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Dahl: The behavioral approach in political science

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Dahl. 1961. The behavioral approach in political science: Epitaph for a monument to a successful protest. APSR.

In Brief

In his presidential address to APSA, Dahl explores what the behavioral revolution (already nearing completion) was. Essentially, he sees it as a protest against impressionistic, less scientific work. Behavior is not a field; it is an approach, a way of viewing problems. Rather than describe how things are arranged (legalistic), you analyze what people think, feel, and do. More than anything else, the behavioral protest was a "mood": a dissatisfaction with the current attainments of political scientist and its methods.

The Behavioral "Mood"

Some would say that the behavior revolution was more than that, but there is no consensus. Some say it involves a focus on individuals rather than institutions. Some say it is an emphasis on using methods and criteria of proof typical of other scientific fields. But we do now that, at the least, the behavioral protest was a "mood" of dissatisfaction with current approaches.

Cautions about Behaviorism

Dahl then proceeds to give a few cautions about where this approach might take us. For example, he reminds us not to neglect the importance of systems (new institutionalism's complaint), that is, how the rules affect how individual behavior is aggregated into a general outcome. But he also touches on other points. One prophetic warning, that I think our discipline has neglected, is this:

"The danger, of course, is that the quest for empirical data can turn into an absorbing search for mere trivialities unless it is guided by some sense of the difference between an explanation that would not matter much even if could be shown to be valid by the most advanced methods now available, and one that would matter a great deal if it should turn out to be a little more or a little less plausible than before, even if it still remained in some considerable doubt. So far, I think, the impact of the scientific outlook has been to stimulate caution rather than boldness in searching for broad explanatory theories." (772)