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If nearly everyone in the social sciences, or at least in political science, knows about David Easton's systems analysis of political life, they may not be aware that it was Easton who introduced the concept of Political system into political science (1957).
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what political science would have looked like had Easton's political systems approach not emerged. When Easton's political framework appears as belonging "to the category of theories that come into vogue and then just vanish" (Lane 1978, 161), it may be because it has managed to become a part of "what everyone knows" about Politics and policy in the discipline. Easton's political systems vocabulary has almost reached the stage of something learnt at one's mother's knees. Ibis includes distinctions between wants and demands, demands and issues, issues and decisions, outputs and outcomes, diffuse and specific support. gate-keepers and authorities, and so on. They are now conventions for the study of political life that are routinely drawn upon as mutual or tacit Stocks of knowledge about political interaction between actors or collectivities.
Yet, Easton's political systems model is today nearly friendless in the political discipline. It is generally viewed as a minor appendix to Talcott Parsons's functionalist and evolutionary theory of the social system It is widely accused of silencing "the reflective and critical voice of the discipline" and of undermining its status "as the discursive home of political theory" (Gunnell 1993, 269). It is blamed for blinding researchers to the importance of developing the various discourses of political theory in the Context of political science as a formal academic practice. It has acquired the reputation of taking a non- and apolitical stance toward its own object of analysis, narrowing down the practical tasks of political theory and science to the technical one of providing policy makers a more systematic and coherent contributor to the modern rationalization of the world (Astin 1972; Green 1985; Miller 1971; Sorzano 1975).
I will here challenge the established picture of Easton's political system as a rationalized construct for achieving the goals necessary to fulfill the social system's built-in "needs" for "adaptation," "pattern-maintenance," and "normative integration" (Alexander 1984). Why should Easton treat government as an evolutionary development in the social system and the welfare state as the end result toward which political development leads in all societies (cf. Badie and Birnbaum 1983, 27) when he has the view that "the designation of exotic systems as developing or transitional suggests a norm toward which they are moving, and seldom does this standard represent anything other than Western democracies as we know them today" (Easton 1965b, 15)? Why should he identify the conversion of "inputs" into "outputs" with what public decision makers say and do, when he is the first to stress that "in principle, every occupant of the role `general member of the political system' is a potential converter" (1965b, 86)?
It appears to me that Easton's statements point away from, rather than in the direction of, a doctrine of modernity. None of his critics seem to notice. In their preconceptions, Easton's idea of political system "clearly entails the notion of homeostasis" (Evans 1970, 120). "The predominant theme," they say, "is that of the automatic response to stress, or of the homeostatic devices to help it cope with stress" (Leslie 1972, 158). "The political system takes its bearings not by the practical and ethical problems of political life but by problems that emerge when political inquiry is conceived on the model of biology" (Miller 1971, 234). "Outputs result in certain outcomes, functioning as stimuli resulting in certain responses from the masses. In other words--we are dealing with a society in which the rulers manipulate the ruled and where the ruled react mechanically to their manipulation" (Anckar 1973, 82-3).
However, contrast these images to Easton's own opening words in his first systematic attempt at developing A Framework for Political Analysis (1965a). In this book he openly declares that he "has not been able to lean on any ready-made model; and no eclectic borrowing from other varying kinds of systems approaches would do. A consistent structure of concepts has to be newly developed that would fit the kind of system that political life constitutes" (p. xii).
As a responsive critic, one must necessarily begin by listening to what Easton himself says he is doing, if an adequate critique of what he actually does is to become possible. What he says is that discourses on political theory cannot be restricted to a discussion of natural science. In this sense, Easton's notion of political system appears to be in clear opposition to Parsonian social systems science. Parsons adopted the language and philosophy of the natural science to make sociology into a positivist science, attempting to explain and predict Hobbes's "motivational problem of order" (Parsons 1951, 30). Easton's political science, as I shall show, springs from more politically and historically oriented studies into language and philosophy that appear to have led him to an alternative discontinuist position. According to this, "at times members in a system may wish to take positive actions to destroy a previous equilibrium or even to achieve some new point of continuing disequilibrium" (Easton 1965b, 20). Obviously, it could not have been such a process of "continuing disequilibrium" that Parsons had in mind when speaking of the capacity of a social system to persist in face of stress.
Then, what is the particular nature of the language and philosophy in terms Of which David Easton's science of the political system has been constructed? I think that the lack of answers to this question in the Easton debate is indicating a problem in the way the traditions of American behavioralism have usually been approached by their non-, anti-, or postmodern critics from various fields of the social sciences. In theoretical and radical circles outside the mainstream, the "core meaning of behavioralism would be the commitment to emulating natural science" (Gunnell 1993, 219). In such descriptions, behavioralism appears as but the bearer of a positivist worldview and meta-science treating the political as a "thing" (physics) or "living thing" (biology), the order of which can be portrayed and explained in its lawlike order by committing political analysis to what can be seen, measured, operationalized, and so forth, in a rigorous manner. The practical task of behavioralists, on these positivist images appears solely to be one of providing public decision makers reliable technical knowledge of how to remove "dysfunctions" and "anomalies," which pose a threat to developing and sustaining social and political order.
In the light of such reductions of American behavioralism to pure "scientism," it's no wonder that one reaches the conclusion that "science and politics in America were, in the end, disparate and irreconcilable vocations" (Gunnell 1993, 278). However, I will instead set out from the, presumption that American behavioralism could hardly have avoided taking a stance with regard to the political traditions of pragmatism within which it has itself grown up. In Easton's systems epistemology, it does not, appear to be persistence as structure maintenance (Parsons 1951; Giddens and Turner 1987) but "persistence and change of systems, or rather persistence through change as is more often the case, [which] has seemed to be the most inclusive kind of question that one might ask about a political system" (Easton 1965b, 473). Indeed, such a discontinuist approach about the creation of order from disorder must appear as foreign to those in the modern sociological traditions who, like Parsons, consider order as being opposed to disorder. However, it should come as no surprise to an American pragmatist, insisting that political theory "is the history of a practice in which the very word `theory' has been essentially contested, and the evolution of its meaning is of decisive importance" (Gunnell 1993, 13; cf. Bang 1987a, 1987b).
Easton's Break with Modem Science
Easton's political model has certainly been influenced by his participation starting in 1951 "in an interdisciplinary group of extraordinary breadth at the University of Chicago, the Committee on Behavioral Sciences" (1965a, xii). But this does not automatically situate him among those who conceive of political science as modeled after the epistemology of the natural sciences. As he himself states:
In the history of science, analogy and metaphor have more than once served
as the source of new insights and fundamental transformations in thought.
Political science has consistently shared in this use of models of analysis
borrowed from other fields.
In political theory today we are ready to go far beyond this. We can
explore the basic outlines of a conceptual structure based upon the adoption
and specific adaptation of systems analysis for the understanding of
political fife. In the process, as must be the case with any genuine effort
to build on central concepts borrowed from some other fields and
perspectives, theoretical research in system terms takes on many new
dimensions, and old concepts acquire new and often unrecognizable content.
Although, in the outcome, systems analysis--as adapted for purposes of
social research--remains within the same general conceptual terrain in
which it has grown up, we shall find by the end of our examination of it
that it has gone off in substantially different directions. Biological
and natural scientists would no longer feel at home in it, although it
might well stir faint memories of a conceptual homeland that they once
knew. (1965a, 2)
When most modern social systems scientists would not feel at home in Easton's political system either, it is because of his claim that a political "system may persist even though everything else associated with it changes continuously and radically" (Easton 1965a, 88). If this should be the case, the functional problem for such a system simply cannot be the one "of minimizing potentially disruptive behavior and the motivation to it" (Parsons 1951, 30). Hence, Easton's contribution to the systems sciences could be read as signalizing a break with more than a contribution to the doctrines of modernity.
Like many "high-" and "post-" modernists after him, I shall postulate, Easton is taking an antiteleological and antievolutionary stance toward his own object of analysis. Rather than following in the footsteps of Parsons's analysis of the disruption of normative and motivational integration, his systems discourse is moving in the opposite direction toward those who wish to contribute to "the dissolution of evolutionism, the disappearance of historical teleology, the recognition of thoroughgoing, constitutive reflexivity, together with the evaporating of the privileged position of the West" (Giddens 1990, 52-3):
1. Easton does not intentionally impose some developmental traits of modernity upon his system that its members are predetermined to fulfill:
Even though systems analysis recognizes that the members of political
systems have the capacity to cope with stress and change, this does not
mean that all systems must behave adaptively or are equally successful
in doing so. There need be no eufunctional or maintenance-satisfying
bias to this kind of analysis. (1965a, 88)
Not only is there freedom to select from a range of alternative strategies,
but in many systems ... the members may consciously set out to devise now
methods for meeting new or old crises. In this event they will be adding to
their store of responses through innovation. (1965a, 100)
2. It is not teleology, the attainment of an already existing goal (structure), but rather teleonomy, the very seeking for goals (process), which, according to Easton, describes the transformative capacity of a political system to persist:
What political systems as a type of social system possess uniquely, when
compared to both biological and mechanical systems, is the capacity to
transform themselves, their goals, practices, and the very structure of
their internal organization. (1965a, 99)
3. Easton does not conceive of the political system as a self-regulating mechanism that functions through the internalization of norms in the unconscious parts of the personality:
Since it is composed of reflective human beings, it is capable of
evaluating what is happening and of taking evasive action, (1965b, 225)
For any social system including the political, adaptation represents more
than simple adjustments to the events in its life. It is made up of
efforts, limited only by the variety of human skills, resources and
ingenuity, to control, modify or fundamentally change either the
environment or the system itself, or both together. (1965b, 21)
4. Easton takes his system to manifest a deviation from foundationalist thinking and thereby from the tendency in modern Western political thinking to impose one or another comprehensive doctrine upon the functioning of political systems:
Once we affirm that all political fife in its varied manifestations may
properly become our universe, the substance of theoretical inquiry would
have to change radically. It would no longer suffice to assert some
central value that is associated with an interest bred by the historical
experience of the West. (1965b, 14)
Thus, the persistence of political systems remains a riddle in Easton's framework. It cannot be homeostasis that is the metaphor, since no individual organism is "able to regulate, control, direct, modify, and innovate with respect to all aspects and parts of the processes involved" (Easton 1965a, 133). What an individual organism seeks is stability, not change; what it seeks to reproduce is itself, not innovations.
If political systems persist as islands of order in a general social disorder, then political science becomes more a contest of faculties between intrinsically different discursive practices than a matter of uniting the social sciences for the sake of "unfolding" the social system in its lawlike order, just as it is "in itself." However, if it is not mechanicism and organicism that form the subject matter of Easton's systems framework, then what is it? According to Easton himself, the answer is obvious: "From the days of Aristotle, political science has been known as the master science" (1953, 3). Hence, "a major source of the shortcomings in political science lies in the failure to clarify the true relationship between facts and political theory and the vital role of theory in this partnership" (1953, 4).
When pleading for a new "master" discipline in which political theory is placed before political science, Easton does himself help to identify a basic and consistent element in his thinking from the 1940s and onward, namely, his ambition to revitalize political theory in order to come between the modern opposition between "facts" and "values." This ambition is first of all visible in the "young" Easton's philosophically and metatheoretically oriented …