s. His effort was reinforced when an American journalist Frank Kent wrote a book titled ‘Political Behaviour’ in 1928. The President of the American Political Science Association Charles Merriam emphasised the need for looking at political behaviour during the 1925 conference.

During the next decade, many academics like Merriam, Lasswell and Truman started to strongly advocate the behavioural approach to political science. Herbert Tingsten wrote a book in 1937 titled ‘Political Behaviour: Studies in Election Statistics’, which considerably helped in popularising the term.


Although stymied during the Second World War, the Behavioural Revolution re-entered the political science arena with full force after the war was over. Political scientists came under the influence of prominent sociologists like Mosca, Weber, Parsons, Merton, etc. and realised the urgent need for resolving social problems caused by the Second World War. This could not be done without examining the behaviour of concerned individuals.

Many scholars like Lasswell, Easton, Almond, Truman, Powell, Simon and Key joined hands to provide a fillip to this movement, because they were dissatisfied with the achievements of conventional political science. They conducted many praiseworthy research-works on the topic.

Committees set up by the American Political Science Association on ‘political behaviour‘ and ‘comparative politics‘ also did a commendable job in bringing about a behavioural revolution. This trend of rapid growth of Behaviouralism in politics continued for over twenty years after the end of Second World War. Nowadays it has become so important that the study of political issues remains incomplete without taking recourse to it.


According to Samuel J. Eldersveld, Behaviouralism may be defined as the “systematic search for political patterns through the formulation of empirical theory and the technical analysis and verification thereof”.

According to Heinz Eulau, “Modern behavioural science is eminently concerned not only with the acts of man, but also with his cognitive, effective and evaluative process. Behaviour in political field refers not simply to directly or indirectly observable political action, but also to those perceptual, motivational and attitudinal components of behaviour which make for man’s political identification, demands and his system of political benefits, values and goals”.

According to Robert Dahl, behavioural approach “Is an attempt to improve our understanding of points by seeking to explain the empirical aspects of political life by means of methods, theories and criteria of proof that are acceptable according to canons and assumptions of modern political science“.

David Truman contended that the new approach dealt with the verified principles of human behaviour, “through the use of methods similar to those of natural sciences”. Similarly, David Easton observed that despite shifts in emphasis, the underlying assumption of the behaviouralists is the same: to build “a science of politics modelled after the methodological assumptions of the natural sciences”.

According to the Committee on Political Behaviour of the American Political Science Association, “Roughly defined, the term political behaviour comprehends those actions and interactions of men and groups which are involved in the process of governing…It is rather an orientation, a point of view which aims at understanding all the phenomena of government in terms of the observed and observable behaviour of men… The ultimate goal of the student of political behaviour is the development of a science of the political process”.

According to Dwight Waldo, “Behaviouralism was not and is not a clear and firm creed, an agreed upon set of postulates and rules”. Some general characteristics of Behaviouralism are as follows:

(a) a movement of protest against the inadequacies of conventional political science, led by the American political scientists;

(b) it has made the individual the focus of attention in the study of political phenomena;

(c) it stresses the special importance of scientific outlook and objectivity in the study of political science;

(d) it is considered as a methodological revolution in political science;

(e) it emphasises on inter-disciplinary study of political science; the possible effects of social, cultural and personal factors on political behaviour should be taken into account, as the wider context in which political action occurs cannot be neglected;

(f) it aims to build a scientific theory with the help of observation and experimentation, which may predict things and be applied universally.

David Easton, an important exponent of the behaviouralist school of political science, has highlighted eight features of Behaviouralism. These are: regularities in human behaviour; a preference for verification and testing rather than taking things for granted; application of correct techniques for acquisition and interpretation of scientific data; emphasis on measurement and quantification for predicting a political result; belief in value-free study; belief in systematic study of political science, which should be ‘theory-oriented’ and ‘theory-directed’; insistence on ‘pure-science’ approach; belief that social and political phenomena cannot be studied in isolation and therefore an inter-disciplinary approach is crucial.


Vigorous attempts have been made by the behaviouralists to lift political science to the level of pure sciences like physics and chemistry. As a consequence, there has been significant increase in the use of empirical and quantitative methods as well as attempts to evolve conceptual frameworks, models, theories, meta-theories and paradigms. The achievements of Behaviouralism can therefore be traced in two main areas: research methodology and theory building.

The behaviouralists achieved significant success in developing and refining the tools and techniques of research in political science. Improvements in the areas of

(a) content-analysis,

(b) case-analysis,

(c) interviews and observations, and

(d) statistical applications have been particularly remarkable.

Most sophisticated quantitative techniques have been used in empirical research projects based on Behaviouralism. The behaviouralists also made significant headways in the area of rigorous and systematic comparative content analysis. Research in comparative politics has been facilitated considerably by undertaking cross-national investigations.

The methods of interviewing and observations in Behaviouralism have also led to a tremendous improvement in sophistication of research methodology. Increasing sophistication has been observed in the designing of survey questions and questionnaires as well as in the substantive aspects of interviewing.

The greatest refinement came in the sphere of sample survey, which became a basic instrument of social research in its own right. Remarkable improvements have also been brought about in the field of statistical applications. Developments in this area have led to the growth of ‘causal modelling’, whereby the path of causation within a system of variables can be tested.

The contribution of Behaviouralism towards theory-building, however, has not been significant. This is, because, it is mainly concerned with individual and group behaviour and focuses less and less on state, government and institutions. According to Parsons, the developments in the field of Behaviouralism in politics have been “a good deal more revolutionary in the realm of technique than in that of validated and expanded theory”.


Behaviouralists have been criticised mainly on the following grounds:

(a) Behaviouralism is concerned more with techniques than results;

(b) Behaviouralism is directed at pseudo-politics, as it advocates personal or private interests at the cost of universal interests;

(c) behaviouralists have neglected the effects of institutions on society and targeted their efforts mostly on behavioural aspects of individuals and groups;

(d) Politics can never be value-free as claimed by the behaviouralists;

(e) behaviouralists have been focusing mainly on static subjects rather than on current problems; they have ignored urgent problems because these did not suite their study;

(f) there are difficulties associated with the ever-changing behaviour of man and no correct prediction can be made about future behaviour of individuals and groups;

(g) behaviouralist approach to political science depends so much on other branches of social science like sociology and anthropology that the very identity, integrity and autonomy of political science is threatened;

(h) the behaviouralists place too much emphasis on political behaviour of man but do not apply their research to current problems;

(i) Behaviouralism provides only a limited knowledge about the political behaviour of man, but does not provide real knowledge to solve urgent problems facing the world.

The traditionalists among the political scientists have also levelled the following criticisms about Behaviouralism, some of which may overlap with those noted in the preceding paragraphs:

(a) behaviouralists assume a mechanical view of man motivated by self-interest alone; they ignore human values and norms;

(b) they ignore bigger issues of the world;

(c) they ignore theoretical aspects of the subject and is concerned about techniques only;

(d) human behaviour cannot be generalised as assumed by the behaviouralists;

(e) behaviouralists give more attention to statistical figures than human ideals;

(f) study of politics can never be value-free;

(g) the analysis of behaviouralists is defective because they consider American institutions as the best in the world and use Behaviouralism as a tool to prove the worth of those institutions.


In 1969, David Easton declared the end of behavioural revolution and the beginning of a new era in the study of politics, popularly called ‘Post-Behaviouralism’. As claimed by Easton, its main thesis is ‘relevance‘ and ‘action‘. The post-behaviouralist movement in political science has reopened the issue of fact-value separation.

It claims that facts and values are closely intertwined with each other and one cannot separate them in political science except under very trivial circumstances. According to this school of thought, political scientists need not abdicate the spirit of their discipline at the altar of science or any other empiricism.


The behaviouralists have argued that science had some ideal commitments and they shared those commitments of science. But the post-behaviouralists think that technical research and scientific knowledge as pursued by the behaviouralists should not be cut-off from the realities of life. It should be linked to urgent social problems with the aim of solving them. The approach of political scientists should be dynamic and their objective should never be mere stability or maintenance of status-quo, they opine.


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