Of the five primary sub-groups that comprise the field of Political Science, Political Theory is the sub-group that is most tethered to philosophy (to the extent that the term “Political Philosophy” is sometimes used interchangeably with Political Theory). Political Theory is the study of the concepts and principals are used to explain, describe and evaluate political establishments and events. Political theory explores such topics as law (and the enforcement thereof) justice, politics, liberty, property, rights, and the legitimacy of government (what it is, what form it needs to take, what its functions should be, what it should protect and prevent, what role citizens should play in maintaining and influencing government, and under what circumstances, if ever, should a government be overthrown). Political Theory aims to explain the origins of the state, its legal codes and establishments, as well as explore how political views and ideologies are formed, dispersed, and maintained.
Political Theory has had an important role to play as far back as the time of ancient civilizations and. In Ancient China, philosophies such as Confucianism and Taoism had political aspects, with the former advocating for a strong hierarchal meritocracy and the latter espousing views which could be considered anarchistic. Ancient Greece is often considered the birthplace of Western political philosophy, as the accumulation of ideas and theories resulted in a great deal of experimentation in political organization throughout the Greek city-states. Plato’s Republic, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics are held in high regard as being vastly influential on modern political thought. The Ancient Hindu cultures of the Indian subcontinent also produced a number of important political writings; The Laws of Manu set the framework for conduct within India’s caste system, and Chanakya’s Arthashastra presented a guideline as to how a ruler was expected to handler the challenges presented by economics, diplomacy, public administration, economic policy and military affairs.
Contemporary Political Theory came to relevance during the course of the 20th Century as a result of the rise of Communism across the globe and increased focus on Marxism’s influence on politics and government. During the 1950s and 1960s, a number of issues became salient, such as discrimination and political exclusion of racial minorities, the rise of feminism and LGBT rights movements led to a reevaluation of the societal social contract that had failed these groups, and resulted in feminist, multicultural, and postcolonial schools of political thought becoming more prevalent. In more recent years, the rise of globalization has seen growing cooperation between political philosophers and international relations theorists in an attempt to create an international normative framework within Political Theory.
The study of Political Theory is essential to making sense of the multitudes of ideas and ideologies that scores of individuals and groups adhere to and seek to establish as law. Proponents of Conservatism, Liberalism, Social Democracy, Communism, Theocracy, Environmentalism, Feminism, or any number of ideologies have vastly different goals, methods and rationales for their deeply-held views. It is the job of the political philosopher to explain how those views became so entrenched, and to decide whether or not their methods and goals have any merit and whether or not the policies that result from their influence is ultimately beneficial or detrimental to society as a whole. A Political Theory background is also helpful in understanding why certain individuals and demographics vote the way they do, or why factors such as religion and culture can carry so much weight in swaying electoral outcomes, or why certain forms of government tend to be more common than others in a specific region of the world.
Political Theory courses will cover an expansive range of issues and topics:
- Modern Political Ideologies
- Politics & Religion
- Political Psychology
- Power in American Society
- Liberty & Equality
- Economic Theories of Political Behavior
- Marxist Political Thought
- Gender & Politics
- Feminist Theory
- Modern Political Philosophy
- Contemporary Democratic Theory
- Contemporary Political Theory
- The State, the Society & the Individual
- Utopia & Dystopia
- Politics & Literature
- International Relations Theory
- Ancient, Medieval & Modern Political Philosophy
- Environmental Ethics & Politics
As the field of Political Theory places considerable emphasis on philosophy, students in this realm will likely develop some familiarity in related fields such as history, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and economics (which Political Science majors often adopt as “minors”). Career options that become available due to a Political Theory background are generally consistent with those that are associated with the other Political Science sub-groups (positions with local, state & federal governments, law, private business, journalism, nonprofit organizations). Political Theory courses are usually required prior to obtaining a Political Science degree, but certain school programs do offer Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Political Philosophy.