Course offerings are divided into five subfields:
- American Politics
- Comparative Politics
- International Relations and Foreign Policy
- Political Theory
To familiarize students with the different topics, issues, and approaches in the study of political science, majors are required to take one course in all five subfields. For specific details on departmental requirements, see Requirements. We also offer an introductory course in environmental policy (PSCI 0211), which is required for the Environmental Studies Program. All 0100-level and most 0200-level courses have no prerequisites and are open to students of all classes.
Understanding the Subfields
The department does not require its majors to develop expertise in any particular subfield of political science. Instead, students are provided a basic foundation in all parts of the discipline and are then permitted to explore their own interests via the courses they select to meet degree requirements and through independent study.
Americanists conduct behavioral, institutional, and theoretical analyses of topics in domestic and international politics, using a variety of methodologies ranging from moral and legal reasoning to historical analyses to mathematical modeling. Topics of study include the major governing institutions and actors—Congress, the Presidency, the courts, public bureaucracies, state and local governments, the media and interest groups—and the primary modes of political participation, including lobbying, social movements, elections, public opinion, and voting. Typically, Americanists draw on several approaches when conducting these studies. Political theorists examine the philosophical foundations of America’s constitutional democracy and the ways these political principles play out in practice. Institutional studies focus on how rules and enduring governing structures shape political processes and outcomes. Behavioral analyses examine how individuals—from activists to the general public—think about and engage in political activity. Whereas political theorists are primarily concerned with the normative aspects of American politics—who should govern, and to what ends?—institutionalists and behavioralists focus more on identifying and explaining empirical regularities through hypothesis generation and testing.
PSCI 0102 and PSCI 0104 are the introductory courses in American politics and provide students with a thorough grounding in the theory and operation of American political institutions, political behavior, and the abiding tension between core American political values (e.g., equality vs. individual liberty). Other courses are more specific in their focus (the Presidency, Congress, Federalism, constitutional law, bureaucracy, public policy, and money and politics).
Comparative politics entails the study of different governments and regime types. By comparing distinct political systems, analysts seek to derive propositions that are valid for all political systems. Thus, the comparative subfield encompasses not only various regional area studies, but also the cross-national study of political institutions, processes, and behavior. While some comparativists study the politics of a single country or of culturally similar countries (i.e., Europe, Latin America), and others compare the politics of culturally (or economically) dissimilar nations, the comparative method facilitates the study of issues central to the concerns of all the subfields of political science. These include the sources of political stability and instability, political prerequisites of economic backwardness and development, and the origins of democracy, dictatorship, and revolution.
Political Science 0103, the introductory course in this field, exposes students to diverse political systems and to the logic of comparative inquiry. By mixing theory and case studies it acquaints students with the institutions and processes of different governments and regime types, and encourages students to think analytically about these systems and to compare them to their own political experiences. Other comparative courses focus on the political systems of Africa, East Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Western Europe, China, or Russia. Comparative courses also focus on broader issues such as ethnic conflict, political and economic development, revolution, socialism, public policy, democracy, and dictatorship.
International Relations and Foreign Policy
International relations is the study of political, strategic, military, and economic interactions across national boundaries. It is generally concerned with the relations between sovereign states, but increasingly it also analyzes the role of nonstate actors.
International relations also includes the analysis of foreign policy, international law, international institutions, nuclear weapons, arms control, and international economic relations. Although international relations and comparative politics are distinct, sometimes they intersect. In general, comparative politics looks at patterns of domestic politics and political development in various countries, whereas international relations examines relations between states and the foreign policies that states adopt. This distinction, however, can become blurred when domestic politics influence foreign policy.
Political Science 0109, the introductory course in international politics (IR), provides a broad overview of the subfield. The course addresses such issues as the international system, how states relate to one another within it, why states sometimes go to war, the role and nature of power, international law and institutions, and the impact of economic interdependence. Other courses within the IR subfield examine such topics as American foreign policy, diplomacy, international conflict and its resolution, international law and organization, international political economy, and international security and weapons of mass destruction.
Methods courses are designed to introduce students to how political scientists think about the research they do. They provide information about how to identify interesting research questions and how to design research so we can be confident in what we find. Between the variety of courses offered, we cover statistical, comparative case study, historical, survey, and mathematical approaches to political science research.
Political theory courses focus on the different ways, or methods, of studying politics. Political theory may include inquiry into the truth about politics in general or a particular form of politics, such as democracy or tyranny. The mode of inquiry may follow the model of natural science and seek out causes for certain behavior, or it may take politics on its own terms and try to move from opinion to knowledge about what is right and wrong, good and bad, noble and base. When political theory follows the latter kind of inquiries, as most of our courses do, it becomes political philosophy.
The introduction to political theory course is PSCI 0101. It is primarily a course in political philosophy, but it also introduces students to the scientific study of politics. In one course, students read fundamental texts, some ancient and some modern, mainly in chronological order. In another course, students study similar kinds of texts but with a view toward appreciating the different ways of studying politics (philosophy, history, poetry, science). In courses beyond the introductory level, students read different texts and authors or they examine distinctive topics, such as philosophy, politics and education, late-modern political theory, or religion and politics.