It was only during the Renaissance, and particularly as a result of new discoveries, that the search for reality motivated political thinkers to observe, collect and analyse facts about the actual workings of governments and their institutions. Observational method is one of the ways of empirical studies and James Bryce was its great advocate.
He attached great importance to the study of the problems and institutions on the spot, to investigate their operations and form conclusions there from. He visited the United States of America, Canada, France, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand, studied the people and their countries, closely observed the workings of their institutions and formed his own conclusions.
He wrote: “The best way to get genuine and exact first-hand knowledge of the data is to mix in practical politics. In such a country as France or the United States a capable man can, in a dozen years, acquire a comprehension of the realities of popular government ampler and more definite than any which books supply.”
The political investigator, James Bryce asserted, must not confine his observations to one single country. His field of investigation should be so wide as to include the political phenomena of all countries, for the fundamentals of human nature are the same everywhere, except for the differences in their political habits and temperaments.
“The first desideratum for a political scientist,” he said, “is to get the fact and then make sure of it. Get it perfectly clear. Polish it till it sparkles and shines like a gem. Then connect it with other facts.
Examine it in its relation to them, for in that lies its worth and its significance. It is of little use alone. So make it a diamond in the necklace, a stone, perhaps a cornerstone in your building.” Bryce’s two famous books, The American Commonwealth and Modern Democracies (two volumes), are the result of his labours in pursuit of the observational method.
The observational method is based on direct observation and reflection. It is practical and its utility is obvious. It helps in arriving at certain political principles in the light of the observations made and information obtained. But as Sait has said, “A science of Politics can be developed only through observation, which is more laborious and far more open to error than experiment.”
Authentication of the facts observed is a long and arduous process and what appears to be a fact may not be so or it may be partially borne by facts. Laski has correctly remarked that the processes of government “are very like an iceberg; what appears on the stir face may be but a small part of the reality beneath.”
Next the human factor intervenes. The facts analysed may smack, and they very often do, of the prejudices of the investigator. Whether he acknowledges the fact or not, he will look on some people and policies as good and on others as evil.
Moreover, what we observe is a comparison of contemporary political institutions. It gives no clue to the past and provides no wisdom for the future unless other methods of investigation are coupled with it. It must, however, be noted that increasing use is now being made of this method, particularly in India.