David Easton

Love it or hate it, politics is a big part of our lives. But how, exactly, do we define such a broad concept? In this lesson, we’re going to explore one important definition and see how it applies.

Defining Politics

There’s an old joke that the word politics descends from the Greek ‘polys,’ meaning many, and the English tic, a blood-sucking parasite. While that analysis certainly merits a good chuckle, it actually raises a fair question. What is politics? Politics, as a term, has become something of a catch-all phrase that is ubiquitously used yet remarkably hard to pin down, kind of like ”culture” or ”swagalicious”. So, how can we define politics? One of the most-cited definitions of politics is this: ”the authoritative allocation of values”. Does that clear it up?

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David Easton

Politics can be defined as the authoritative allocation of values. Before we can begin to understand what that means, we need to know who said it. That analysis came from David Easton, a Canadian-American political scientist of the 20th century. Easton was an early figure in the discipline of political sciences who argued that there was no working definition of his field and that scholars needed solid frameworks that could be used to concretely and consistently analyze politics as a scientific discipline.

David Easton

Luckily, Easton was prepared with a framework. In 1953, he proposed a systems theory for political science, or a framework in which various human behaviors either create input or are affected by output within a system of political actions. This five-step system organized political actions into loops of feedback between the various citizens and leaders in a political system, all based around human behaviors and human actions.

A rough outline of a political system according to Easton

So, David Easton had defined the concept of a political system. Now he just needed to define politics itself. That opportunity came in 1965 with the publications of A Framework for Political Analysis and A Systems Analysis for Political Life. In these publications, Easton offered his now-famous definition of politics.

The Authoritative Allocation of Values

Easton defined political systems in terms of human behavior. That was step one. Step two was defining their purpose, and that’s where we begin to understand the nature of politics. According to Easton, political systems are maintained by specific sorts of interactions between people: those that authoritatively allocate values for a society. Great. So what does this mean?

Values

A value, in this analysis, is anything of worth. It can be a material object, as well as an ideology, goal, social ranking, or anything else that lots of people deem to be valuable. You may have heard politicians talk about things like family values or national values or humanitarian values. Those matter to our political decision-making behaviors just as much as money and things of physical value.

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