Topic outline

  • Course Introduction

    Like it or not, we can't escape politics.  Politics, a term best defined as the distribution, exercise, and consequences of power, exists at multiple levels in our society and in our daily lives.  We experience politics in action, for example, in international negotiations, government policy choices, our workplace, and even in our own families.  This course focuses its efforts on exploring the formal, public sphere of politics and power relations through a systematic study and comparison of types of government and political systems.

    Comparatists (practitioners of comparative politics) seek to identify and understand the similarities and differences between these systems by taking broad topics--say, for example, "democracy” or "freedom”--and breaking them down into factors that can be found in individual systems.  We call this general approach "the comparative method.”  The goal of the comparative method is to identify the factors and/or categories of analysis to effectively compare and contrast different political phenomena.  Using the comparative method, we can tackle broader, more complicated questions like: Are certain forms of representative democracy more effective than others?  Why are some countries extremely prosperous, while others are extremely poor?  How does the degree of authoritarian control by a government drive economic development?  Does culture impact quality of governance?

    The course proceeds as follows: Unit 1 introduces basic concepts in social science, comparative political theory, and methodology.  Unit 2 examines the state and compares  authoritarian, totalitarian, and democratic state forms.  Unit 3 focuses on the concept of democracy and democratization.  Unit 4 explores institutional features of government and governance.  Unit 5 moves outside the realm of government structure to explore how variables including culture, interest groups, pressure groups, lobbying, the press, media campaigns, nongovernmental and quasi-nongovernmental organizations shape outcomes in politics.  Unit 6 compares different ideologies and government policy processes.  In Unit 7, we apply comparative methods to examine variations of government structure and economic development across four different regions of the world: the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.  Upon successful completion of the course, you will have the methodological background to understand and explain variations in political behavior and political institutions.  You will also have a general understanding of the issues facing political systems in each of the regions covered.

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  • Unit 1: Social Science and Comparative Politics

    Effective comparative study of political systems is rooted in the scientific method.  To start off the course, Unit 1 first provides an overview and brief history of scientific inquiry and research methods.  We then build on these themes as we focus on the comparative method and outline several "positivist” models of comparison employed by political scientists. 

    As you review the material, think about if and how the comparative scientific study of politics differs from scientific inquiry focused on natural phenomena.  Can we study politics, for example, using the same research methods as a scientist studying microbes or global climate change?  Why or why not?  Also, should a study of comparative politics be objectively focused on understanding the world "as it is” or should it seek to derive better political models and outcomes?

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  • Unit 2: The Nation-State

    As introduced in Unit 1,comparative politics enables us to understand how and why nations change, how and why governments in a particular part of the world compare to governments in a different part of the world, and other patterns and regularities between political systems.  Before we can begin our work as comparatists, however, we need to learn about the basic unit of comparative political study: the state (or nation-state). In Unit 2, we first examine the history and thinking behind the modern nation state through the contributions of Hobbes and Weber. We will then discuss how states developed in our modern world, challenges to state sovereignty, the psychology of the modern nation-state, and compare totalitarian and authoritarian forms of the state. 

    As you read through Unit 2, reflect on the following questions. Why do we have or need the nation- state?  How does the concept of sovereignty tie into the history and characteristics of the state?  How has the nation-state evolved since its origin in 1648?  Is there an optimum form of state rule? And finally, is the modern nation state static or evolving in its form and function?

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  • Unit 3: Democratic States and Democratization

    Unit 3 focuses exclusively on the concept of democracy.  After defining the concept, this unit focuses on various attributes that characterize democratic states and differentiate them from authoritarian regimes.  We then examine processes of democratization and the breakdown of democracy followed by the  debate regarding the relationship between democracy and economic development.  The unit concludes with a focus on the contemporary case of the Arab Spring.

    As you work through unit 3, reflect on the following questions. What differentiates democracies from authoritative regimes? What conditions facilitate democratization and do contemporary trends in the early 21st century support or undermine democratic states?  Finally, are those who argue that democracy improves economic outcomes correct in their analysis?

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  • Unit 4: Comparing Political Structures and Institutions

    Constitutions are road maps for political systems.  They are an expression of collective values, and they enable developing institutions to begin to maintain security and stability.  Constitutions define political leadership, modes of representation, a legal framework, and the limits of a government's power.  Though constitutions vary from state to state, they also have many similarities.  In this unit, we will look at how those similarities have emerged to serve common needs.  We will also consider the ways in which differences between constitutions reflect the varying values and interests of diverse constituencies.  For instance, legislatures may be divided into different types of houses and may have different rules for selecting their members, but they typically have the same lawmaking purpose.  We will see that these similarities and differences can be traced to specific reasons that enable us to better understand a given culture or society.  For example, the way in which a government is organized often reflects the social stratification of the political community in question. 

    This unit looks at each characteristic of government as a factor to be used in a comparative study of different governments.  These factors are derived from not only the written constitution, but the types of political leadership and bureaucracy that have emerged in a society over time.  In each case, we will discuss political factors with an eye toward comparison.  We will identify the degree of bureaucratic privatization in a given system, discuss how the geography of a society determines the ways in which different levels of government interact, ask why certain governments tend towards immobilization in their policy-making, and explore how each of these factors leads to patterns in the political process over time.

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  • Unit 5: Political Behavior

    The behaviors of different populations influence, and are influenced by, political institutions.  This unit focuses on how other (i.e. non-institutional) factors affect political prospects in different societies. Culture is defined as the sum of the ideas, values, beliefs, and norms that inform the ways in which you behave and lead you to anticipate how you will be judged for your behavior.  We will see that cultural factors influence the political process in many different ways, often leading to different political values, differing degrees of alienation from the local process, and different means of mobilization.  We will also examine how subcultures and recent shifts in political activism have influenced government of late before taking a look at interest groups, pressure groups, lobbying, the press, media campaigns, and nongovernmental and quasi-nongovernmental organizations.  In these discussions, we will emphasize the use of the Internet in policy and administrative processes.  Note that as we progress through this unit, we will discuss each of these topics in terms of their application in comparative politics.  Finally, we will conclude with an introduction to comparative voting processes.

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  • Unit 6: Comparing Ideology, Policy, and Decision Making

    This unit deals with ideology and decision-making tactics.  We first compare five different ideologies that shape mainstream political party platforms and governance in contemporary democratic systems (conservatism, liberalism, Christian democracy, social democracy, and environmentalism).   We then look at frameworks for understanding the policy process before discussing the ways in which policymakers garner feedback and use indecision strategically. The unit concludes with a focus on informal influences that shape government policy choices.

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  • Unit 7: Comparative Case Studies

    This last unit will introduce you to area studies as they are conducted in political science and international studies.  Please bear in mind that this unit is by no means exhaustive either geographically or topically.  Over the course of this unit, we will apply factor analysis and other comparative methods we learned in earlier units to practical examples from 4 different regions of the world  (Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Middle East).   The classification for such area studies have developed out of the standard geopolitical organization of American political science.  For instance, Asian politics is often divided into East, South, Southeast, and Central Asia sub-fields.  Likewise, political scientists often divide Africa into the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and sub-Saharan Africa.  This unit will also look at how political elites and policy makers hold distinct views on democratization and modernization and how those views impact political conflict in these regions.

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  • Optional Course Evaluation Survey

    Please take a few moments to provide some feedback about this course at the link below. Consider completing the survey whether you have completed the course, you are nearly at that point, or you have just come to study one unit or a few units of this course.

    Link: Optional Course Evaluation Survey (HTML)

    Your feedback will focus our efforts to continually improve our course design, content, technology, and general ease-of-use. Additionally, your input will be considered alongside our consulting professors' evaluation of the course during its next round of peer review. As always, please report urgent course experience concerns to contact@saylor.org and/or our Discourse forums.

  • Final Exam

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