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What is Politics, Really?

Edited by Annika Lilja

There is no doubt that politics is an extremely pivotal part of everyone’s life. Whether or not you are invested in the day-to-day running of the country or simply just read the news every day, you will always see politics somewhere, and maybe in places you least expect it. In terms of the typical view of what ‘politics’ is as a concept, you may think of politicians, governments, debates, and voting, but this is not all politics entails. Politics is also theory, policy, laws, discussions, protests - the list goes on. Politics in the public sense may seem inaccessible to many; but in some definitions, you may delve into politics on a daily basis without even realising it! The idea of ‘politics’ spans a vast array of different concepts and definitions that surpass the physical institutions we have created and encompass every part of our human interactions. Politics, in its simplest sense, can be seen as the tool that humanity uses to try and find solutions to collective problems, though this article will also establish different definitions that you may agree or disagree with. It is important to also note that politics, and what exactly it is, is continuously evolving and changing, and can be seen from a variety of different approaches and angles that will be discussed throughout this article.

Politics as the State

One of the primary ways of defining politics is through the primary institutions it governs, otherwise known as the state. In this definition, politics is simply ‘that which concerns the state,’ encompassing any activity that affects state institutions and the people who are directly involved (Garner, 2020). These include permanent institutions that provide public services, help create laws, and protect borders - the typical ideas discussed in weekly political updates. However, this definition of politics can be seen as limiting as it does not include personal political activities that do not affect the state. Environmental movements and animal rights movements are typically seen as politically motivated but do not typically involve state institutions driving these changes, instead being people-driven. This means that it is not the state where politics is always concentrated, but also in the attitudes and minds of individuals. Even on a smaller scale, initiatives such as individually not eating meat for ethical reasons can be seen as a political act - such an action is not included as part of politics in this definition, which could make this definition less broad. This is not to say it is not a useful definition. All definitions of politics are neither right nor wrong, but based on perception and viewpoint, and all help to further our understanding of the ideas of politics.

Politics as Avoiding Conflict 

Another way of defining politics is to think of human interaction across history. Conflict, arguments, and disagreements have perpetuated throughout, as every class or member of society can have different wants and needs. This can make it difficult for stability to come to fruition, with disagreements dissolving into coups, violence, and sometimes fully-fledged civil or world wars. When assessing from this perspective, politics can be seen as a permanent state of conflict resolution, looking for middle ground and reasonable solutions to maintain as close to collective agreement and stability as possible. Some scholars divide politics and violence here, stating that politics is non-violent conflict resolution, while a military solution would involve a form of violence. However, there are a couple of problems with this definition. Think of protests and riots - a complex interplay of political motivations that can be asserted through violent or non-violent means. However, most people would consider protests to be a part of politics, which goes against the even split between politics and violence. This definition is also quite reductionist - it reduces the idea of violence as mutually exclusive and ‘bad’ to politics, and also creates the assumption that difference and conflict are undesirable, which it isn’t always. With these definitions, key ideas such as ‘violence’ are hard to determine - when is violence pure violence? Political scientists have to battle with these different subjective perceptions of ideas to come to definitions and conclusions that can better define the mechanisms of our world.

Politics as Making Conflict Useful 

Politics and conflict are a given for most, if not all, institutions across the world, whether it is through discourse or violent means. In the process of decision-making, there are bound to be debates and discussions, as people all have different viewpoints and perceptions. Politics in this view can be seen as a process that allows both coexistence and conflict to exist in a productive way, one that respects difference as a fundamental feature of society. One potential caveat of this theory is its reductionist focus; focusing directly on the specifics of interaction and conflict - politics can also span wider areas of life, such as in our personal life, and can also be enshrined in wider social ideas such as culture and religion which are not addressed in the direct relationship between politics and conflict. 

Politics as Encompassing Social Interaction

The definitions of politics we have looked at have all been reductionist to main ideas around the state or one-on-one focused interaction. But can politics be seen as interweaving into seemingly non-political interactions? Do playgrounds and schools have politics? Politics can be seen as an assessment of activity we engage with on a daily basis and our way of discerning what our collective values are through this. Throughout history, there has been a traditional divide between the ideas of the ‘public’ and the ‘private,’ with the public being the sphere of political activity while private life is seemingly all domestic. However, would reading a banned book in private be seen as political? Is art, which does not involve direct human interaction, part of politics? From here we can see that politics is an idea that can be seen to encompass so much more than simple debates in Congress or Parliament - though many political scientists draw caution to such a wide definition - as it is difficult to assess how much broader the definition can become before it seems meaningless. 

Politics as Context Dependent

Throughout this article, we have gone through a course of reductionist to holistic views that the idea of politics can cover. However, once we reach a certain point of broadening the way we see politics, it can collapse into a philosophical, endless discussion with no end. The idea of politics as context-dependent solves this issue. Everything has the potential to be political, dependent on context and interpretation. This does not mean that everything in life is political, but it enables us to recognise personal and private acts that can be political, as well as the direct politics of the state and law. It also allows us, as people, to use conflict and protest as productive ways of doing politics, broadening the idea of ‘politics’ without diluting it to a complete loss of meaning.




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