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What is politics?
What is politics?

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2.4 So what is politics?

What is politics? The simple answer to this question is that there is no single answer. Like many political concepts, politics is itself a contested concept. This section has introduced you to the idea that concepts, including the concept of politics, can be ‘essentially contested’, and has explored some of the implications this might have for the study (and practice) of politics, as well as for the nature of knowledge in the social sciences and humanities more generally. The section also introduced you to some competing definitions of politics, organising them along a spectrum from narrower to broader conceptions of what constitutes politics. Starting from the narrower and moving towards the broader side of the spectrum, the section introduced you to the following definitions of politics:

  • politics as that which concerns the state
  • politics as a (non-violent) method of conflict resolution
  • politics as conflict
  • politics as the exercise of power
  • politics as a social activity
  • politics as a public activity
  • politics as dependent on context and interpretation
  • politics as struggle over the meaning of political concepts.

While these definitions are distinct and in some cases contradictory, they do also overlap, and they certainly don’t correspond to mutually exclusive realms of political activity. Engaging in political activity in the narrower sense, for instance by voting or becoming involved in party politics, does not preclude one from engaging in political activity in the broader sense, for instance, by participating in protests or boycott campaigns. Politics is ubiquitous. Avenues for political involvement are multiple, and there is certainly nothing to prevent you from engaging in as many kinds of politics as you have the time and desire to!

As you studied these distinct definitions of politics, you were encouraged to engage critically with them and to consider whether they did actually fall squarely towards the narrow or broad side of the definitional spectrum. Indeed, while some definitions were certainly narrower (or broader) than others, you also saw that in some cases this depended on how we defined other concepts – such as power, violence or conflict – which can themselves be contested concepts.

Although it might at first appear that debates over the meaning of concepts are quite far removed from our everyday lives, people all over the world and throughout history have sacrificed their lives and livelihoods for concepts such as democracy, equality and freedom. Although wars have not been fought exclusively over the definition of politics, different understandings of who counts as a political being (in other words, as ‘doing politics’) are in no small way related to different understandings of politics. In turn, who counts as a political being has significant implications for whose voices are heard, whose concerns matter and which actions are valued or considered legitimate and which disparaged, trivialised or even criminalised.