I came across the following sentence in a political science book:

"In its early years, political science generally involved the analysis of formal, legal, and official sides of political life."

What could the 'formal side' of political life specifically mean?

I also read the answers in some posts but found them to be out of context for my question.

Meaning of 'formal' in 'formal equality'
The meaning of 'formal'

1 Answer 1


Here's one way to think of formal in this context: Form is opposed to content. Political content might involve 'the issues', so political science focussed on content might ask the following kinds of question:

  • How aggressive were the nuclear weapons policies of various states during the Cold War?
  • How did free trade agreements evolve with regard to investors' rights?

However, questions on the form of politics might ask the following kinds of question:

  • How were bills relating to US nuclear policy drafted, revised and approved?
  • What are the stages of negotiation of a typical free trade agreement?

In other words, formal questions might concentrate more on political process, rather than on political questions themselves.

  • @jegatrix Ok, formal side of something is related to its form, but how do we distinguish form from content? Could you be more elaborate, please? The above example you've given has helped a little bit, though. Thanks.
    – adieng
    Dec 20, 2020 at 3:52
  • 1
    Just take some political phenomenon and ask yourself: am I interested in how things are done, or what is done? For example, if a US President signs an executive order, you could choose to study the history of executive orders and their use to push through new policy, or you could look at the actual policies they have been used to enact. The first would be form, the second content. It's a very general idea, not only applicable to politics. Also known (in other contexts) as style vs. substance, or medium vs. message.
    – legatrix
    Dec 20, 2020 at 7:57
  • 1
    thank you so much, man!
    – adieng
    Dec 23, 2020 at 16:05

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