The Science of Politics

I have an opportunity to design and teach a MOOC (massive open on-line course). It will be entitled the “Introduction to the Science of Politics” and is intended for freshman entering college. I want to teach the essentials of what every freshman should know about political science before taking one of my courses. So what is the “canon” of political science? What things should every undergraduate know before entering our mid-level courses?

A MOOC is not just a videotape of a talking head and some powerpoints. I’ve seen some very good courses offered on Coursera and edX. My course will last only four weeks with between 60 and 90 minutes of on-line content each week. I know enough about this type of pedagogy to plan on presenting concepts in 4-7 minute modules. I will have plenty of support at Rice for carrying out the course.

The hard part, of course, is considering the content of the course. This has made me think about what the discipline of political science has to say to the broader public. Here is what I have in mind so far.

Coordination problems. When people have shared preferences but there are multiple equilibrium, they face a coordination problem. Leadership is one mechanism that solves coordination problems that is directly relevant to politics.

Collective Action problems. The provision of public goods and the resolution of commons dilemmas have the same underpinnings. Here private interests diverge from group interests, leading to free riding. Political science has had a good deal to say concerning these problems.

Collective Choice problems. What happens when individuals have heterogeneous preferences, but a choice has to be made that is applied to all? This is the crux of politics. It not only speaks to democracies, but also to oligarchies and dictatorships. In the end, institutional rules matter for outcomes.

Principal/Agent problems. When an agent enjoys an information advantage the principal is put in a weakened position. This provides core insights for Bureaucratic/Legislative/Executive dilemmas. It also goes to the heart of the representational relationship. At the core is understanding the difficulty faced by a Principal in getting an Agent to act on her behalf. Obviously the problem is compounded with many principals and/or many agents.

Inter-group Conflict. This strikes me as a separate problem that is endemic to humans (and most other social animals). We easily develop strong in-group/out-group biases. We often use those biases to coordinate around killing one another (or otherwise subjugating out-groups). This poses a puzzle about when violence can be triggered – whether it is inter-state or intra-state conflict.

I need to do some thinking. In order to get at each of these topics noted above, I’ll have to introduce basic building blocks (utility, preferences, choice spaces, etc.). At the same time I know I’m leaving a lot out.

What is your list of things you would like your Freshmen to know before they enter your course? Obviously I am being provocative and I am staking out a very specific view of Political Science. Still, I am interested in what you might add to my list. What is the “canon?”

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5 thoughts on “The Science of Politics

  1. Steve

    Identity is captured, in part, by your “inter-group conflict” category. It might be generalized to sources of bias in perception, cognition, and attitudes–identity, socialization, framing/priming, motivated reasoning, etc. That is, the political behavior field for the past 60 years.

    Reply
    1. rkwrice Post author

      Excellent idea. I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate the behavioral foundations of social behavior. This gives me some food for thought. Thanks!

      Reply
  2. Michael Gillespie

    It might be useful to give them some idea of what the political is and how it differs from other groups. Otherwise you should retitle your course the science of social groups..

    Reply
  3. dckersh

    I think it’s essential to have an understanding of how fundamental human values (scholars like Shalom Schwartz pop to mind) tie to political ideologies and structure conflict. Knowing and assessing how well agents deliver on the demands of the principal is more challenging if you don’t have a firm understanding of the forces (goals) driving either.

    Reply
  4. William Kelleher

    Any intro course to political science as a science should include the observations of Clarke and Primo. They discuss the deleterious consequences of having a dominant paradigm in the field. Among these are a reputation of political science as a source of trivia, rather than political sagacity, both within and outside the profession. For more see,
    https://independent.academia.edu/WilliamJKelleherPhD
    William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.

    Reply

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