Coming to the help of the party

Party Politics
October 20, 1995

Party Politics is one of a spate of new journals on politics. Given that a major theme of recent scholarship has been the diminishing range of functions performed by political parties, is a new journal devoted exclusively to their study justified?

The editors claim that "political parties are intrinsic to every democratic political system", and the point is fully substantiated by the emergence of a rash of new parties in the new democracies of the former Soviet bloc. Though it is fashionable to bemoan parties, it is difficult to envisage any other institutional means for furnishing voters a degree of choice and thereby exercising a minimal control over government. A competitive party system seems to be an essential component of a viable democratic system. Parties remain indispensable.

The appearance of the new journal also reflects a movement towards intradisciplinary specialisation. The problem here is that the sense of an overarching political system might be lost as specialists are tempted to immerse themselves into ever smaller segments of the political world. However, the development is a response to a genuine problem. The expansion of the discipline, the increasing difficulty in keeping up with the neverending stream of new books and articles, coupled with the mounting burden of teaching and administration, is impelling scholars to concentrate ever more intensively on their chosen fields.

The new journal will facilitate the comparative study of political parties. Approval should, however, be tempered with caution if such study relies unduly upon a narrowly quantitative approach. Here the danger, surely, is that parties will be abstracted from their context and, in the effort to generate testable propositions, insufficient account will be taken of national peculiarities. The positivist trend in political science is understandable as scholars within the discipline seek greater methodological rigour and precision, and a firmer empirical grounding for their findings. In some areas, such as electoral studies, the employment of statistical techniques is obviously necessary.

Yet ultimately the notion - underpinning some of the articles in Party Politics - that the canons of the natural sciences are equally applicable to the analysis of political life is misconceived. In its drive to identify quantifiable indicators, to test hypotheses and to establish correlations, positivist methodology overlooks the complexity and ambivalence of human behaviour and the extent to which political phenomena - unlike natural phenomena - are part of a socially structured reality. For instance, content analysis of party programmes is bound to reach misleading conclusions since it takes no account of the multiple purposes they serve, the significance of fine distinctions of tone and the intentional ambiguities of much of their phrasing. It also assumes that forms of political discourse are directly comparable, reflecting that insensitivity to political culture and party ethos frequently exhibited by quantifiers.

For this reason, it is encouraging that (unlike some other journals in the discipline) Party Politics has opted for a more pluralist approach to methodology, and it is to be hoped this will continue. Equally positive is the broad interpretation the editors have given their remit. The first three issues of the journal have included articles and research reports on a wide range of countries and many aspects of party activity, including ideology, power structures and representation. The quality has been impressive and the journal should command a wide audience within the discipline. For those interested in political parties it will be essential reading.

Eric Shaw is a lecturer in politics, University of Stirling.

Party Politics

Editor - David M. Farrell, Ian Holliday and Kenneth Janda
ISBN - ISSN 1354 0688
Publisher - Sage
Price - £90.00 (inst.), £30.00 (indiv.)
Pages - 4 issues a year

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