What is Political Science?

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ike all social sciences, the field of ‘political science’ is an umbrella for a plethora of interrelated disciplines, all aimed at understanding the world of politics. Students pursuing political science will usually begin their studies taking a cocktail of courses covering a variety of these disciplines; gradually, it is common for students to focus/specialize in two or three subfields, depending on their interests. Faculties in Canadian universities don’t always offer courses in all possible disciplines, so it’s important for high school students to research the focus of a university before choosing to attend it.

As in all exercises of classification, there is a variety of ways to delineate different disciplines in political science. This article will provide three spectra of classification: Geographical, Standard, and Hybrid.

It can be complicated.

Geographical

Many courses and professors at university are distinguished based on specialization in a certain country or region. Limiting the geographical scope of a class allows for more in depth knowledge, and also facilitates comparisons between countries. For example, a topic like “Far Right Political Movements” is mostly relevant in the context of Europe. Although there are numerous cases beyond the continent, studying the phenomenon in a limited context would allow the professor to spend time on more topics around the subject, instead of wasting time on cases that are not readily comparable.

Moreover, universities will have a wide selection of courses focused on domestic politics, or the internal politics of a specific country. In Canada, it’s common to have an entire ‘sub-department’ focused on Canadian domestic politics. Courses dedicated to American, and Chinese politics are also relatively common.

Standard

Besides ‘Canadian Politics’, there are three disciplines that will be ubiquitously present in all political science departments: Comparative politics, international relations, and political theory.

Comparative politics (CP): Generally speaking, this discipline focuses on the internal politics of states, often comparing them to generate theories. Comparative politics is the largest discipline in political science, encompassing in itself a wide variety of sub-fields, such as: democratization theory, electoral politics, politics of transitions, authoritarianism, party politics, institution building, etc. Because of the broad nature of comparative politics, most courses will be focused on a specific region.

International relations (IR): This discipline focuses on all interactions between states. In first year, classes will usually be centered on three central “paradigms,” or large models, but will usually diverge in later years. Like Comparative politics, it also possesses numerous subfields, such as: Causes of war, game theory(also present in CP, but often introduced in IR), diplomacy, refugee politics, Politics of International Organizations, etc.

Political Theory (PT): According to Princeton University, it is “is the study of the concepts and principles that people use to describe, explain, and evaluate political events and institutions”. In other words, it is the philosophical understanding of politics. Unlike the other two, it is less focused on empirics, and more on the understanding of intangible concepts and principles. Most courses will revolve around two major strands: History of political thought, and modern political philosophy.

In addition, there are three other disciplines that are very common –yet not guaranteed to be present- in political science departments:

Methods (M): This isn’t a discipline of political science per se, more of a “class” of courses. Methods provide students with all the analytical tools necessary to excel at the production of academic papers. There are two interrelated strands of methodology, qualitative and quantitative. The latter involves the use of mathematics, statistical methods, and computer software to find trends. Departments called “Political Studies” instead of Political Science are more likely to omit quantitative approaches, in favour of more qualitative ones.

Development Studies (DS): This discipline is more at the periphery of political science, and some universities even dedicate separate departments specifically focused on development studies. As its name suggests, students pursuing DS will study poverty and conflict alleviation, as well as institutional reform in the developing world. It is very much interrelated with both CP, and IR and many courses will be cross-referenced between two disciplines/departments.

Public Policy (PP): Although located within political science departments, public policy programs are usually distinguished from political science programs. Unlike the latter, which is focused on the analysis of politics, PP courses enlighten students on how to take part in the production of policies.

Hybrid

Hybrid disciplines are hunched between at least two fields. Due to its versatility, political science has a large number of prominent hybrid disciplines that it shares with other social sciences, humanities, law, even business and medicine. Examples include: public law (law), public administration (business), behavioural politics (sociology and psychology), political economy (economics- it has become almost Standard in some universities), health politics (medicine), etc. Some of these courses are included within one of the Standard disciplines, like behavioural politics in CP.

Regardless of your choice, remember that many courses have prerequisites and others are specifically required for the overall program. Luckily, most universities have either online tools or academic advisers that can help avoid these pitfalls. Rather than spend countless hours trying to search a course catalogue, use the help that is available. It is well worth your time. to take whatever help is available.

About Mohy-Dean Tabbara

Mohy-Dean Tabbara is a recent graduate from McGill University with a BA (Honours) in political science and a minor in economics. He has previous experience working as a Research Intern at Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut (Lebanon), as well as working as an editor at McGill's Journal of Political Studies. Mohy's interests include security sector reform, institution building, and democratization theory, particularly in the context of the Middle East and North Africa.