The Scope and Methods of Political Science

You know it’s a good class when you’re upset that it’s not required of all students in the first semester.

This semester I am taking a “research and methods” course which focuses on epistemology in general, and writing a research design in particular. In other words, this class is practical. I was in two classes that required research designs last semester — International Politics and the “interesting” International Law — and in both cases I was essentially flying blind. For I.P. I deconstructed one I found in a journal and came up with something, but it is extremely valuable to know what steps to go through.

I have some writing experience already, but it is very nice to be able to learn the standards and practices of the field that I am supposedly studying.

More of the rant, and my boring notes, below the fold..

While I would have had to take Research Methods (statistics) if not for my previous work (I ended up taking human cognition and instruction instead), if I was King of the Department I would require these three classes of all new graduate students in the first semester

  • Research Methods
  • Scope & Methods
  • Introduction to Political Science

The last one would be a new course, that would spend a week on the major subfields of the discipline (international politics, comparative politics, American politics, etc) and major interdisciplinary opportunities (genetics, educational psychology, geography — of which only genetics even has a prayer here).

Sadly, in the current regime students have to wait until the second semester to take the insanely useful scope & methods class.

But such is life…

Anyway, the boring notes:

Hypotheses and Operationalizations

Preliminary Research Design Due on February 17th
length: 3-5 pages, typed and double spaced
“write a mini version of your research design”

Short Introduction
– 1 paragraph
– research question “Why do people hate Congress?”

Literature Review
– place your work within the existing work
– creswald right on his example, but wrong on his method


“One major approach is the realistic approach…”

“Another approach is…”

use the lit review to anticipate of your research

Research Design
– part 1: describe hypothesis
– part 2: describe methods and operationalizations

So what?


Focus most on intro (1 paragraph), literature, research question, hypothesis, and methods.

“You can talk about the literature in terms of dependent variables and independent variables. This way you can write your topic even if it is new.”

The most important thing is to get a good hypothesis and have already started thinking about how to do this work.


A hypothesis is an assertion of an association between two or more properties
– types of associations are covariation (correlations) and causation

To “prove” causation
1. x has to precede y in time
2. x must be correlated to y (who knows!)
3. Identifies a causal linkage
4. can’t be a spurious relation (no 3rd variable causing both)

4 Different Types of Conditions
1. Necessary Conditions (without x, no y)
2. Sufficient (if x, then must y)
3. Indirect Causation (x -> a -> y)
4.Multiple Causation (x -> y, a -> y, b -> y)

Major Types of Properties
1. Dependent Variable (DV) – must vary, normally called “y”
2. Independent Variable (IV) – “explanatory variable,” causes change in y
3. Intervening Variables – dependent on x, but explains y, conditions relationship
4. Antecedent Conditions – (terminological confusion by van Evera?)

Hypotheses Themselves
Theoretical Population
– the community of interest

Forms of Hypotheses (from handout)
1. As x increases, y tends to increase (or decrease)
2. One category of x implies one category of y, while a different category of x implies a different category of y.
3. One category of x is more likely to imply a category of y than is a different category of x
4. One category of x implies more of y than does a different category of x

Common Errors in Writing Hypotheses
1. poor formulating
– bad: “poor people are alienated from the political system
– good: “poor people are more likely to be alienated from the political system”
– bad: “prejudiced individuals are more likely to believe blacks are inferior”

2. relationship unclear
– bad: “economic development is related to literary levels”
– good: “economic development is positively related to literacy levels”

3. statement lacks generality
– statements should be true across individuals and times

4. words to avoid
– will, might, may, could
– should, ought, better, worse

Example Introduction (?)

Aliens: scary, mysterious, possibly non-existent. The existence of aliens is unknown, but so is the existence of the answer to this question: would aliens hate Congress more than earth-born beings? In this research design, I seek to determine whether a non-extraterrestrial origin of beings correlates to a despisal of the United States Congress..

2 thoughts on “The Scope and Methods of Political Science”

  1. Interesting. I particularly like the breakdown of “Hypothesis.”

    I have been aching to do a methodology seminar or something at my school. I know I am gonna need it for my thesis next year.

    For War Studies pretty much all our classes are two semesters in length. Everyone has to take WS 500, which each week covers some theory of war or a theoretician of war through history. (eg. Machiavelli, Jomini, Clausewitz, Urban guerilla warfare, sea power, mechwar, air power, netwar etc. etc.) Since we have 5 streams of study (history, IR, strategic studies, intel, defense) there is quite a broad selection of courses. So far my experience is that these courses are either content-oriented (where you learn about an event/organization etc.) or analytics-oriented (where you learn the tools and methodology used in a particular field). There isn't a lot of methodology for academe. In fact, “academe” is an oft-used term to give us more understanding of what we are _not_ doing. For example, you would hear a professor say, “In academe, you would actually do something like this…” or “Academe would allow you to do this, but in the real world no client would ever ask for something like this.”

    This is great in preparation for my career upon graduating, but it isn't helpful in trying to put together a scholarly piece of research, which is a requirement for graduating. Maybe this is the kind of stuff my supervisor will go over with me next year?

  2. Younghusband,

    If it's like this class (UNL's Scope & Methods), I would advise taking a methodology class as quickly as possible.

    It does get me that this class is only offered the second semester of a (typically) four-semester program. This basic stuff for the field is vital to do “real” work, but it's ignored by everybody. I was happy to do my lit review in polisci, but already I can see where I went wrong.

    It also bothers me that while a certain professor saw fit to find the time to question the intellectual abilities of my heritage, substantive criticisms such as “that's not a real hypothesis, because _______” weren't so easy in coming. I was very lucky in my compsci program to have a committee made of skeptical professors who were willing to help. Doing an AI simulation under the best simulation professor and (probably) the best AI professor in the state is a boon, if a ton of work.

    Writing longish polisci papers that /aren't/ criticized for gaping methodological weaknesses is rather un-boon-y.

    WS500 is exactly the sort of “PoliSci Core” that should be required. It may help to get people to talk to each other. I've heard two stories among professors at PoliSci that each was doing substantial research in an area without knowing a colleague was doing largely identicla work down the hall. This hyper-verticalization is not a good thing.

    I would love if you would write, either here as a comment or at ComingAnarchy as a post, more about the differences between the warcollege v. academe distinction. You've referenced it a few times, but it would be wonderful seeing how different (and similar) these types of education are.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *