top of page

Course Introduction to Political Science


This is a survey course, and it can be used if you are looking to take just one general overview course of political science or if you want to go on to more advanced study in any of the subfields of the discipline, such as American politics, comparative politics, international politics, or political theory. This course will survey the different ways in which political scientists study the phenomena of politics and will deepen your understanding of political life as both a thinker and a citizen. The goal of this course is to introduce you to the discipline's concepts, terminology, and methods and to explore instances of applied political science through real-world examples.


In this introductory course, we will focus on the basic principles of political science by combining a historical study of the discipline's greatest thinkers with an analysis of contemporary issues. We will also identify and discuss the questions that drive the field of political science, including: How do we define the changing nature of power? How do we differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate governance? What are the differences between political institutions and political behavior? How do leaders define who gets to be heard and counted in a political community? By the end of this course, you will be familiar with these issues and capable of discussing them in the context of context of contemporary politics.

Introduction to Political Science


  • Unit 1: Foundational Concepts of Politics

    Our study of politics will begin with a review of the basic principles of politics and various perspectives on how we define politics and its domain. We will discuss the changing notion of politics over time and across cultures as we work towards a definition.

    This unit will lay the framework for the remaining five units in this course. A confident and solid grasp of the principles presented in this unit is therefore crucial to your progression through the remainder of the course. You will find, for example, that each of the five subsequent units will conclude with a discussion of how the principles you have learned and the issues you have identified apply to a contemporary, real-life situation. You will need to draw from the foundational material you have learned in this unit in order to respond to these applied situations.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 11 hours.

  • Unit 2: Participation and Public Opinion

    In this unit, we will look at the participation of citizens in their governments. We are all born into political culture, and our political socialization begins as young as age 3, when we first learn our attitudes toward police officers. Think back on your childhood. Did you hear your mom or dad say, "If you ever get lost, find a police officer, and they will bring you home", or did you hear "Oh no! Slow down! It's the cops!"? One gives you a good feeling toward police, and authority in general, while the other instills fear.


      Our environment continues to shape our political opinions as we grow,              and when we become eligible to vote, we also decide whether to join                  parties or interest groups or even whether or not to participate in                          political      marches or other forms of protest. Some of us may grow up in         a political void and feel alienated, while others try to use the                                 government to promote racist and hate-filled agendas; when their voices           are rejected, or even "silenced", they feel disenfranchised and resort to                 violence. In a democracy, hearing everyone's voice is the goal, even if we           do not like what our fellow citizens are saying.

      Completing this unit should take you approximately 25 hours.

  • Unit 3: Ideologies

    In this unit, we will be looking at the ideologies of the state and its citizens. Some of these ideologies reflect more on the state, others on the people and their political parties, and others overlap the two. Some of these ideologies have only come into existence in the twentieth century, while others go back hundreds of years. Some ideologies mean one thing in the United States and something different from the rest of the world, such as for liberalism. The following subunit covers many of the traditional and best-known ideologies, however, the list is not all-inclusive.

    Historically, the political spectrum was seen as one-dimensional, left and right, representing the government's position on the economic and defense issues of the day. But in the twentieth century, the New Deal and other social issues led to the creation of another dimension, confusing many who were trying to understand where they stood on both the economic/defense issues and social issues. At the end of this unit, you will be able to take a test and see where your political views fall on the multidimensional political spectrum.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 30 hours.

       In this unit, we will look at the state, a relatively new creation. What is a             state? What is the difference between a nation and a state? Are states                   sovereign? Who controls the state? What is the role of the state? Do                     states have a future? These are the types of questions that will be                         explored in this unit.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 5 hours.

  • Unit 5: Political Institutions

    This unit looks at the various forms of government a country can adopt and how government forms the foundations of the institutions that countries build. Although this course tries to give a global perspective on government, a lot of the specifics we will look at will be from the perspective of the United States. 

    The Max Planck Manual has a global perspective and was written for the people of the Sudan as they contemplate and hope for a future of democracy and stability. If you were from the Sudan, which would you chose: federal or unitary relationships between the central government and the local governments; a president or a prime minister to lead; legislature or a parliament to make laws? And what difference does it make, anyway? This unit will explore these types of questions.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 20 hours.

Study Guide

This study guide will help you get ready for the final exam. It discusses the key topics in each unit, walks through the learning outcomes, and lists important vocabulary. It is not meant to replace the course materials!​

  • Unit 6: International Politics

    This unit traces the emergence of a world system of states from the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which first standardized the conditions for peace among states, through the colonial period and into contemporary globalization. We will see that global governance has its roots both in the economic interests of states and a general aversion to war. For instance, you will learn how economic interests led European powers to expand their political control over – and ultimately establish formal colonies in – Africa, the Americas, and Asia. European powers used their colonies both to extract raw materials for the industrial revolution in Europe and the United States and to export excess segments of their own populations. From an economic perspective, European colonization was exchanging excess Europeans for raw materials like lumber, steel, tea, and crops. This pattern of exchange has led to complex political dynamics across state borders, the implications of which continue to be felt today.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 20 hours.

How to Define Political Science?

This article provides a comprehensive overview of the field of political science, its cross-disciplinary connections, and the various fields and sub-fields of study within the discipline. Political science is an academic discipline that deals with the study of government and political processes, institutions, and behaviors. Political science falls into the academic and research division known as the social sciences. Social sciences study the human aspects of the world—human-made constructs and structures. Disciplines in the social sciences include psychology, the study of the human mind and human behavior; sociology, the study of society and the relationships within it; communications, the study of the flow of discourse through media; economics, the study of the allocation of resources; and history, the chronology, analysis, and interpretation of past events.

  • Why Is the Study of Political Science Important?

    • Political science is important because politics is important. Politics is the study of power—who gets what, and how. This power can be as modest as a city council making budgetary choices over municipal services and personnel, or it can be as significant as two world superpowers on the brink of all-out nuclear war.

    • Regardless, the extent to which politics has served as the basis for the most important (and devastating) events in U.S. and world history cannot be understated. For example, certain political ideologies—Communism, Fascism, and Nazism—helped to shape policies and practices that ultimately led to the murder of tens of millions of people throughout the 20th century, by regimes with fanatical beliefs about the proper role of government and its leaders. All people's lives are affected by the priorities and choices of political institutions, and by the power structures that exist in society.

    • According to one prominent political scientist "the study of political science is motivated by the need to understand the sources and consequences of political stability and revolution, of repression and liberty, of equality and inequality, of war and peace, of democracy and dictatorship." The study of political science reveals that the world of politics, along with its institutions, leaders, and citizens, is a complex and far-reaching one.

  • Cross-Disciplinary Connections

    • What distinguishes political science as an academic discipline is its emphasis on government and power. However, the study of government and power is not confined to political science—it naturally permeates into other social sciences as well. For example:

    • Economics: Economic and political processes are closely related because the actions of political institutions frame—and can either expand or constrain— economic activity. Republicans are more likely to promote free-market policies such as tax breaks and business deregulation, while Democrats favor business regulation and government intervention as a way of promoting economic equality. Additionally, economic conditions can have a direct influence on political institutions. Throughout history, the outcomes of many presidential and congressional elections have rested on the economy. Voters tend to vote against the party in power if they perceive a decline or standstill in their personal financial situations.

    • Sociology: Political scientists also study the social bases of politics. For example, what are the political activities of various social classes, races, ethnicities, and religions? How do political values, attitudes, and beliefs come about? How do social forces work together to change political policies on issues such as abortion, criminal justice, foreign policy, and welfare? How do social movements outside of the formal institutions of political power affect politics? For example, the civil rights and women's suffrage movements helped to not only reshape public policy but public opinion as well.

    • History: Political scientists attempt to analyze and understand historic political patterns in addition to specific political events. This requires putting historical events and texts into a political context. For example, how have political party systems helped to create long-standing changes in the electoral landscape and reshape traditional party coalitions throughout the 19th and 20th centuries? A good textual example is the U.S. Constitution. It is both a historical (and historic) document, in that it describes the creation of a new form of government by the Founding Fathers, and a political one, in that it sets the framework for the functioning of the U.S. government as a system of shared powers, checks and balances, and federalism.

    • Subdisciplines in Political Science

    • Political science is organized into several subdisciplines, each representing a major subject area of teaching and research in colleges and universities. These subdisciplines include comparative politics, American politics, international relations, political theory, public administration, public policy, and political behavior.

  • Comparative Politics

    • Comparative politics involves the study of the politics of different countries. Some subdisciplines study a single country or a culturally similar group of nations, such as the countries of Southeast Asia or Latin America. Political scientists who study these countries, also known as "area specialists," tend to be well versed in the languages, histories, and cultures that are most relevant to their work. Other political scientists compare countries that are culturally, politically, and linguistically dissimilar. These comparisons are often motivated by the need to develop and test theories—for example, theories of why revolutions happen. This may lead political scientists to discover commonalities between countries that are widely separated and appear very different. For example, political scientists have found many similarities between the transitions from authoritarian rule to democracy in Latin America and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s.

  • American Politics

    • Political scientists usually organize the study of their own country into a separate subdiscipline, so within the United States, American politics is recognized as its own specialty. Given the size of the United States and its role as a world superpower, the American politics subdiscipline is very large. Political scientists interested in American politics often study political institutions such as Congress, the presidency, and the judiciary. They also examine the various factors that impact these institutions, such as political parties, elections, public opinion, voting, and interest groups.

  • International Relations

    • International relations is the study of the interactions between nations, international organizations, and multinational corporations. There are two traditional approaches used by international-relations scholars—realism and liberalism. Realism emphasizes the danger of the international system, where war is always a possibility and the only source of order is the balance of power. Liberalism is more idealistic and hopeful, emphasizing the problem-solving abilities of international institutions such as the United Nations, NATO, and the World Trade Organization. According to many scholars, after the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended in 1991, the balance of opinion briefly shifted in favor of liberalism, but realists were quick to point to the potential for future international conflicts.

  • Political Theory

    • Political theory involves the study of philosophical thought about politics from ancient Greece to the present. Political theory is concerned with the fundamental questions of public life. It addresses such issues as the nature of political authority, the relationship of the state to the individual, and citizens' obligations and responsibilities to one another. Political theory seeks to interpret abstract concepts such as liberty, justice, human rights, and power, and in so doing it draws upon classics in the field—by, for example, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Stuart Mill. Many scholars use these classics to help them fully understand present-day issues such as terrorism, civil rights and liberties, and domestic and foreign policy.

  • Public Administration

    • Political scientists interested in public administration study government organizations. Public administration is the art, science, and practice of effectively managing government. Americans are impacted in innumerable ways by the actions of public administrators (also known as "bureaucrats"), often without even being aware of it. Government is one of the largest employers in the United States, and government spending accounts for almost half of the gross national product. In addition, with increasing interaction between the public and private sectors, those who do not work in government increasingly must work with government, making an understanding of government and public administration essential. Public administration includes the study of public financing and budgeting systems, public management, human resources, public-policy analysis, nonprofit management, and urban planning. Political scientists investigate how these organizations work, and try to devise methods of improving them. For example, the landmark book Reinventing Government (1992) inspired many state and local governments (as well as the federal government) to cut red tape and adopt more competitive, efficient, and customer-friendly approaches to delivering services to the public.

  • Public Policy

    • The subdiscipline of public policy involves the study of specific policy problems and governmental responses to them. Political scientists involved in the study of public policy attempt to devise solutions for problems of public concern. They study issues such as health care, pollution, crime, welfare, and the economy. Public policy is about problem solving, designing and implementing strategies, and evaluating outcomes. Additionally, this field is concerned with the process of policymaking and the many actors and agencies that are involved in it.

  • Political Behavior

    • Political behavior involves the study of how people participate in political processes and respond to political activity. The field emphasizes the study of voting behavior, which can be affected by social pressures; the effects of individual psychology, such as emotional attachments to parties or leaders; and the rational selfinterests of voters. The effects of gender, ethnicity, religion, income, and the media are also factors in analyzing political behavior. The results of these studies are applied during the planning of campaigns and elections, and influence the design of advertisements and political-party platforms.

bottom of page