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This essay was revised in response to an intelligent and questioning student, though home-schooled, who seemed unable to adjust from an intense activism to exploring political phenomena with a view to discovering surprises. Hope you find this extended version useful, too.
Political science is the study of politics. Politics, by one definition, is the handling and settling of conflicts among humans.
We political scientists don't "do conflict" -- we observe it and analyze it. And we tend to be quietly spoken, civil personalities who get along well by consensus. After hours, a few political scientists are active members of political parties, it is true. However, very few political scientists are activists, and very few actually try to get elected to Congress.
You will find political science classes very different from the "shoutfests" you may encounter on TV or talk radio. We will discuss some of the same issues. Yet we discuss civilly, and with respect for each other. When you express a point of view on a controversial topic such as the death penalty, abortion, or waging war, you may be questioned as to the basis of your argument.
Political science is not political activism. It is not about pushing political viewpoints upon other people. It is about observing political behavior, and relating it to political ideas. Hearing an argument, we are likely to classify it as a familiar type of argument -- rather than to argue for it or against it. Although most political scientists have preferences for a political party and for a domestic policy, we don't simply shout for those choices against each other. We try to find facts, laws, regulations, history and comparisons.
We don't simply argue for a different health care system -- we find factual comparisons among the health care systems of several countries. What do they cost? Who do they serve? What are the benefits? Do people live longer?
We don't simply argue for raising or cutting taxes. What are the actual tax rates? What income is exempt? Who pays the taxes? What are the economic effects of the taxes? What theory of Justice does each tax argument respond to? What alternative tax systems are there, and how do they work?
We don't simply shout an argument for or against abortion. We ask, what supreme court decisions decided policy, and what constitutional provisions are they based on? Among similar countries, do legislatures or the courts decide on abortion policy? Does it make a difference whether the population is Catholic, Protestant, Muslim -- or perhaps not religious?
Don't we have a common culture in political science? Yes, in some ways we do. We may disagree about which party to support; or what to do to reform a country's health care system; or who was at fault for starting a war. However, even those of us coming from opposing countries, can agree that the war was triggered by an economic dispute, or centuries of racial animosity, or a lack of constraint from international alliances. We can also agree on the principles of analysis -- before we come to opposite conclusions.
When political scientists from around the world gather in the World Congress -- in a different country every two years -- we do share an interest in competitive elections and an open marketplace of ideas. I have been to one in Paris, France; one in Seoul, South Korea; and another in Quebec City, Canada. In 2009, the Congress was held in Santiago, Chile, and in 2013 I participated in Madrid, Spain.
There is no one accepted definition; perhaps that keeps it interesting. For ancient Athenians, politics was the route to the highest virtue, an unlikely view today. Politics has been defined more recently as "the setting of authoritative values for society"; or as "Who gets what, when, how". The first of these is driven by values; the second is based both on material benefits and the satisfaction of psychological needs. Politics is also the collective settling of conflicts without (and sometimes with) violence, and democracy (literally, rule by the people) has been defined as a "competitive struggle for the people's vote."
Hence political science connects to political history, political philosophy, political economy, political psychology and political communications.
Among new college graduates with a Bachelor's degree, average first salaries in political science rank top of all the social sciences and humanities -- at over $34,000, they average $2,000 more than those other fields.
Political science is a strong major field for careers: the most common route to law school or to careers in public service, it is also a popular field of preparation for numerous positions as political staff aides, journalists or government consultants. (There are more lawyers here than in other nations -- and more political aides and consultants in the US than in all other countries combined). Among US freshmen surveyed (Mann, 1999), political science is the second most common social science major field taken, with enrolments rising among women and minority students.
You may be surprised that there are about 6 million federal officials from over 200 professions. In the state and local governments there are 12 million more. With a public administration or political science degree, plus appropriate professional degree (MPA, MPP, CPA, JD etc) or training, you might become a police officer, city manager, public works manager, fire chief, accountant, district attorney, quality control inspector, military officer, food pathologist, forest ranger, city planner, transport consultant, policy analyst, or think tank researcher.
In most other developed countries, it is even higher. In fact, the best French private companies usually hire top executives from graduates of national administration instead of business students!
How does political science differ from other subjects you may have already taken? Generally, you have probably already taken civics and history classes; you will find political science familiar from these. Political science builds upon these subjects as its raw material, for example in presidential studies (where there are few cases to use for statistics.) If you are a party activist or an idealist, you may find that we tend in class to explore what is effective in politics rather than merely engaging in wishful thinking. If you live for today's headlines, you may notice that we tend to find historical or comparative patterns of behavior to place those headlines in context.
But modern political science takes normative theories and applies them via hypotheses, attempting to find data to answer questions about human behavior, for example in voting data and public opinion where statistics are especially plentiful. For this purpose we shall examine classic readings in political theory and perhaps recognize the echoes of their arguments in current political debates. Throughout the text you will find fascinating data tables and charts which we will interpret in class.