Political science, as solid as a rock
9/22/15

What is a party? An ideology? A democracy? Students (as well as others) will now be able to find the answers to these questions in ‘Fondements de science politique’ (The foundations of political science), a handbook co-authored by six lecturers from four French-speaking universities. One of them, Jérôme Jamin, a lecturer at the University of Liège, takes a look at the recent developments in politics, from the emergence of populism to the resurgence of left-right divisions, and the increased search for alternative means of action. All signs of a certain disenchantment among citizens.

COVER fondements politiquesA ‘compass to enter into the political jungle’. A ‘decoder’ so we ‘don’t have to remain passive in the face of events ’. The blurb on the cover of the book Fondements de science politique (1) already prepares us for what’s inside. Because it’s true that ‘public affairs’ can seem at first rather obscure to anyone who might take an interest in them. The quest for power, strategic games, the pursuit of popularity, alliances and antagonisms, the whiff of scandal... We could almost forget that the primary mission of our representatives is to master the art helping us to live together.

While a day doesn’t go by without the mention of politics, the role of the political analyst consists of seeing the bigger picture, of rising above this scrum which often resembles a free-for-all. This is exactly what this handbook, recently published by De Boeck, sets out to do: remind us of the fundamental theoretical concepts that will allow us to decipher the stirs caused by world events.      

Yet another work on political science? This book has two particularities. First of all, it has been written by six authors from four Belgian French-speaking universities. Jérôme Jamin for ULg, Nathalie Schiffino, Vincent Legrand and Pierre Baudewyns for UCL, Thierry Balzacq for UNamur and Olivier Paye for Saint-Louis Bruxelles. “Our intent was to create a unique work that would be used in different universities during their introductory classes to political science”, Jérôme Jamin tells us. “A common core that we have elaborated and validated together, and to which everyone will bring their own specificities during classes by choosing examples, and by focusing more on one part rather than another...”. The writing of the chapters was shared between the lecturers, then every text was reread and amended by two or even three other writers, in an effort to reach a consensus. In other words, none of the chapters were written by one author, they were all co-written, which means that everyone had to be in agreement beforehand, hence the idea of ‘foundations’ of political science, i.e. the bases on which six authors have agreed.

Avoiding francocentrism

The book’s second specificity lies in its desire to broaden the horizon: in the French-speaking world, political science is usually considered through the eyes of France. “We didn’t want to adopt the usual, rather ethnocentric Franco-French approach”, the political analyst from Liège emphasises. “We talk about all countries and we don’t favour France. Or Belgium, for that matter”.   

The 440 pages of this handbook – which is mainly aimed at students, though not exclusively – focuses on the main concepts and key theories of the subject. The different approaches of power, the state according to Max Weber, splits, the characteristics and evolutions of ideologies, the birth of democratic and authoritarian regimes, the missions performed by parliaments and governments, the characterisation of the parties,  citizenship, etc.

The book also hints at the main developments in political science. A discipline whose theoretical foundations are well anchored, but whose topics for analysis are constantly changing. “All the analytical tools remain the same; the literature simply enriches the main principles that were validated sometimes a very long time ago”, Jérôme Jamin continues. “However, in reality, we see significant changes after five, ten years. For instance, as regards the ever-increasing importance of surveys, the evolution of the parties, or the role of the media in politics”.

(1) Fondements de science politique, Bruxelles, De Boeck, 2015.

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