Subfields of Pol Sci

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The Subfields of Political Science

Political Science is one of the social sciences.   Courses in this academic discipline may be labeled as "Poli Sci" courses, Politics courses, or Government courses.  At Union County College and at Harvard University, no necessary connection, the old fashioned designation as government courses has been retained.  The preferred appellation by those in the discipline is political science.

Political science is interested in all aspects of government and politics on the local, county, provincial, state, and international levels.  The discipline is divided into five major subfields:

    American Government.  At Union County College we have a two semester introductory course on American Government, GOV 201 and GOV 202.  GOV 201, American Government and Politics, introduces the student to the general principles on which American government is based.  It covers the U.S. Constitution, Federalism, State, and Local Government, Political Parties, Interest Groups, Public Opinion, the Media, Voting Behavior, Campaigns and Elections.   GOV 202, American National Government, covers the U.S. Congress, Presidency, Federal Bureaucracy, Economic Policies, Foreign and National Security Policies, Domestic Policies, the Federal Judiciary, Fair Trail Procedures, First Amendment Freedoms, and Equal Protection.  At four-year institutions, every topic listed above can be, and in larger departments usually is,  expanded into a distinct semester course.

    Comparative Government.   The United States of America is only one country in a world divided into about 200 distinct countries.  The United Nations General Assembly has a membership of 191 members as 2009.   Each of these countries has a central government headed usually by a President or Prime Minister.  Each exchanges diplomatic personnel with other countries.  All these different political systems can be compared.  Comparative Government is the branch of political science which specializes in these comparisons.  Traditionally,  the U.S. government is compared with those of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and maybe some third world country.  Any selected group of countries could be studied.  A more globally distributed selection is certainly desirable.  Institutional comparisons are another approach to Comparative Government.  Legislatures, Political Party Systems, Judicial Systems can all be compared.  Finally Area Studies are another approach.  Different regions of the world--East Asia, South East Asia, Middle East--may be studied intensively with language specialization as an additional requirement..  The Union County College Catalog lists GOV 205, Comparative Government.

    Public Administration.   Public Administration is a specialization within Political Science which at some institutions has become a distinct academic department and/or discipline.  As the name implies, Public Administration is interested in the management side of government..   It studies governmental bureaucracies.  These organizations are almost always found within the executive branch of government.  How are governmental departments and agencies created, organized, staffed and administered?   In many ways, Public Administration does for the governmental sector what a course in business administration would do for private corporations and businesses.  UCC offers regularly GOV 204, Public Administration.

   International Relations.      International Relations is the branch of Political Science which studies and analyzes the international system.  The international system is the overarching system of relationships beyond the boundaries of any one single state.  War and Peace Studies, Conflict Resolution, International Law, International Economics, International Organizations, Diplomatic Relations are the titles of courses which all relate to the subfield of International Relations.   International Politics is that part of the broader IR field that concentrates on global politics.  Central governments of sovereign states continue to the the primary political actors within the international system.   The system continues to be anarchic despite the growth of international law and organization.  The United Nations Organization may be the world's best hope but it is not, yet, a world government.   Unfortunately, war continues to be an important element within the international system.  At UCC, GOV 207, International Politics, offers an introduction to this field of political science.

   Political Theory.   Political Theory is divided into two distinct branches:  empirical political theory and normative political philosophy.  

Political philosophy dates back to the ancient Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle.  In the Republic, Plato is interested in justice.  How could a good society, a just polis, be established?   Plato's answers have stimulated thinkers for over 2500 years.  Aristotle's classification of legitimate and illegitimate governments based on whether they serve the interests of all members of society or only the rulers' self interest continues to be a valuable insight into the art of government.  Everyone should take a course on the history of political philosophy from Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, and Marx.

     Empirical political theory is of more recent origin.  It may be dated back to Niccolo Machiavelli and the writing of The Prince.  Instead of concerning himself with justice and the good king, Machiavelli was interested in the study of power.  How is power gained, how is it kept, how is it lost?  Machiavelli is not so much immoral as he is amoral.   Morality is not what interests him as a political scientist.  He is interested in the effective exercise of power.  Power can be used for good purposes or for ill; but without power very little can be achieved in public life.  It is not till after World War II that political science really went behavioral and scientific.  The aim was to construct a value free discipline which really explained political behavior with the same accuracy as the natural or hard sciences.  Behavior should be quantified, correlations should be drawn between variables, and real theories should be constructed.   The area of voting behavior and public opinion polling are the areas of political science where statistics, probability theory, and scientific method have been used most widely and have been most successful.  Whether political science is, can be, or should be truly "scientific" are questions of continuing disagreement.   Systems theory, structural functionalism, and game theory are useful models which help to make the complexities of politics more understandable.  Whether these models meet the criteria of true scientific theories is doubtful. 

    All areas of political science have their models and theories.  They all try to develop true predictive theories of political events.  Theories provide bonds for all the areas of political science.   And beyond empirical theories are the fundamental ethical questions of politics: what is just, what is fair, what is right?  These questions of value are at the heart of why people run for office, vote, and take up arms to defend their country.  They can not be excluded from the field of political science.  UCC does not offer a specific course in political theory or political philosophy.  We do offer an Introduction to Philosophy course, PHI 205.

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July 25, 2001
Updated January 3, 2011
Copyright Dr. Harold Damerow
Senior Professor of Government and History
Union County College
Cranford, NJ 07016