… a core concept in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

Heywood’s approaches to defining politics – click to enlarge

Concept description

In his popular textbook (the first chapter of which is available online, reference below) Andrew Heywood offers the following definition (p. 2):

“Politics, in its broadest sense, is the activity through which people make, preserve and amend the general rules under which they live.”

He goes on to say:

“Although politics is also an academic subject (sometimes indicated by the use of ‘Politics’ with a capital P), it is then clearly the study of this activity. Politics is thus inextricably linked to the phenomena of conflict and cooperation. On the one hand, the existence of rival opinions, different wants, competing needs and opposing interests guarantees disagreement about the rules under which people live. On the other hand, people recognize that, in order to influence these rules or ensure that they are upheld, they must work with others … This is why the heart of politics is often portrayed as a process of conflict resolution, in which rival views or competing interests are reconciled with one another. However, politics in this broad sense is better thought of as a search for conflict resolution than as its achievement, as not all conflicts are, or can be, resolved. Nevertheless, the inescapable presence of diversity (we are not all alike) and scarcity (there is never enough to go around) ensures that politics is an inevitable feature of the human condition.” (p. 3)

Heywood notes that:

“… even respected authorities cannot agree what the subject is about. Politics is defined in such different ways: as the exercise of power, the science of government, the making of collective decisions, the allocation of scarce resources, the practice of deception and manipulation, and so on. The virtue of the definition advanced in this text – ‘the making, preserving and amending of general social rules’ – is that it is sufficiently broad to encompass most, if not all, of the competing definitions. However, problems arise when the definition is unpacked, or when the meaning is refined. For instance, does ‘politics’ refer to a particular way in which rules are made, preserved or amended (that is, peacefully, by debate), or to all such processes? Similarly, is politics practised in all social contexts and institutions, or only in certain ones (that is, government and public life)?

“From this perspective, politics may be treated as an ‘essentially contested’ concept, in the sense that the term has a number of acceptable or legitimate meanings (concepts are discussed more fully later in the chapter). On the other hand, these different views may simply consist of contrasting conceptions of the same, if necessarily vague, concept. Whether we are dealing with rival concepts or alternative conceptions, it is helpful to distinguish between two broad approaches to defining politics (Hay, 2002; Leftwich, 2004). In the first, politics is associated with an arena or location, in which case behaviour becomes ‘political’ because of where it takes place. In the second, politics is viewed as a process or mechanism, in which case ‘political’ behaviour is behaviour that exhibits distinctive characteristics or qualities, and so can take place in any, and perhaps all, social contexts. Each of these broad approaches has spawned alternative definitions of politics, and, as discussed later in the chapter, helped to shape different schools of political analysis [click on image upper right]. Indeed, the debate about ‘what is politics?’ is worth pursuing precisely because it exposes some of the deepest intellectual and ideological disagreement in the academic study of the subject.” (p. 2-3)

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Governance and Institutions (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Andrew Heywood (2013), Politics, 4th Edition, Palgrave Foundation Series, sample chapter (Chapter 1) available at https://www.macmillanihe.com/resources/sample-chapters/9780230363373_sample.pdf, accessed 19 May 2018. Books cited by Heywood in quoted material above:

Hay, C., (ed.), New Directions in Political Science: Responding to the Challenge of an Independent World (2010).

Leftwich, A. (ed.), What is Politics? The Activity and Its Study (2004).

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 19 May 2018.

Image: Andrew Heywood (2013), Politics, 4th Edition, Palgrave Foundation Series, sample chapter (Chapter 1) available at https://www.macmillanihe.com/resources/sample-chapters/9780230363373_sample.pdf, accessed 19 May 2018