Political Science

Political Science Classes

Politics is about who governs. Whether by bullets or ballots, by violent struggle or peaceful competition for office, politics is about deciding who rules, for what purposes, and under what constraints. Politics influences the duties of rulers and ruled, the rights of citizens, and whether people live in fear or not. 

In politics people acquire and use power, cooperatively or non-cooperatively, for creative or destructive purposes.  They forge collective symbols and craft (and recraft) compelling narratives about mutual identities and social goals.  They demand recognition and justice -- which means that they redefine what counts as political.  They focus attention on collective problems -- or try to prevent such a focus.  Finally they distribute or redistribute economic resources – which is one reason why politics can be terribly contentious.

Political science­ is the rigorous intellectual quest to identify and understand such phenomena. Political science builds on the thought of key Enlightenment figures such as Locke, Madison, Smith, Hume, and Condorcet, and of grand social theorists of the 19 th century, such as Tocqueville, Mill, Marx, Weber, and Freud. Recently, political science has been enriched by post-modern thinkers such as Foucault and Agamben. Importantly, it is the heir of a rich and long history of political philosophy that informs political scientists’ inquiries into the goals and purposes of political life -- and their efforts to evaluate the justice, moderation, morality, and rationality of the political arrangements that they study. They learn from such masters as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Machiavelli.  In many ways, Aristotle, who was an inveterate commentator on types of regimes, was the first analytic political scientist.

Contemporary political scientists seek to understand the historical, economic, cultural and psychological foundations of political events, stability, and change. They study people, institutions, participation, inaction and apathy, war, commerce, crowds, networks, signaling, debate, efforts to control or slant valuable information -- and that's just a short list.  Political scientists know a lot about causes and effects in political life -- but are quite ready to revise what they know when they are taken by surprise, for example, by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 9/11 attacks, or the current global economic crisis. Political scientists conduct their work in a wide range of contexts: in political thought, in public law and public policy, in institutional development, in particular nations and jurisdictions, and in the international arena.

Political science is an evolving and pluralistic discipline, relying on a variety of methods and styles of inquiry. It adopts and develops insights and approaches from microeconomics, history, ethics, data sciences, mathematics (for instance game theory and social choice theory), statistics, affective and cognitive psychology, and even (rather recently) neurobiology and genetics.

Political scientists seek to offer simple, clear, and testable explanations of political phenomena—which ideally allow for prediction (e.g. democracies don’t go to war with each other). Political scientists puzzle over causal inference. They pursue enduring questions, such as: is the international system more stable when it is bi-polar or multi-polar?  They revisit political history with ideas and tools from political science.  Finally, political scientists draw lessons from their inquiries for good public policy, for good government, and for good citizenship – and for better political science, including better methods.

The faculty members of the Swarthmore political science department reflect, in their intellectual and research interests, the exceptional pluralism of political science and seek to convey the discipline’s richness and variety in their courses, in the speakers we bring to campus, and in discussions with students after class or during office hours. We arrange course offerings by the traditional subdivisions of the discipline as it is practiced in the United States: American politics, comparative politics, international relations, and political theory. Our offerings are particularly strong in the study of China, constitutional law, the study of Congress, environmental policy and politics, faith-based social policy, the presidency, the study of American parties and elections, U.S. civil rights, international trade and political economy, the cognitive and perceptual dimensions of international politics, Latin American politics, theories of prophetic political vision, ancient and modern political theory, democratic theory and civic engagement, Iranian politics, and American political development. Students currently have access to interdisciplinary and innovative pedagogies in GIS training, for understanding local democracy in and around Swarthmore and poverty in Chester, PA, and for understanding the nature of mass incarceration in the United States. We also offer many opportunities to explore linkages between the theory and practice of politics. Some courses are earmarked for their emphasis on community-based learning.