Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

What is Politics? Easton, Stone and Claim Making

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I don’t remember where it all started, but I’ve been unhappy with the concept of the decision as the central framework for political science for a long time. Very few political scientists, I should note, would say this is the case. They’d probably object to the idea that there is a central framework. Instead, they would likely focus on various different frameworks.  But, being heterodox and inclined to see the biggest picture possible, it was clear to me there was a deep similarity among these different approaches.  For one thing, there was so much political activity that was left out of this dominant framework, or dismissed or obscured.  Of course, we might conclude that something that political actors think is important is not after investigating it, but to do so as a matter of definitions makes little sense.

Since I began developing my idea of ‘politics as a contest of claim making’ as an alternative, I find that idea all over political science, although rarely foregrounded. It seems the sort of banal point that is widely understood but rarely the basis for much explicit theorizing. But it does come up again and again. My task seems to be to call attention to it and explicate its implications.

I was thinking about all this while reading Deborah Stone’s excellent Policy Paradox and Political Reason. She defines politics as “strategically crafted argument” and notes that she sought “to create a framework in which such phenomena, the ordinary situations of politics, do not have to be explained away as extraordinary, written off as irrational, dismissed as folly, or disparaged as ‘pure politics.'” She positions her understanding of the policy process within several abstract “goals” that are reframed as political claims that are used to justify more specific courses of action.  Goals are broad concepts like equity, efficiency, security and liberty, which generally have an uncontested common sense core and very contested radiations from that core. (I made a similar argument here). This also involves attention to disputes over interpretation.  “Since multiple ways of defining need for any problem result in different claims about what government ought to do,” Stone says, “politics is centrally concerned with arbitrating the different claims. Through politics, a society decides whether needs are real or legitimate.” Notice that the question of legitimacy isn’t one to be raised prior to the analysis only to be left aside once the real work begins, or to be introduced whenever the main analysis needs shoring up. She also isn’t defining politics in such a way that it, a priori, places the focus on public officials making formal decisions. Instead, the focus is on the process of offering justifications (which is observable) rather than on goals understood as values, attitudes, or other internal states (which are not). While Stone’s book is fairly well-known, it doesn’t seem that this point, which is central to her argument, has received much attention.

We might compare this view with David Easton. Easton is famous both for his systems theory of politics and perhaps even more so for his definition of politics.  It is one that is often repeated, but it seems to me it is generally deployed without much thought about what his point is or how it differs from other definitions of politics.

In The Political System, Easton begins by noting that the common sense view of politics is that it concerns the nature of the good life–what goals should people seek. At this first step, it sounds quite similar to what Stone says.  Next comes the question of how should people achieve these goals.  This leads Easton to a different set of questions that he says are the ones political science ought to seek answers to: “What are the actual authoritative policies adopted by society? How are they determined and how are they put into effect?” I should note that it’s not obvious to me that these question do flow naturally from the ones he starts with–as is typical, the move to focus on official decisions is not really defended, but assumed.  Regardless, this means the policy-making process is what makes up the political system. Political science then is “the study of the authoritative allocation of values for a society”. ‘Authoritative’ here means that those decisions are generally accepted, which is, for him, a question of psychology.  Easton is concerned with goals not ‘goals’.  He sees goals as internal states which drive actors, rather than symbols which justify courses of action.  While he acknowledges that implementation of those policies that are formally adopted may not happen, his focus is on formal adoption, on the decisions of officials. The activities of non-governmental actors are clearly part of his framework–especially interest groups–but generally only to the extent they are seen as affecting directly those official decisions. And by assuming ‘authority’ as part of his definition, he leaves out all the politicking involved in questions of contesting authority.  That’s a pretty important blind spot. Yet much political science and general political debate similarly focuses on formal decisions over all else.

Easton’s systems theory has long since been abandoned by political scientists who often don’t realize how pervasive it once was. But I’ve argued that it implicitly is the foundation of a great deal of political science. Since it was intended as a formalization of standard cultural conceptions, it’s worth reading it and thinking about its implications.

I think Stone has the better argument here.  And I think political actors who have enjoyed the greatest success understand it as well. They don’t focus all their attention on winning whatever decisions public officials happen to have before them.  A framework that excludes so much of what politics is, or obscures it, will necessarily get in the way of  making sense of the world and acting effectively within it.

What’s more, if you take questions of authority for granted, and focus on the decision process, as opposed to the process of how issues and policies are brought on or kept off the agenda, this creates an enormous bias towards the status quo.

That impedes theorizing and changing the world.

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Written by David Kaib

December 2, 2013 at 8:33 am

One Response

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  1. […] I’ve been talking here about a twin set of concepts, democratic efficiency and oligarchic inevitability. In short, ‘democratic efficiency’ involves the assumption that public opinion automatically translates into policy (or at least does generally absent some distortion), while ‘oligarchic inevitability’ is the notion that elites necessarily win out regardless of what the public does. It occurred to me recently that I ought to connect these concepts with something else I’ve been discussing here–the idea of politics as a contest of claims making. […]


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