Questions of power – what is it? who has it? who should have it? – resound in discussions of national or international affairs today. Answering these questions requires us to think about how we judge the priority of often opposing values such as freedom and order, equality and rank, individuality and community. Political theorists aim to interpret and to explain the public institutions, shared or contested rules, and the ideas about order and conflict that are features of any organised social life.
The questions that lie at the centre of theoretical inquiry in politics are typically open to debate and resistant to definitive answers, yet they remain crucial questions. What are the sources and consequences of conflict and cooperation between and within human groups? How can human groups effectively manage the organisation of power? Should they and can they do that fairly or justly? What are the main features and what are the pros and cons of modernity in society and politics? How and why do boundaries between what is considered public and what is private shift across time and between societies? What responsibility do political communities have to people outside their borders?
In discussions of political orders and events we often draw a distinction between views that are neutral and those that are biased, between those that seek to provide objective description and explanation and those that seek to advance or defend a particular party, ideology or cause. A similar kind of division is often proposed in political theory between what are called empirical or scientific theories and those classed as normative or evaluative theories.
However, the division is itself open to contest. What look like straightforward descriptions or explanations of social behaviour or political institutions from one angle will, from another vantage-point, appear prescriptive and judgemental. The distinction between a description of what is and a prescription about what ought to be is rarely clear-cut.
Political theories provide cognitive frameworks or conceptual lenses that help us to make sense of our political world. Understanding the sorts of theories and their contents is important to the professional conduct of academic research and inquiry. But it is perhaps all the more important to making sense of the ways in which people live within or act to change political society at the local, national or international level.