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Unit 1 : - Foundational Concepts of Politics




11 hours


Unit 1 - Foundational of Political Science

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.

  • Upon successful completion of this unit, you will be able to:

    • situate the academic discipline of political science within the broader field of social science;

    • define politics, power, authority, and legitimacy;

    • analyze the debate over political science as a "scientific" discipline;

    • explain the concepts of constitutionalism and political representation;

    • illustrate the rational-legal, charismatic, and traditional forms of legitimacy; and

    • compare and contrast smart power, soft power, and hard power

  • What Is 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.

  • 1.2: What Does Political Science Study?
    • Government and Politics

      Read section 17.1. As we just read in the previous article, to study politics is to "study power – who gets what, and how". This section explains that power can be conceptualized both in terms of "domination" and "collective capacity". In other words, "power" can refer to the ability to get someone to do something they normally would not do, but it also refers to the capacity institutions and people have to act or create. 

      Authority is "accepted power". People accept the authority of a government or ruler when they believe that the government or ruler can rightly and appropriately exercise power over them. Accepting the authority of the government gives the government legitimacy. This reading introduces the three primary types of authority: traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal. Why do you think legitimacy is such a critical component in the ability to govern effectively? What happens when a government is not seen as legitimate by its citizens?

    From Crusader to Exemplar: Bush, Obama and the Reinvigoration of America's Soft Power

    • Since "power" is such an important concept in political science, political scientists have categorized power into three categories: hard power, soft power, and "smart" power. Hard power is the most traditional conceptualization of power and involves force or coercion. Soft power, popularized by scholar and U.S. government official Joseph Nye, is power through persuasion or attraction. Lastly, "smart power" involves the strategic use of soft and/or hard power, depending on the situation.

      This article offers critiques of the concept of soft power in contemporary international relations. Hallam questions whether the debate over hard and soft power is outdated, particularly considering the Obama administration's emerging emphasis on "smart power" and the challenges of national security in an unstable international system. As you read, consider the importance of power in political science and think about how power can be exercised. What do you think is the most effective: hard, soft, or smart power?

    Power and Authority

    • This section discusses the three authority types as defined by Max Weber, one of the foremost social theorists of the twentieth century. Weber outlines three primary types of authority: traditional authority, rational-legal authority, and charismatic authority. As you read, ask yourself the following questions:

      • Which type of authority leads to the most stable form of government, and why? Which type leads to the least stable form of government?

      • How can one form of authority eventually lead to another? For example, in how can charismatic authority evolve into traditional authority? 

      • Why is the U.S. government primarily characterized by rational-legal authority? Can either of the other two types of authority apply?

  • 1.3: Is Political Science a Science?

    • This handout is designed to teach you how to conduct original political science research. While you won't be asked to write a research paper, this handout provides important information on the "scientific" approach used by political scientists. Pay particularly close attention to the section that answers the question "what is scientific about political science?"

      If you were going to conduct research in biology or chemistry, what would you do? You would probably create a hypothesis, and then design an experiment to test your hypothesis. Based on the results of your experiment, you would draw conclusions. Political scientists follow similar procedures. Like a scientist who researches biology or chemistry, political scientists rely on objectivity, data, and procedure to draw conclusions. This article explains the process of operationalizing variables. Why is that an important step in social science research?

    An Insider View on the Relevance of Political Scientists to Government

    • This article mentions the two primary approaches to social science research, quantitative and qualitative approaches. Quantitative research involves the use of data from many cases and uses statistical calculations to draw conclusions from these data sets. In the qualitative approach, a researcher will provide an in-depth analysis of a more limited number of cases. 

      The previous article explored how social sciences and political science follow scientific methods in research and data gathering. This article reflects the ongoing debate within academia over the ways in which the study of politics should be conducted. Political science does not merely deal with academic or scholarly subjects; it can have significant practical applications. According to this article, what are some of the barriers to making political science research more "relevant" to contemporary policymaking?

  • 1.4: Political Theory
    • Constitutionalism URL

      The study of political science often involves difficult and philosophical topics. The Saylor Introduction to Political Science reading you read at the beginning of this unit explained that political theory involves the study of politics from a philosophical perspective. Political theory "addresses such issues as the nature of political authority, the relationship of the state to the individual, and citizens' obligations and responsibility to one another. Political theory seeks to interpret abstract concepts such as liberty, justice, human rights, and power".

      Constitutionalism and political representation are two important perspectives in political philosophy that seek to address some of the above issues. In this first article,

    • you will read about constitutionalism. According to constitutionalism, laws and written constitutions should be what binds and controls the power of government. In other words, the central tenet of constitutionalism is that the authority of government derives from and is limited by a body of fundamental law. Pay close attention to some of the common criticisms of constitutionalism. Do you think constitutionalism is a practical or democratic approach to governance?

    Representation in Politics URL

    According to constitutionalism, written, formalized law should control the government and be the source of the government’s authority. According to the perspective of political representation, the process of citizen representation in government should be the source of government authority, and should be the way in which government power is controlled. The article outlines some of the different ways in which political actors choose to reflect or represent the will of the people. Which do you think would be more effective or democratic, constitutionalism or political representation?

  • Unit 1 Assessment
    • Unit 1 Assessment Quiz

      Take this assessment to see how well you understood this unit.

      • This assessment does not count towards your grade. It is just for practice!

      • You will see the correct answers when you submit your answers. Use this to help you study for the final exam!

      • You can take this assessment as many times as you want, whenever you want.

Dr. Arsena Madaleina

Dr. Arsena Madaleina
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