What is political science?

Political science is the academic discipline dedicated to the study of power, politics, and government. It is both a humanistic and social scientific discipline. Its intellectual roots lie in ancient and early modern tracts and treatises that theorized about life and death, struggle and cooperation in the polis, polity, or state. Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Madison, Mill and Marx are a few of the most famous theorists who imagined, explained, or criticized the realities or possibilities of political life. Their works still merit reading as contributions to political science.

While political science is thus an old and venerable discipline, its contemporary organization into departments with distinct courses of study is scarcely a century old. The American Political Science Association (APSA)—the national organization of political scientists—was founded only in 1903. Political science now has four well-defined subfields: political theory, international relations, comparative politics, and American politics. In them, a wide range of methods are deployed: qualitative, quantitative, historical, comparative, interpretative, and critical. It investigates a plethora of topics and pressing problems, among them war, strategy, law, legislation, local politics, public life, voting, values, deliberation, propaganda, public opinion, authority, community power, urban dynamics, poverty, human rights, social capital, race, gender, ideology, class, bureaucracy, central banks, executive power, foreign policy, trade flows, international organizations, revolutions, and failed states in all parts of the world. Hybrid areas with competing theories proliferate within the discipline, including political economy, public law, critical theory, political psychology, rational choice theory, comparative federalisms, political theology, public policy, and civic education. Political science is an exciting discipline because debates rage over the appropriate ways to study political phenomena and, indeed, what makes them "political" in the first place.

Why major in political science?

A student at Northwestern has any number of reasons to major in political science. Political science provides a broad liberal arts education while focusing on politics and public life. Many students select political science as their major because of potential career options. The most popular of these are law, government service, business, policy analysis, and teaching at every level. Indeed, Northwestern graduates have been inordinately successful in these careers. But they are not exclusive. Recruiters and advisors know the value of a political science education—with its many skills of analysis and organization—in preparing students for a well-rounded life after graduation, whatever the particular career choice. Many undergraduates translate their majors into further education in graduate school in political science or related humanities and social science disciplines. Finally, political science is about and contributes to civic education by offering student-citizens the means to better understand and engage politics and public life. Student government, fraternities, sororities, and other organizations are frequently led or energized by political science majors. For all these reasons, students new to Northwestern might wish to join their nearly 600 classmates who now major in political science.

Take a look at the results from our Spring 2013 survey of Politcal Science Alumns to see how their Politcal Science major has helped them since graduation: Political Science Alumni Survey Results


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