What Is Politics?

by Marc Geddes

Arguably this is a good way to start the year, at the foundations of politics. Colin Hay identifies twelve possible definitions.[1] Whilst this is not exhaustive, I will attempt to look only at the relationship of politics with power and attempt to defend an approach that seeks to define politics as a discursive, inter-subjective act. In so doing, I will show that politics must be an inclusive concept vital for analysis of society.

Politics and Power

The use of power is a common, albeit fraught way, to define politics due to the conceptual labyrinth that ensues (the concept of ‘power’ is something I do not wish to discuss here). Despite the essentially contested nature of power, it is evident that power has a definitive aspect to politics that has achieved considerable salience amongst a number of political scientists. Power is important because it includes a variety of social relations and provides political analysts with the necessary armoury to interrogate all political issues of importance. Furthermore, it transcends the divisions between the public sphere, the private sphere and the governmental sphere.

Nonetheless, we must be careful in our application. Something which other theorists have argued is that politics and power are universal. A popular phrase, particularly amongst feminists, is that ‘the personal is political’. It is not. In allowing the concept of politics to be all-pervasive in this sense is also to say that it has no distinctive analytical use. Power, of course, can be all-pervasive. But in drawing such a distinction we must also be clear that not all power relationships are political. How could the term ‘politics’ have any meaningful use if conceptualised as Adrian Leftwich[2] or Kate Millet[3] do? The value of the concept will be destroyed.

We need to add certain qualifications to make something political. Norms and values play a huge role in political actions as does the political context. Politics is about different interests, collective endeavours, order in society, compromise, identity and belonging.[4] Politics is multi-faceted. It cannot simply be about one particular process (power) but it must also satisfy other preconditions, such as the context in which the political act occurs and the extent to which it will affect other actors and in what way.[5]

Politics, then, is most clearly an act. This implies that political acts will and do occur in different arenas. What defines a political act is the extent to which it will have an effect on the established social and/or cultural order, which normally (but not exclusively) involves the use of power. The constitution of social and/or cultural order thereby becomes something of a precondition in which an act occurs, such as norms, values and identities. Politics is merely the ensemble or relationship of these discursive acts.

Arenas of Politics

Using our definition of the political, the idea of ‘arenas’ becomes somewhat superficial. Debates of the private, public and governmental spheres go back to John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft. Traditionally, politics was synonymous with government; later it began to encompass the public sphere; and increasingly, engulfing the private.

Again, we must be careful. If we attempt to broaden the term too much, it will be of no analytical use. Importantly, then, politics must not engulf all three spheres; spheres which are, after all, social constructions themselves and used specifically to compartmentalise certain acts, identities and beliefs. In accepting this, it becomes clear that politics transcends the public-private debate. This can be shown here:

Adapted from Colin Hay, Why We Hate Politics (2007), p.79

As such, the political may occur in any given institutional setting or any given environment. Politics is not synonymous with government. This is an important point, especially with the changing nature of the ‘smart state’ or ‘smart governance’ to which most modern advanced nations are now turning. We must look to governance in itself as a multi-level platform, which further differentiates politics.[6]

A working definition?

‘Politics’ and ‘the political’ can be defined in terms of an act that broadly intends to have an effect on the established social and/or cultural order. Inherent in this idea is that there will be the likely, but not exclusive, use of power. It also implies that ‘the political’ depends on a certain context of the act, a specific intention and a particular identity. This has important implications which I have highlighted, notably the way in which different spheres do not limit politics – the political act is not dependent on site. Indeed, politics can occur in almost every social environment, depending on the act and its implications.



[1] Colin Hay, Why We Hate Politics (2007)

[2] Adrian Leftwich (ed.), What Is Politics? The Activity and Its Study (2004)

[3] Kate Millet, Sexual Politics (1969)

[4] Gerry Stoker, Why Politics Matters (2006)

[5] You may or may not be interested to note that the very idea that politics encompasses identity and a sense of belonging will immediately render the concept of politics as ‘conflict resolution’ rather futile and misplaced.

[6] Ian Bache and Matthew Flinders (eds.), Multi-Level Governance (2004)