Most of the time, political scientists approach their field of study empirically. This approach asks why things are the ways they are in an indifferent, value-neutral manner. But the normative approach takes another tact. Normative theory, according to Robert E. Botsch of the University of South Carolina, Aiken, "involves questions of value, of what we should do, or of what we ought to do. This is the stuff of political philosophy."

A Normative Example

To get a better sense of normative and empirical approaches to questions of politics, consider this example about capital punishment. "Capital punishment should be used to deter murder and violent crime" is a normative statement. "The use of capital punishment deters murder and violent crime" is an empirical statement. The former assumes that the deterrence of violent crime is a good thing. While most empiricists would likely agree, they approach their research with a value agnosticism -- an assumption that it is for others to decide what is good.

The Empirical Approach

The traditional empirical approach to political science is what makes it a "positive" science. The study of what is, as opposed to what ought to be, lends a certain respectability to political science that is not attached to opinion-writing or political philosophers. "While Plato and Aristotle sought to identify the characteristics of a good polity, most modern political scientists seek to identify the characteristics of polities, their causes and effects, leaving aside moral judgments about their goodness or badness," write John Gerring and Joshua Yesnowitz in the journal "Polity."

The Problem of Empiricism

Within the field, however, there have been rumblings of change. "In recent decades," Gerring and Yesnowitz write, "one detects a growing uneasiness among social scientists with the fact/value dichotomy, at least as it was traditionally (and rather baldly) understood." Part of this unease is that a good deal of political science research seems irrelevant to policymakers. Political scientists sometimes dive deeply into methodological debates that have little bearing on anyone outside of the field, walling themselves off from utility in vaulted ivory towers. There are also unspoken normative views in much of ostensibly empirical research, normative apologists argue. Studies of American government often presume -- but don’t say, let alone test -- that federalism and strong political parties good things, Gerring and Yesnowitz write.

A Normative-Empirical Synthesis?

"Of course," Gerring and Yesnowitz write, "it is difficult to say exactly how norms should be brought into greater contact with empirical inquiry." The marriage of the normative and empirical approaches is not a straightforward notion. But normative supporters, including Gerring and Yesnowitz, argue that "empirical study in the social sciences is meaningless if it has no normative import. It simply does not matter." They argue that considering what should be, rather than simply what is, would render political science a much more relevant field.

Their argument is that a subject’s relevance can and should be demonstrated through empirical methods, and that writers should carefully examine how well supported their underlying research assumptions are. More importantly, while they believe that social science research should take on value-laden subjects, it must do so in a value-neutral way -- in other words, bringing an empirical approach to normative questions.