Practice of politics as a subject of study


Politics as a practical activity is the discourse and the struggle over organisation of human possibilities. As such, it is about power; that is to say, it is about the capacity of social agents, agencies and institutions to maintain or transform their environment, social and physical. It is about the resources, which underpin this capacity, and about the forces that shape and influence its exercise.

Accordingly, politics is a phenomenon found in all groups, institutions and societies, cutting across private and public life. It is expressed in all the relations, institutions and structures that are implicated in the production and reproduction of the life of societies. Politics creates and conditions all aspects of our lives and it is at the core of the development of collective problems, and the modes of their resolutions.


A succinct definition of politics – one that encompasses all of the things we intuitively refer to as ‘political’ – is unattainable. Politics is a broad phrase with several definitions and subtleties. Perhaps the closest we can approach to a concise definition is this: “politics is the activity through which organisations reach legally binding collective choices by seeking to reconcile their members’ disagreements.” This definition contains crucial points”.


Politics is a collective activity, involving people who accept a common membership or at least acknowledge a shared fate. Thus, Robinson Crusoe could not practice politics. Politics presumes an initial diversity of views, if not about goals, then at least about means. Were we all to agree all the time, politics would be redundant. Politics involves reconciling such differences through discussion and persuasion. Communication is, therefore, central to politics. Political decisions become authoritative policy for a group, binding members to decisions that are implemented by force, if necessary. Politics scarcely exists if decisions are reached solely by violence, force, or use of threat, undermining the process of reaching a collective decision. The necessity of politics arises from the collective character of human life. We live in a group that must reach collective decisions; about sharing resources, about relating to other groups and about planning for the future. A family discussion to decide holiday destination, a country deciding whether to go to war, the world seeking to limit the damage caused by pollution – are examples of groups seeking to reach decisions which affect all their members. As social creatures, politics is part of our fate: we have no choice but to practice it.

Politics: An Inescapable Feature of the Human Condition

So although the term ‘politics’ is often used cynically, to criticize the pursuit of private advantage under the guise of public interest, politics is in fact, an inescapable feature of the human condition. Indeed, the Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that ‘man is by nature a political animal’. By this, he meant not just that politics is unavoidable, but rather that it is the essential human activity; political engagement is the feature which most sharply separates us from other species. For Aristotle, people can only express their true nature as reasoning, virtuous beings through participation in a political community. Members of a group rarely agree; at least initially, on what course of action to follow. Even if there is agreement over goals, there may still be a skirmish over means. Yet a decision must be reached, one way or the other, and once made it will commit all members of the group. Thus, politics consists in procedures for allowing a range of views to be expressed and then combined into an overall decision. As Shively points out, ‘Political action may be interpreted as a way to work out rationally the best common solution to a common problem – or at least a way to work out a reasonable common solution.’ That is, politics consists of public choice.

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