What is politics?
What is politics?

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What is politics?

3 Review

Since you’ve encountered quite a bit of material thus far, let’s pause and review some of it now. Have a go at the informal quiz below (which isn’t assessed).

Activity 4

Timing: About 20 minutes

Match the numbered example of what might constitute the practice of politics to its correct multiplechoice definition.

1. Citizens voting in a national election.

a. 

a. Context- and interpretation-dependent.


b. 

b. A struggle over the meaning of political concepts.


c. 

c. A social activity.


d. 

d. A (non-violent) method of conflict resolution.


e. 

e. That which concerns the state.


f. 

f. The exercise of power.


g. 

g. Conflict.


h. 

h. A public activity.


The correct answer is e.

Discussion

If politics is defined as that which concerns the state, voting in national elections constitutes one of the most direct ways in which citizens engage in politics. It is the moment at which citizens determine who will manage the affairs of the state, and with what priorities.

2. A negotiated agreement to resolve a territorial dispute between two countries.

a. 

a. Context- and interpretation-dependent.


b. 

b. A struggle over the meaning of political concepts.


c. 

c. A social activity.


d. 

d. A (non-violent) method of conflict resolution.


e. 

e. That which concerns the state.


f. 

f. The exercise of power.


g. 

g. Conflict.


h. 

h. A public activity.


The correct answer is d.

Discussion

An example of politics as a non-violent method of conflict resolution might be the negotiation of a resolution to a territorial dispute between two countries – often called a diplomatic, or ‘political’ solution, as opposed to a violent, military one.

3. A heated debate over the merits of multiculturalism which does not lead to consensus but concludes in mutual respect of the differences of opinion.

a. 

a. Context- and interpretation-dependent.


b. 

b. A struggle over the meaning of political concepts.


c. 

c. A social activity.


d. 

d. A (non-violent) method of conflict resolution.


e. 

e. That which concerns the state.


f. 

f. The exercise of power.


g. 

g. Conflict.


h. 

h. A public activity.


The correct answer is g.

Discussion

When politics is defined as conflict or contest (rather than its resolution), the aim is not consensus or compromise – focus shifts to the possibility of a coexistence of differing perspectives. An example might thus be a debate that does not conclude in a consensus or resolution of conflicting positions, but rather, with an acceptance of the coexistence of contradiction and difference – an agreement to disagree.

4. A newspaper editor deciding which stories will appear in tomorrow’s paper, thereby determining which stories are ‘newsworthy’ and which are not.

a. 

a. Context- and interpretation-dependent.


b. 

b. A struggle over the meaning of political concepts.


c. 

c. A social activity.


d. 

d. A (non-violent) method of conflict resolution.


e. 

e. That which concerns the state.


f. 

f. The exercise of power.


g. 

g. Conflict.


h. 

h. A public activity.


The correct answer is f.

Discussion

An example of politics as the exercise of power might include the power to shape agendas, including the power exercised by editors acting as gatekeepers to political information to determine which stories are ‘newsworthy’.

5. A heated discussion in a pub over the merits of competing political parties.

a. 

a. Context- and interpretation-dependent.


b. 

b. A struggle over the meaning of political concepts.


c. 

c. A social activity.


d. 

d. A (non-violent) method of conflict resolution.


e. 

e. That which concerns the state.


f. 

f. The exercise of power.


g. 

g. Conflict.


h. 

h. A public activity.


The correct answer is c.

Discussion

Defined as a social activity – or something we engage in with others – politics might include a heated discussion at a pub over the merits of competing political parties.

6. Some forms of graffiti.

a. 

a. Context- and interpretation-dependent.


b. 

b. A struggle over the meaning of political concepts.


c. 

c. A social activity.


d. 

d. A (non-violent) method of conflict resolution.


e. 

e. That which concerns the state.


f. 

f. The exercise of power.


g. 

g. Conflict.


h. 

h. A public activity.


The correct answer is h.

Discussion

Some forms of graffiti can exemplify politics as a public activity – for instance, graffiti with an overtly political message elicits a reaction, provokes a discussion or questions an existing state of affairs.

7. Kissing.

a. 

a. Context- and interpretation-dependent.


b. 

b. A struggle over the meaning of political concepts.


c. 

c. A social activity.


d. 

d. A (non-violent) method of conflict resolution.


e. 

e. That which concerns the state.


f. 

f. The exercise of power.


g. 

g. Conflict.


h. 

h. A public activity.


The correct answer is a.

Discussion

If politics is defined as context- and interpretation-dependent, then anything and everything can potentially be political – including, as the chapter has shown, kissing.

8. Making a case in a journal article that democracy is about much more than periodic free and fair elctions.

a. 

a. Context- and interpretation-dependent.


b. 

b. A struggle over the meaning of political concepts.


c. 

c. A social activity.


d. 

d. A (non-violent) method of conflict resolution.


e. 

e. That which concerns the state.


f. 

f. The exercise of power.


g. 

g. Conflict.


h. 

h. A public activity.


The correct answer is b.

Discussion

An example of politics as a struggle over the meaning of political concepts might be a debate between political theorists (such debates often take place in academic journals) over the meaning of the concept of democracy.

To review some of the main points outlined so far, consider each of the following questions, then write your responses in the boxes below. Again, this activity is not assessed.

Activity 5

Timing: About 30 minutes

1. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of narrow and broad definitions of politics?

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Discussion

Among the advantages of narrower definitions of politics is that they clearly define the scope and parameters of politics as an activity and a field of study. In delimiting the world of politics, narrower definitions enable us to more easily and clearly distinguish between political and other forms of activity – social, cultural or economic, for instance. Critics of narrower definitions of politics, however, argue that they limit the field of politics and political activity. Critics contend that by focusing too narrowly on the state, on particular political actors or particular spaces, narrow definitions of politics exclude or overlook a myriad of other political activities.

An advantage of broader definitions of politics is that they include the activities, actors and spaces excluded by narrower definitions. Critics contend, however, that if extended to too many activities, actors and spaces, politics risks losing any specific meaning – becoming everything and anything, and thus ‘nothing at all’. Critics of broad definitions of politics thus often argue that such definitions dilute the concept of politics to the point of making it a meaningless and rather useless concept.

2. What is an essentially contested concept? What are the implications for the study and practice of politics of the argument that concepts such as politics, democracy, equality or violence are contested concepts?

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Discussion

Concepts are essentially contested if, to paraphrase Walter Bryce Gallie (1956), their proper usage involves endless disputes about their proper usage. A concept is essentially contested, in other words, when disputes about its definition don’t arise from a ‘misunderstanding’ of the concept, but rather, from the absence of a single definition on which everyone can agree. As Andrew Heywood points out, essentially contested concepts do not have a single, ‘correct’ definition – in fact, ‘controversy about them runs so deep that no neutral or settled definition can ever be developed’ (Heywood, 2013, p. 20). Take the concepts of politics and violence as an example. Depending on how both violence and politics are defined, a whole host of practices can be either included in or excluded from what qualifies as legitimate political action.

If politics and violence are essentially contested concepts, then a final and definitive agreement on what counts as violence and what counts as politics will not be reached. For some, violence and politics will always be mutually exclusive while others will argue that violence can be political and politics can be violent. Similarly, if concepts such as democracy and equality are essentially contested concepts, then for some, the presence of free and fair elections may be enough to call a country a democracy, whereas for others, free and fair elections might not be enough and other criteria might also need to be present. The same goes for equality. For some, equality of opportunity is a sufficient marker of equality; for others, equality of opportunity is meaningless, and ‘real’ equality is only achieved if there is an equality of outcome.

All of this affects the study and practice of politics in various ways. For one, as William E. Connolly points out, ‘conceptual contests are central to politics’ (Connolly, 1993, p. 6), because how we define particular concepts has political implications. Thus, as Andrew Heywood puts it, ‘politics is, in part, a struggle over the legitimate meaning of terms and concepts’ (Heywood, 2013, p. 20). Throughout history, people have sacrificed their lives and livelihoods for concepts such as democracy, equality and freedom, and so, while debates over the meaning of terms and concepts might seem removed from our day-to-day lives, they are often not as far removed as it might initially appear. What counts as political also determines which actions are valued or considered legitimate and which are disparaged, trivialised or even criminalised – as in the case of graffiti, for instance.

3. Which of the definitions of politics provided in the chapter do you find most persuasive? Why?

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