If you love analyzing the state of world governments, combining historical events with modern conflicts, and proposing brilliant new solution to the world’s issues, political science might be the field for you.
But what is political science? This complex field combines history, politics, and scientific reasoning into one big package. Learn more about political science jobs, the political science major, and the field as a whole in this in-depth article!
What Is Political Science?
Before we can understand political science, we must first understand the term “politics.” Contrary to popular misconception, politics doesn’t just mean things that governments do, the process of voting, or who’s running for president, though all of those are a piece of the truth. In fact, politics refers to the activities, art, and science of governments and states, as well as the study of the debate between and conflict over power on the part of governments, organizations, or individuals.
It’s a complicated definition, but what politics boils down to is the ways that people, individually or as part of a group, negotiate leadership and power. That includes everything from your neighborhood’s disagreement over whether there should be woodchips or dirt in the playground up to the United Nations negotiating global conduct standards.
Now that we’ve established a clear definition of politics, let’s get into political science. Political science, also called politicology, refers to the theory and practice of politics, asking questions about how people govern, what changes in political systems may occur, and how society and social relationships function under political systems. They may be macro discussions—how one political system, country, or organization interacts with another—or micro discussions—what are the effects of a political system on an individual.
More specifically, political science studies things like the allocation and transfer of power, how political decisions are made, and the effectiveness of government. To do this, political scientists consider factors like stability, the justice system, and public health, all of which may be impacted by a government’s actions. They may also anticipate and respond to crises using statistics, such as how governments have historically responded to drought or famine and how well those strategies worked.
A strong political science education won’t just be concerned with the field of political science. Other fields that have important connections to political science include:
7 Major Political Science Subfields
Political science requires an understanding of history, government, and scientific methodology, including statistics. For those who are passionate about understanding politics, there are a wealth of subfields to choose from.
Comparative politics takes an empirical approach to teaching types of constitutions, political actors, legislature, and so on from an intrastate perspective. In essence, this means that the field is concerned with observing the role and truth of a society based, in part, on internal systems.
Comparative political scientists will often take one of two approaches. A cross-national approach, referring to the practice of studying many nation-states at once to form theories that are broadly applicable. Alternatively, they may take an area studies approach, which is a more in-depth analysis of one region, typically through immersion.
As you might have suspected from the name, comparative politics is interested in comparing different political systems and actors, using the differences and similarities to form a comprehensive understanding of their traits and effectiveness.
Political economy is concerned with the relationships between government, law, and customs regarding production and trade. This field studies things like the distribution of wealth and income within a nation. Economics and sociology are two important influences on this field, as it is concerned not just with how wealth works in the government, but also how it affects the individuals, society as a whole, the markets, and states.
Though political economy covers many of the same angles as other branches of political science, it has a clear focus on economic factors.
International relations is the field of political science concerned with the interaction between national bodies, such as nation-states, governments, and transnational organizations. Rather than being focused locally, international relations experts think globally—how do treaties, trade, migration, and cultures work on a worldwide scale?
Like all political science fields, international relations is comprised of interdisciplinary study. To fully understand the relationships between political actors, social, economic, and ideological motivations must also be understood. These scientists use every tool at their disposal to explain and understand the ways in which international politics play out.
Political theory refers to the study and understanding of how politics, liberty, justice, law, and so on work on a theoretical level. These political scientists ask questions like what makes a legitimate government, what rights a government should product, and what citizens owe to their governments. Informed by classic and contemporary political thinking and philosophy, political theorists mix normative theory and quantitative methodology with many other fields, including moral philosophy, economics, humanities, natural sciences, and behavioralism for a comprehensive theoretical understanding of the role, function, and efficacy of government.
Public administration is concerned with determining and implementing government policies. It operates at the nexus of business, government, and the public, as public administrators facilitate the planning, organization, and control of the government. Public administrators are concerned with what policies the public needs and how best to deploy them in a way that is beneficial to all.
Public policy is concerned with understanding and creating the policies that public administration puts into practice. This field aims to comprehend and form the principles that govern social laws, such as what government at all levels does or does not do in response to a problem.
Public policy is created to respond to a social issue, including law and regulations. These policies are created on the behalf of the public, who may not have the ability to vote or express an opinion on every single issue that arises. Policies are goal-oriented, aiming to address a specific problem or reach a specific end, and created and implemented specifically by the government.
Political methodology is a bit of a meta approach to political science—this field studies the methods that are used to study politics. All of these different subfields of political science are subject to study, as society continuously changes, creating new needs and desires governments must address.
Political methodology uses positive research, referring to a branch of empirical research based on observable study, research that can be expressed in concrete numbers and quantitative explanations. It’s primarily concerned with finding an appropriate methodology for applying theory.
10 Key Political Science Approaches
As I’ve mentioned, political science is a broad and varied field. As with any scientific field, including social scientific fields, there are many approaches to problems, using different tools and mindsets to better understand the way the world works. These are some of the most prominent and impactful approaches in political science:
Positivism approaches phenomena with the belief that every rational claim can be proven scientifically. Positivist thinking eschews idealism and morality as concrete explanations for why things occur, preferring to point toward authority, laws, and measurable numbers.
Positivism also favors a more detached approach. The goal is to understand the social laws that influence behavior, rather than focusing on the role of the individual.
Normativism is the flip side to positivism. In this approach, political scientists consider cultural values and how the world should operate. This approach is most often used to consider values like justice, equality, and freedom—aspects of political science that are more abstract than the cause and effects measured with quantitative approaches.
Interpretivism is another qualitative approach to political science. With this mindset, researchers attempt to understand the way that the individual acts within a society. Instead of focusing on the laws that govern people (whether legal or social), interpretivists favor empathetic understanding and qualitative research, such as interviewing people about their experiences. This field is concerned with things that can’t be expressed in numbers, such as justice, freedom, and equality.
Rational Choice Theory
The rational choice theory states that social behavior results from individual actors. According to this theory, people can be expected to make rational choices—for example, if a person is considering two actions, they will consider the costs and benefits and proceed with whatever choice provides the most benefits with the least costs.
One prominent example of this theory in action is known as the prisoner dilemma, so named because every person acting with their own best interests can lead to a solution that isn’t beneficial for anybody. The dilemma is as follows:
Prisoner A and Prisoner B have been offered a plea deal. Both were somehow involved in the theft of a famous painting. If both of them offer up information about the other, they will each serve two years.
However, the plea deal says that if Prisoner A tells the police about Prisoner B’s involvement, A will be set free while B serves three years in prison, and vice-versa.
If neither Prisoner A nor Prisoner B tell the police anything, they will serve one year in prison each.
Under rational choice theory, it makes the most sense for the prisoners to tell on one another. The benefits (less time in prison) outweigh the cost and potential risk that they will be the one ratted out. However, acting rationally in this sense would lead to more prison time for them—if they each rat out the other, they will receive two years in prison rather than the single year that would come from refusing to tell the police anything.
In political science, this theory is used to understand things like elections, bureaucracy, and the actions of legislatures.
Behavioralism attempts to understand political outcomes based on objective variables. As a major shift within the political science field, this method of study favors quantitative approaches over qualitative approaches. Unlike previous methods of study, behavioralism focuses on individual behavior as opposed to the behavior or influence of institutions. This method uses strong hypotheses about behavior that can be demonstrated to be true or false.
Structuralism is a larger method of analysis that also has applications in political science. In this approach, researchers, philosophers, and scientists operate under the assumption that beliefs, symbols, and though structures guide human behavior. Linguistic and social structures—the words we use and the way we organize ourselves—are seen as more important than individual expression, thought, or action. Structuralists attempt to find meaning by studying structure, which can include politics, social organization, and myths.
Post-structuralism is, naturally, a response to structuralism. In fact, it’s an outright rejection of structuralism, incorporating history and context to understand exactly how the structures structuralism favors came to be. This approach asks questions about the categories and structures that society values, such as why we put things into them and what the structures themselves mean. Instead of taking certain structures, such as democracy or capitalism, as “natural” or “default,” post-structuralists attempt to understand how those categories arose and what they mean for politics today.
Realism is a particularly important approach for those in international politics. In this method, political scientists explore competition and conflict, believing that actors will favor their own interests over everything else.
This is a more skeptical approach than some others, as it is concerned with explaining the behavior of political actors rather than dictating how they should behave. Realists may believe that states are in a state of self-serving anarchy, only cooperating when it serves an individual state.
Institutionalism places a heavy emphasis on the role of the institution in politics. Though some approaches favor understanding the individual, this method aims to understand how formal rules and laws (such as a country’s legal system), as well as informal norms (such as the United States’ emphasis on individualism), impact people within a society and that society’s interactions with others.
Institutionalism is, in part, a reaction to realism, which stresses that political actors like states or countries prefer to operate within the status quo rather than risk becoming a rogue state.
Pluralism has much in common with both realism and institutionalism. In this approach, political scientists believe that diverse, competing systems of power are a good thing, but that institutional structures should guide these systems toward good-faith negotiating whenever possible.
An emphasis on the common good is a key part of pluralism. According to this method, multiple groups of differing interest and views can and should coexist; the important thing is that they work together for everyone’s benefit, even if they cannot entirely agree with one another.
The History of Political Science
Political science is a relatively recent addition to the social science field. However, its origins go back to ancient times, with philosophers of ancient Greece, India, and China in particular contributing frameworks and philosophies that would help shape the political world of the future.
Ancient Political Science
Some of the earliest political philosophers were simply philosophers—Aristotle and Socrates are two of the most famous, with works like The Republic and Laws covering political systems of the time. In Rome, writers like Polybius and Plutarch covered the rise of Rome and its comparisons to other nations, marking the different ways that humans understood history and the operation of government.
In India, the writing of texts like Rig-Veda, Samhitas, and the Mahabharata covered other systems of government as they saw them. China’s historical texts also give modern political scientists insights into the movements of Mohism, Taoism, Legalism, and Confucianism, which often mix philosophical ideas of the time with political beliefs and systems.
Medieval Political Science
Following the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of monotheism and specifically Christianity, there was more space for political study. One of the most important works of this period was Augustine of Hippo’s The City of God, which discussed philosophy and political tradition within Christianity. That connection led to political study being widespread in both church and in court, which, in turn, led to the first questions about the relationship between church and state.
Persia produced a great number of important works as well. Avicenna, Maimonides, and Averroes were particularly important to Middle Eastern political theory of the day. The Middle East tended to favor Plato’s Republic over Aristotle’s Politics, which was more popular in Europe.
Renaissance Political Science
The Renaissance was important for the development of political science, particularly thanks to Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli advocated for direct empirical observation, and The Prince was particularly important for demonstrating the viability of a realist approach to politics. According to Machiavelli, evil actions are worth considering in the interest of acquiring and maintaining a ruler’s state.
The Prince was not Machiavelli’s only contribution, though it is his most famous. His less celebrated Discourses of Livy cover the virtues of republicanism, which encourages political participation, and the role of a good citizen in a political sense.
Enlightenment Political Science
The Enlightenment gave rise to some of history’s most famous political philosophers. One of the most important questions of the era was the divine right of kings: were kings necessary? Were they empowered by God?
According to Hobbes and Locke, no. Hobbes argued that society needed a strong central power, but that the divine right of kings was illegitimate. Locke believed that people entered the world as a blank slate, and sought natural law based on reason and equality; government and society could support those virtues.
Many of these philosophies were adapted and expanded upon by America’s founding fathers, including Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.
19th Century Political Science
Multiple new theories helped shaped the political science field of the 19th century. One of the most impactful was the Darwinian theory of evolution, which suggested a linear path from one state to another. Though Darwin was discussing the evolution of living things, thinkers of the 19th century applied similar principles to society, which became known as social Darwinism.
Social Darwinism suggested that the strong and naturally “fit” would see their wealth and social power increase, while those who were weak and “unfit” would see the opposite. This attributed wealth, power, and political strength to be biologically or socially determined—something that has been discredited today, as there are multiple factors that contribute to poverty and wealth beyond personal strength or effort.
By the first World War, social Darwinism was on its way out. Many theorists had pointed out that social Darwinism had an inconsistent philosophy, and that it was not even consistent with Darwin’s theory of evolution, in which fitness meant “ability to fit within a given environment,” rather than physical strength or athletic ability.
World War I’s disruption of the status quo proved that social progress was not a straight line. World War discredited social Darwinism even further, as the Nazis and other fascist parties used the theory to advocate for and practice eugenics.
The 1900s also saw the establishment of political science as a distinct field. In 1903, the American Political Science Association was formed, and many universities began adopting political science as a prestigious program within their curriculum.
One of the most important periods in the political science field was the establishment of behavioralism. Behavioralism is an empirical approach to social science, emphasizing objectivity and quantifiable explanations for phenomena. Though it did heavily impact the recent field of political science, it was part of a larger shift in the social sciences that took more of a "hard" scientific approach, as many of these fields were disputed as sciences.
Prior to behavioralism, political science tended to use more normative and qualitative approaches to science. After the shift, researchers were more likely to use quantifiable methods, like sampling, scaling, and statistical analysis along with interviewing to explain their theories.
Following the increase in analytical methods, the behavioral revolution of the 1950s and 1960s pushed things even further. In this era, and moving forward into the ‘70s and beyond, study shifted to focus on individual and group behavior rather than a focus on institutions. As it progressed, behavioralism embraced deductive reasoning and game theory for formal modeling, giving researchers more opportunity for analyzing findings in a traditionally scientific approach.
Political science in particular borrowed theory and methods from fields like economics, giving them more scientific legitimacy to those who were skeptical of whether social sciences were true sciences or another field entirely.
What Do Political Science Majors Study?
Political science majors may study in their own unique department at a college or within the humanities or liberal arts departments. Because there is some overlap in methods and object of study, it’s possible for a great political science program to exist independently or as part of a larger department. In education systems other than America, the program may be considered under political studies, politics, or government.
The designation depends on how a culture defines the sciences. For some cultures, the “science” designation implies application of the scientific method, which may or may not apply to political science. For this reason, it may be classified as “political studies,” or similar, which has a broader application.
Though program availability differs between colleges, degrees are available at many levels, including Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts, Master of Arts in Teaching, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), and Doctor of Education (EdD).
Within the political science field, there may be different programs for topics like international relations, public policy, or political science. Generally, there are five areas of study within the program, which include comparative politics, international relations, political philosophy or political theory, public administration, and public law, as well as specific emphasis on methodology and American politics.
A political science education will cover a variety of topics. An understanding of history is crucial, as well as understanding theory and method to better comprehend how a political system functions. Political and personal ethics, written and verbal communication, an interest in research and analysis, and the ability to be flexible and debate opposing viewpoints are all also key to a solid political science curriculum.
In addition to your courses, many political science programs require an internship. This is a great opportunity to experience politics on a more than theoretical level, and there are many interesting places, such as a campaign office, local government office, or other organizations to help you get practical experience and college credit.
What Kinds of Political Science Jobs Are There?
Though many students pursue political science because they’re interested in becoming politicians or political analysts, there are many interesting careers in associated fields. Many political science students go on to work in politics, business, education, media, or marketing, with a wide range of salaries and job duties depending on your interest. Some of the most common and interesting jobs include:
Marketing Research Analyst
Education: Bachelor’s degree or higher
A marketing research analyst must have a solid understanding of market conditions and marketing trends, as they’re responsible for creating, implementing, and overseeing marketing plans. These professionals use statistics and statistical software to evaluate the effectiveness of marketing campaigns through data analysis.
Public Relations Specialist
Education: Typically a bachelor’s degree or higher
Public relations specialists are representatives for their company or organization, helping create and maintain a positive public image of whoever they represent. A public relations specialist may design press releases, coordinate interviews, and otherwise influence the public perception of their client by working with the media and the public through direct communication, public appearances, and advertisements.
Social Media Manager
Education: Bachelor’s degree or higher
A social media manager runs the social media accounts for a business, organization, or individual. They’re responsible for planning a schedule and voice for these accounts, as well as creating the posts, managing the community, and search engine optimization alongside reputation management, such as ensuring that public perception of the brand or individual remains positive through social media interaction.
High School Teacher
Education: Bachelor’s degree minimum, though states have specific requirements that may include a master’s, doctorate, or certification
High school teachers are responsible for educating students on particular topics. These professionals will create lesson plans and present those lessons to their students, typically to support the educational goals of a district, state, and/or the federal educational guidelines. Teachers may also provide individual instruction for students who need it.
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Juris Doctor degree, and bar admission
An attorney is responsible for providing legal advice and representing clients in civil or criminal trials. Clients may include individuals, businesses, or the state, depending on their specialization and the individual case.
Education: None required, but an associate or bachelor’s degree is preferred
Becoming a paralegal is an introduction to the legal system for many people. These professionals support an attorney by drafting, maintaining, and organizing files, as well as calling essential witnesses for trials.
Education: None required, but a solid writing portfolio and journalism training, formal or informal, is greatly preferred
Journalists may specialize in any number of fields and may work on an employed or freelance basis. They are responsible for researching, writing, proofreading, editing, and filing articles to inform the public about whatever topic they specialize in.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in campaign management, political science, or related field
Campaign managers work with political campaigns, such as for a candidate for mayor, to run those campaigns efficiently. They may manage a calendar for appearances, promote the candidate to supporters, oversee a team of workers, do research into voters, and coordinate campaign activities.
Education: None required, but a bachelor’s degree is common
A diplomat serves as a representative for their government in a foreign country. These professionals work with foreign governments, business, and social groups to provide support to citizens abroad. They may also help encourage positive economic and trade relations, forming relationships with government officials and other important groups to improve relations.
Education: None required, but bachelor’s degree preferred
A legislative assistant works with legislators at the state or federal level to create bills or other legislation for approval in state or federal congress. They may draft bills or work with citizens to gather support for their legislation.
Education: None required, but a bachelor’s degree in a related field is common, and certificates in lobbying are available
Lobbyists work to influence government through a variety of means, including petitioning. They will often work as part of a firm, helping further their organization’s causes by influencing public opinion with advertising and other forms of outreach.
Education: None required, but a master’s or doctoral degree in a related field is common
Political advisers use the concepts of political science to aid political actors and the media in making decisions. Their understanding of political ideology, political systems, and public opinion is invaluable to political campaigns and journalists reporting on politics.
Political Campaign Staff
Education: None required, but a bachelor’s or graduate degree in political science are helpful
Political campaign staff work with a politician to formulate and execute strategies to win elections. A political campaign staffer may contact voters, recruit and schedule volunteers, or create content to promote fundraisers and the politician’s platform.
State and Local Government
Salary: $70,000 - $190,000
Education: None required, but many governors have degrees in political science
The governor serves as the chief executive officer of a single state, sort of like the president of the United States on a smaller scale. A governor is responsible for signing bills into law and commanding the National Guard and militia, as well as commuting the sentences of prisoners or pardoning them if necessary.
Salary: varies by state
Education: None required, but many legislators have bachelor’s degrees in related fields
State legislators develop policies, pass laws, and elect other officials. This position can include city and county council members as well as state representatives and senators.
Education: None required, but a bachelor’s degree in a related field is helpful
County executives represent their county at meetings. They enforce resolutions and manage departments, as well as setting policy. These officials may be elected or appointed.
Education: None required, but a degree in political science can be useful
Mayors are elected officials at a city level. These officials solve problems in their cities, including responding to national disasters and addressing social issues within the community. They may also serve as representatives to other local and state governments.
Education: None required, but most recent presidents have had extensive educations, including in political science
The United States president is an elected official who oversees the running of the US government. The president has the unique authority to send troops into combat and to choose to use nuclear weapons. Presidents are also responsible for approving or vetoing Congressional resolutions, granting pardons, appointing federal officials, and preparing a budget.
Education: None required, but a degree can be helpful
Unlike the US president, the US vice president is indirectly elected. The vice president oversees senate deliberation and joint sessions of congress, casting tiebreaker votes if necessary. The vice president will also take over the position of president if necessary, including if the president dies or is incapacitated in some way while in office.
Education: None required, but degrees in related fields can be useful
Members of Congress, including representatives and senators, are elected by members of their constituency. They are responsible for making laws and representing their voter base by introducing and voting on bills that align with the views of people they represent.
Education: Bachelor’s degree, but master’s or PhD is preferred
A political scientist uses the theories and methods of a political science program, including quantitative and qualitative approaches, to understand the relationship between a government and society. They study how policies and laws affect each entity within a society, including government, businesses, and individuals. They also analyze historical data to predict trends for the future.
Education: Bachelor’s degree, but master’s or doctorate are necessary for people who want to advance
Policy analysts focus their attention on how policy affects people and government within a specific context. These professionals, using knowledge of political systems and historical trends, analyze current policies and how they can help form new policies for the future. A policy analyst will spend much of their time researching the political system, making forecasts about the future of specific policies, and writing reports to communicate their findings.
Education: Bachelor’s degree
An intelligence analyst may work for an organization like the FBI or CIA to understand, respond to, and eliminate threats against national security. By cooperating with international, national, state, and local information and law enforcement networks, intelligence analysts stay ahead of threats by understanding where they come from and how they can be stopped.
Resources For Learning More About Political Science Topics
Political science can be a complicated topic. There are so many different approaches and such a complex history that it may feel as though you can’t possibly stay on top of all the topics and ongoing developments in the field.
If you’re interested in learning more about political science before committing to a degree program, there are a lot of great resources out there to help you stay informed.
If you want to stay up to date on political happenings throughout the world, you can’t do better than national daily newspapers, whether in print or online. Outlets like The New York Times and The Guardian can give you a lot of insight into what’s happening around the world and how different political systems are working.
The Political Science subreddit includes a lot of aspiring and current political science majors, as well as working professionals, discussing current events, political theory, and other topics related to the field. If you have questions about what political science in action is like or you just want to catch up on the latest news, Reddit can be a good resource.
On the more academic side, Academic Earth has some free courses on political science for aspiring and current students to peruse. These courses can cover specific periods of history, economic and political systems, and current events. If you’d like a taste of political science in an academic setting, Academic Earth can be a great one!
If you like learning through videos, there are quite a few channels that cover history and political science with academic interest. The Crash Course series has an entry on US Government and Politics, covering the history of the United States Government and how it works.
Duke University has a channel specifically for their political science department. These videos include introductions to political theory and coverage of current events, giving prospective students a look at what topics experts in the field discuss.
Freakonomics may be primarily focused on economics, but because economics are such an important part of politics, it can also be extremely interesting for those looking for political science.
Hardcore History is great for those political science enthusiasts who are looking for deep dives into important historical context. Dan Carlin’s podcast covers specific topics and periods of history in depth, giving you insight into modern political issues that resulted from these major events.
Looking to refresh your knowledge of how government works? Check out our guide to everything you need to know for AP Government!
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Melissa Brinks graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a Bachelor's in English with a creative writing emphasis. She has spent several years tutoring K-12 students in many subjects, including in SAT prep, to help them prepare for their college education.