Political studies and the contextual turn: A methodological/normative critique

Stephanie Lawson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Recent developments in political studies have seen much greater attention paid to ideas about history, culture and associated notions of context. This reflects, at least in part, a dissatisfaction with positivism and modernist empiricism and an interest in alternative methodologies and epistemologies. As part of this general development, the language of non-traditional approaches to politics has become replete with the language of contextualism, emphasising specificity, particularity and contingency. There is certainly much to be welcomed in the turn away from an ahistorical, objectivist and materialist positivism towards more nuanced approaches. Contingency attends virtually every development in human affairs, making predictability a very inexact science. And facts simply do not speak for themselves. They are made to speak in different ways by different people located in varying positions of power and influence and with particular agendas or projects. Thus the notion that adequate explanations of political practices and actions can be obtained in the absence of a narrative account of the beliefs that sustain them is indeed difficult to defend. Even so, critiques of objectivist approaches which substitute specific historical and/or cultural contexts for universals may turn out simply to be using another method of objectification. Furthermore, far from providing a critique of domination, I argue that key aspects of the contextualist turn actually reinforce it. So while agreeing with the general point that attention to context, both historical and cultural, is essential to good political analysis, this article is nonetheless critical of key aspects of contextual approaches. In addition, it highlights certain difficulties in devising a general theory of context due to some important contradictions between cultural and historical versions of methodological contextualism which have so far gone unnoticed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)584-603
Number of pages20
JournalPolitical Studies
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2008


Dive into the research topics of 'Political studies and the contextual turn: A methodological/normative critique'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this