At the Schar School of Policy and Government we are often asked, “What is political science?” For the definitive answer, we turned to—who else?—political science professors who study, interpret, and teach the art of governing. Here is what they had to say.
Political Science is the study of politics and government using the tools of social science. Political scientists use the same scientific method—that is, question, theory, hypothesis, gather data, test, conclude—that natural scientists use. But instead of studying cells, or plants, or forces of nature, political scientists study people and the institutions they create to try to solve social problems, or not solve them, as the case may be.
The main subfields in political science include American politics, comparative politics, international relations, and political theory. Each of these subfields has a rich literature of findings and ideas that have contributed to our broad understanding of what it takes for humans to build collective systems to live together.
—Associate Professor Jennifer N. Victor, former political science program director
Political Science attempts to describe, explain and predict political phenomena. It is a social science, which means it studies human behavior.
It has many subfields, including political theory or philosophy, comparative politics, international relations, and many others. It includes the study of the mass of citizens as well as the elite who make decisions in their name.
—Associate Professor Jeremy Mayer
Political scientists seek to understand, explain, and predict a variety of political phenomena using the “scientific method,” divided into a number of subfields. American Politics studies the politics, institutions, and political behavior of the U.S. The subfield of International Relations is concerned with relations across countries. The field of Comparative Politics examines the internal politics and institutions of these countries. It comes down to Political Theory, which focuses on the essence of political thought.
At the most basic level, political science courses will allow you to grasp and assess (with an informed eye) the political world that surrounds us. Beyond that, a degree in political science opens the door to many career opportunities, including a law degree, working in the profit and not-for-profits sectors, becoming a policy-maker, politician, and/or an academic.
As a scholar of comparative politics, I want students to understand that realities are not absolute—there are many political contexts and these are as legitimate as ours. I seek to give students the tools to open their eyes to alternate realities, and explore and comprehend the world that surrounds us.
—Associate Professor Mariely Lopez-Santana, program director of the Master’s in Political Science and PhD in Political Science programs
To me, politics is all about the inherent conflicts that arise when decisions are made that affect everyone. This includes decisions about who we elect to make decisions on our behalf—presidents, senators, representatives, governors, mayors, city councilors, and others—and the content of their policy decisions themselves. Since politics is so consequential, it’s important to understand the process of making these sorts of decisions.
That’s what political scientists do. We study how aspects of collective decision-making processes can help determine the outcomes.
For example, in the U.S., does the process of partisan gerrymandering—drawing boundaries of political districts in biased ways—help protect incumbent legislators and promote partisan polarization? Or, across countries, do political actors elected by proportional representation elections better represent the interests of their constituents than those elected in “winner take all” elections?
Political scientists try to answer these crucial questions objectively and with reference to reliable empirical evidence. Studying political science helps train the mind in areas of quantitative reasoning and analytical thinking, which are eminently useful skills in many job markets. In addition, all citizens practice politics in their lives, either contributing to or consenting with collective decisions. So political science, like the conflict we study as political scientists, is in our human nature.
—Undergraduate Program Director and Associate Professor Robert J. McGrath
Where political science differs from other sciences is in our focus. For instance, my running partner is a chemist. He studies how elements and molecules interact to produce new compounds. Political scientists study how individuals interact to produce new outcomes. We share the same method, the scientific method, but the focus of our investigations differs.
Problematically for political scientists, people are less well behaved than elements and molecules. Theories are useful in that they allow us to predict the future. But individuals are unpredictable. When two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom get together, the result is water. When the U.S. and Russian presidents get together, the outcome, particularly these days, often surprises us.
In short, political scientists have much in common with other scientists. Given our focus, though, and the often-fickle nature of power relationships among individuals, political science demands a bit more humility than other sciences.
We use the scientific method to develop parsimonious theories but, at the end of the day, we must accept that our theories are always incomplete and that human unpredictability, as well as newly uncovered or overlooked variables, will necessitate constant revision and refinement of our causal stories.
—Associate Professor Eric McGlinchey