Compare and contrast the relative strengths and weaknesses of two approaches to the study of politics

Political and social scientists use differing approaches to render the study of politics more effective, and also to prove or disprove their own perspectives of issues and events. As will be discussed no single approach is perfect, with each one having strengths and weaknesses, although the ideologically committed might disagree with that sentiment. The two approaches selected for the comparison were Neo – Realism and Post Modernism.

Political and social scientists use differing approaches to render the study of politics more effective, and also to prove or disprove their own perspectives of issues and events. As will be discussed no single approach is perfect, with each one having strengths and weaknesses, although the ideologically committed might disagree with that sentiment. The two approaches selected for the comparison were Neo – Realism and Post Modernism.

As an approach to the study of politics Neo – Realism was developed in order to improve upon the earlier Realist school. Realism was regarded as not been capable of analysing the Cold War or moves towards regional integration satisfa

ctorily (Hay, 2002, p. 26). The political scientists and international relations theorists that put forward Neo – Realism claimed to have reduced weaknesses to a bare minimum. Indeed the advocates of Neo – Realism contend that it is an analytical approach with marked strengths compared to Post – Modernism, Realism, and all the other theoretical approaches used to study politics (Leftwich, 2004, p.23). The assets or strengths of Neo – Realism are linked to claims that this approach provides political scientists with the most realistic explanations of political actions not to mention all relevant decision – making processes. Its supporters would argue that it is the best analytical tool for evaluating the distribution of power and its subsequent uses in the contemporary world (Hay, 2002, p. 27).

Neo – Realism has the strength of being able to explain how and why harsh decisions and ruthless actions are arrived at, and then put into affect. This approach to the study of politics takes a cynical even negative viewpoint of human nature as well as political systems (Leftwich, 2004, p. 135). As an approach it also asserts that governments and politicians all make decisions and subsequently enforce them if possible in similar ways irrespective of their publicly pronounced ideological standpoints. The similarities in political decision – making processes regardless of ideological differences gives Neo – Realism the scope of explaining otherwise unexplainable political deals, or international agreements, which reduce or share the power held by nation states. All such agreements assist with domestic and international stability that contribute to human progress over the short and the long term (Burnham et al, 2004, p. 12).

Neo – Realism is an undoubted improvement upon Realism in that it actually admits that within countries, and also between nation states political compromises are often made between groups, which might apparently have little in common with each other. Unlikely agreements are reached as the parties concerned gain more from mutual co – operation instead of competing one against the other (Leftwich, 2004, p. 135). Avoiding conflict and disputes by sharing power benefits more people that it would harm. Co – operation is grudgingly seen as taking place even if conflict is regarded as being more natural between rival individuals, political groups, as well as countries. It is a rational choice for those with power or influence to make agreements with each other in order to maintain their respective positions, or status within their societies (Brenton & Carib, 2001, p. 115).

On the other hand Neo – Realism does have weaknesses that potentially lead it compare poorly in relation to Post – Modernism as an approach to the study of politics (Leftwich, 2004, p. 166). Neo – Realism is a state centric way of analysing political decision – making and events, thus tending to examine governments ahead of other actors involved in politics such as pressure groups and trade unions. With this weakness or limitation in mind Neo – Realism is undoubtedly better suited for the study of foreign policy instead of domestic policy (Evans & Newnham, 1998, p. 108).

An obvious weakness of the Neo – Realist approach for the study of politics is that it does not adequately take into account social factors, which have the ability to intervene in, or influence government decision – making processes. This weakness derives from the fact that social factors are not considered important enough and so analysis using this approach could omit crucial information reducing the accuracy of subsequent research findings (Brett Davies, 2007, p. 232).

Post – Modernism as a distinct approach that can be used for the study of politics is an even more recent than Neo – Realism. Unlike previous approaches it does start with the assumption that humanity is constantly making economic, political, and social progress (Benton & Carib, 2001, p. 115). Also the values that are generally part of the Post – Modernist school are highly variable, and over all it is a concept, which is not always straightforward to define accurately Hay, 2002, p. 81). The problems of defining Post – Modernism do not necessarily alter its strengths, or indeed its weaknesses. It can be generally assumed that it “celebrates diversity,” and “supports the politics of personal identity over class, nation, and so on ” (Eatwell & Wright, 2003, p. 11).

Arguably a notable strength of Post – Modernism as an approach to the study of politics is that it does not examine actions, decisions, and people at just the governmental level (Benton & Carib, 2001, p. 116). As a school of thought it seeks to examine the interests as well as the opinions of a diverse range of groups and also individuals as opposed to just those that hold political power (Evans & Newnham, 1998, p.107). The main reason why Post – Modernists take into account people of such diverse backgrounds is to explain their disenchantment with, and also their sense of powerlessness within modern societies (Leftwich, 2004, p. 119). In this respect the use of Post – Modernism has gained ground as fewer academics and students are willing to use the Marxist approach to study economics, politics, and societies (Eatwell & Wright, 2003, p. 207).

Post - Modernism as an approach to the study of contemporary politics has the strength that it aims to understand what its advocates regard as increasing levels of alienation that people of all social and economic backgrounds feel inside their respective polities (Evans & Newnham, 1998, p. 107). By assessing levels of alienation and disillusionment Post – Modernists contend that they could find ways to reduce political apathy, and then raise levels of participation (Burnham et al, 2004, p. 15).

Due to its own fluid nature, as well as a lack of a widely accepted definition of its theoretical content makes it a highly flexible approach to evaluating politics in a great variety of nation states, and their respective societies (Benton & Carib, 2001, p. 118). To put it in another way the Post – Modernism approach permits academics and politics students to study politics at a individual, community, or local level as opposed to been focused upon the national and international levels (Hay, 2002, p.245). Furthermore it is an approach that be applied to any country in the world. By examining political activities at lower levels this approach could also prove that there are actually greater levels of active participation than other approaches would tend to indicate (Brenton & Carib, 2001, p. 115).

To a very large extent the strengths of the Post – Modernism approach can in certain circumstances become its greatest weaknesses. Been aware of, which situations lessen the validity or usefulness of Post – Modernism is a means of lessening the impact of such weaknesses. To begin with the fluid nature of the Post – Modernist approach can be a pronounced disadvantage for a systematic and a logical study of politics (Burnham et al, 2004, p. 17).

Post – Modernism basic assumption that there is something wrong within all polities and societies as people feel alienated is not always the best starting point to studying politics. That approach best suits the study of social issues such as discrimination (Hay, 2002, p. 119). It is an illogical approach to the study of societies and does not set out to solve problems. If a student is aiming to produce work that puts forward solutions to economic, political, and social problems then Post – Modernism is not the best theoretical framework to use (Brett Davies, 2007, p. 233).

The individualistic and irrational characteristics of Post – Modernism are therefore weaknesses, which can be readily shown up when the focal point of research is based upon national and international political strata instead of lower levels (Hay, 2002, p. 245). It is an approach to the study of politics, which has striking limitations when, or if used to examine and write about the distribution of power at nation state level, when Neo – Realism is a more apt method to be used. It is further hampered by its inconstancy, and by a lack of a clear definition (Eatwell & Wright, 2003, p. 11).

Over all as could have been expected upon a relative comparison Neo – Realism and Post – Modernism had different strengths and weaknesses when they are considered as approaches to the study of politics. Arguably it is better to use the Neo -Realism approach instead of Post – Modernism when national and international politics is been studied. That is mainly due to the strength of Neo – Realism as a means of evaluating power structures and decision – making processes. At such a point it is also worth taking into account the weaknesses of Post – Modernism in terms of its individualistic and irrational perspectives. Neo – Realism is usually a sound method to use to study national and international politics, although it has limitations in explaining moves towards regional integration.

On the other hand when the purpose of political study is to evaluate alienation and also disenchantment then it would be better to use Post – Modernism as the primary research / analytical approach. The context of the area of politics being studied also needs to be considered. Sensible academics and students should in any case be considering a few different approaches in order to present answers from diverse perspectives.


Benton T & Carib I, (2001) Philosophy of Social Science, Palgrave, London
Brett Davies M, (2007) Doing A Successful Research Project, Palgrave, London
Burnham P, Gilland K, Grant W, & Layton – Henry Z, (2004) Research Methods in Politics, Palgrave, London
Eatwell R & Wright A, (2003) Contemporary Political Ideologies 2nd Edition, Continuum, London
Evans G & Newnham J, (1998) The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations, Penguin, London
Hay C (2002) Political Analysis, Palgrave, London
Leftwich A, (2004) What is Politics? Polity, Cambridge

POSTED BY Barry Vale On 2011-11-24
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