Systems theory in political science

Systems theory in political science

Systems theory in political science is a highly abstract, partly holistic and mechanistic view of politics, influenced by cybernetics. The adaptation of system theory to political science was first conceived by David Easton in 1953.


In simple terms, Easton's behavioral approach to politics, proposed that a political system could be seen as a delimited (i.e. all political system have precise boundaries) and fluid (changing) system of steps in decision making. Simplifying his model:

*Step 1. in a political system there will be "demands" for a certain "output" (i.e. a policy), and people or groups supporting those demands.

*Step 2, these demands and groups would compete ("be processed in the system"), giving way to decision making itself.

*Step 3, once the decision is made (i.e. a certain policy), it will interact with its environment.

*Step 4, once the new policy interacts with its environment, it will generate new demands and groups in support or against the said policy ("feedback").

*Step 5, go to Step 1

If the system functions as described, then we have a "stable political system". If the system breaks down, then we have a "dysfunctional political system".

Political analysis

Easton aspired to make politics a science, this is, working with highly abstract models that described the regularities of patterns and processes in the political life in general. In his view, the highest level of abstraction could make scientific generalizations about politics possible. In sum, politics should be seen as a whole, not as a collection of different problems to be solved.

His main model was driven by an organicist view of politics, as if it were a living object. His theory is a statement of what makes political systems adapt, survive and reproduce and, most importantly, change. He describes politics in a constant flux, thereby rejecting the idea of "equilibrium", so prevalent in political theories of our days (see institutionalism). Moreover, he rejects the idea that politics could be viewed by looking at different levels of analysis. His abstractions could account for any group and demand at any given time.

His theory was highly influential in the pluralist tradition in political science until the late 1960s. (see Harold Lasswell and Robert Dahl)


*The theory ignores specific contexts. Contemporary political science aspires to create general theory by looking at more contextualized problems.

*The theory is unfalsifiable

*The theory privileges stability and, thus, fails to explain system breakdown or conflict.

*The theory rejects any accidents or outside inputs that will distort the system. In other words, this view esposues that each political system can be isolated from others (see autonomy, sovereignty).

*The theory ignores the State.

*The theory is mechanistic, thereby ignoring variation and system differentiation.

*The theory is modelled out of the United States political system, thereby ignoring that there are other political systems that are stable without significant political competition (see Authoritarianism).

See also

*Theories of Political Behavior


* David Easton, The Political System: An Inquiry into the State of Political Science, Alfred A. Knopf, N.Y, 1953.

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