Political scientists are interested in acquiring knowledge about and understanding many important political phenomena at the local, national, and international levels with respect to political institutions (like the US Congress), mass behavior (like voting), or elite behavior (like world leaders). These political phenomena include individual actions, relationships between institutions and individuals, between two or more institutions, and so on.
Political science is the application of well-defined principles for collecting, analyzing, and evaluating data to the study of phenomena that are political in nature. This book focuses on the process and methods of using empirical research, research based on the actual, “objective” observation of phenomena—to achieve scientific knowledge about political phenomena.
There are three major reasons for political science students to study the practice of conducting empirical research. First, citizens are confronted with empirical research daily through political news and debate, and political science students must often evaluate empirical research in their course work. A second reason is that an understanding of empirical research method’s concepts is integrally related to students’ assimilation and evaluation of knowledge in their coursework. Third, political science students can use empirical research techniques to improve their own work on term papers or research projects.
Researchers use empirical research studies for two central reasons. First, empirical research on political phenomena can be used to improve understanding of, and find solutions to, difficult problems facing governments and citizens such as crime or poverty—this work is commonly referred to as applied research because it has a fairly direct, immediate application to a real-world situation. Second, empirical research tools allow researchers to satisfy their own intellectual curiosity about the nature of political phenomena, sometimes referred to as pure, theoretical, or recreational research—research that is not primarily intended for practical applications.
The empirical research process involves the selection of which information will be used in an analysis, which method will be used to conduct the analysis, which statistic will be used to demonstrate the findings, and each decision will affect the conclusions to be drawn.
The chapter discusses eight research areas that serve as an example of how political scientists constantly add to and revise our understanding of politics and government. These eight discussions also serve as a survey of different methodological approaches to understanding political phenomena and how the use of different methods can add new perspectives on previous findings. Subsequent chapters refer to these examples to illustrate many aspects of the research process.