Skip to content

Political Science Topics For Assignment

Student work is available for this course.

Over the course of the term, you are required to submit six short, analytical papers of 1000-1200 words on assigned questions about the readings. (Do not hand in anything under 900 words or more than 1300 words.) I have listed the topics for these assignments below, after each reading assignment. You need to submit the written assignments at the start of class, and you may not go more than two weeks in a row without handing something in (put otherwise: you may not postpone all the assignments until later in the semester, or fit them all in early in the semester). In writing these short assignments, you must answer the question(s) that I have listed for each week's reading. The writing assignments get you to the central claims and arguments in the reading, and the point of the assignments is to ensure that you master those claims and arguments. Answering the questions will not require any research or any reading beyond the week's assignment. The assignments will not need (or benefit from) footnotes or literature reviews or surveys of doctrines or any references at all beyond the assigned reading.

Each week, I have also suggested some further questions to think about as you do the reading (For Further Reflection). The point of these questions is to suggest links between the ideas and arguments that we will discuss in different sessions, thus giving more continuity to the course, and to suggest areas for future reflection, research and writing. I have also listed a somewhat arbitrary set of suggested readings. I do not expect you to read these suggested works this term, and none of the written assignments will require these readings.

1Organizational Meeting 
2Liberty, Equality, DemocracyWriting Assignment

Rawls argues that his two principles of justice would be chosen in the original position, behind the veil of ignorance. Focusing on pp. 26, 29 (especially the latter), explain why he thinks they would be the choice. You should concentrate either on the argument about the strains of commitment (p. 29, paragraphs 2-3), or on the considerations about publicity and stability (p. 29, paragraphs 4-7). Be sure to state the two principles themselves before exploring the reasoning.

For Further Reflection

(1) Rawls says that his conception of justice as fairness offers a "reconciliation of liberty and equality" (179). Instead of treating these values as in fundamental tension, and arguing that we must decide between them, he proposes that we can accommodate both by endorsing his two principles. How exactly do the two principles of justice together provide a reconciliation of liberty and equality? Are you persuaded that such reconciliation is possible?

(2) Does the veil of ignorance express, as Rawls claims, conditions that "are reasonable to impose on arguments for principles of justice" (16). Can you think of other settings in which the idea of choice behind a veil of ignorance might be illuminating?

(3) Rawls says that his conception of justice is suited to a "well-ordered society." What is a well-ordered society, and does the idea of such a society make excessive demands on human motivations, by assigning too large a role in social cooperation to a sense of justice?

(4) What does Rawls mean by the "priority of liberty"?

(5) How does democracy fit into justice as fairness?
3Liberty and LawWriting Assignment

"It is not to be denied that even general, abstract rules, equally applicable to all, may possibly constitute severe restrictions on liberty. But when we reflect on it, we see how very unlikely this is" (154-55). State what Hayek means by "liberty" (see chapter 1, pp. 1, 4, 7; chapters 9, p. 1) and what he means by "general, abstract rules" (see chapter 10, pp. 1, 2). Explain why he thinks that such rules are unlikely to result in severe restrictions on liberty (in your explanation, keep in mind that severe restrictions, while not likely, are possible). More intuitively put: why does he suppose that the rule of law provides such powerful assurance of liberty? (In thinking about this, pay close attention to the distinction in chapter 1, p. 4 between liberty and power.)

For Further Reflection

(1) Hayek says "Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other" (87). How are they in conflict? Is Hayek's claim about conflict at odds with Rawls' claim about reconciling liberty and equality?

(2) Hayek says that freedom is the absence of coercion, and that coercion is a matter of subjection to the arbitrary will of others. What does "arbitrary will of others" mean? Is arbitrariness a matter of unpredictability? What else is involved?

(3) What role does ignorance play in the case for individual liberty?

(4) "Is the prevention of coercion the only justification for the use of the threat of coercion by the state?" (143) Do you think that other uses of the state's coercive powers are justified? Which other uses?

(5) How does democracy fit into Hayek's conception of liberty and law?

(6) Is a Hayekian scheme of general, abstract rules compatible with a modern administrative state?
4Democracy and Social ChoiceWriting Assignment

In summarizing his theorem, Arrow says "the result can be phrased this way: If consumer's values can be represented by a wide range of individual orderings, [then] the doctrine of voters' sovereignty is incompatible with that of collective rationality" [emphases added]. Explain, by reference to the "general possibility theorem," what Arrow means by this statement. Be sure to include some comments on each of the three italicized phrases.

For Further Reflection

(1) Does the tension Arrow points to between voter's sovereignty and collective rationality (assuming a wide range of individual
orderings) raise a serious problem for democratic theory or practice? What sort of problem?

(2) How (if at all) do the views advanced by Rawls and Hayek avoid the conflict between collective rationality and "voters' sovereignty."

(3) Does Arrow's theorem take individual preferences as given? In what way? Is that a bad thing?

(4) If citizens reason about the best policy, would you expect the "wide range of individual orderings" to be reduced?

(5) Is an Arrovian dictator as bad as a real dictator?

(6) In a wide range of cases, we personify groups and institutions and treat them as agents. Does Arrow's theorem create troubles for such personification?
5Power and International PoliticsWriting Assignment

Waltz distinguishes sharply between a theory of international politics and a theory of foreign policy (121). Clarify the distinction. Among other things, you should:

(i) state some questions that theories in each of these domains are supposed to answer,

(ii) say how a theory of international politics could fail to be founded on a theory of foreign policy, and

(iii) give some examples of "system-level [independent] variables." (You should use "balance-of-power theory" to illustrate your points.)

For Further Reflection

(1) In his earlier book, Man, the State, and War, Waltz says "The centripetal force of nationalism may itself explain why states can be thought of as units" (177). He then adds two other considerations that make it appropriate to treat the state as a "unit": that some power within the state is able to get its decisions accepted as the decisions of the state; and that in moments of crisis (especially war), states act (because of pressures from both above and below) more consistently as units. How does the argument in Theory of International Politics explain why it makes sense of treat states as individual agents? How do the arguments here, and in the earlier work, respond to the troubles that Arrow raises about treating groups as single, rational agents?

(2) "In anarchy, security is the highest goal… The goal the system encourages them to pursue is security" (126). What is security? Does the content of security vary with the form of political regime?

(3) In what way does an anarchic system "encourage" states (irrespective of political culture and regime type) to pursue security? What is the precise form of that encouragement?

(4) The structure of a system depends on the distribution of capabilities. How do you measure the "distribution of capabilities across units"?

(5) Why (according to Waltz) is interdependence lower in systems with fewer great powers? Is this notion of interdependence important? What facts about international politics does it help to explain? What facts does it not help to explain? How, for example, does this notion of interdependence fare in helping us to understand global environmental issues?
6Collective ActionWriting Assignment

Compare Olson's own explanation of job control unionism with the explanation he attributes to Perlman (76-77, especially the distinction between an explanation based on "organizational imperatives" and one founded on the "endemic pessimism" of workers). Provide a brief sketch of the two explanations, summarize the historical evidence that Olson uses to support his view, and assess the strength of that support. Be sure to indicate how Olson’s emphasis on organizational imperatives is connected to his deeper ideas about the difficulties of sustaining collective action, even in the face of common interests.

For Further Reflection

(1) If Olson's theory of collective action is right, then certain kinds of groups will typically be politically underrepresented, and an ideal pluralistic scheme—on which political outcomes result from fair bargaining among affected groups—is not likely to be achieved. What sort of groups would Olson expect to be underrepresented (see the final two pages of the book)? Are those groups underrepresented? How might their representation be improved? (Consider his example of consumers.)

(2) Olson says (160) that his view may not help much in explaining the actions of philanthropic and religious lobbies. Why not? He also says that it may not be very helpful in understanding mass movements, with a low degree of economic rationality and a high degree of "ideologically oriented behavior" (162). How serious are these limits? What ways of thinking about collective action are helpful in thinking about philanthropic and religious lobbies, or mass movements?

(3) What is "identity politics," and how does it fit into Olson's framework? Does mobilization on the basis of identity depend substantially on selective incentives?

(4) Olson emphasizes the special difficulties faced by larger sets of agents in acting together for common interests. Does the argument apply to equally to organizations and states, as well as individual persons?
7Individuals as Premises or Products?Writing Assignment

Foucault says (218) that "the formation of the disciplinary society is connected with a number of broad historical processes—economic [218-221], juridico-political [221-224], and, lastly, scientific [224-28]—of which it forms a part." Sketch the connection between the formation of a disciplinary society and at least one of these three processes. Be sure to explain (briefly) what Foucault means by "disciplinary power" and a "disciplinary society." (See the four dimensions of discipline in "Docile Bodies" and the three means used by disciplinary power in "The Means of Correct Training".)

For Further Reflection

(1) In thinking about the social-scientific implications of Foucault's account of disciplinary power, keep in mind his important claim that "discipline 'makes' individuals" (170), and the associated idea that the individuals who are often understood as the "constituent elements" of society are "fabricated by this specific technology of power that I have called 'discipline'" (194). What difference would the truth of the claim that "discipline makes individuals" make for the explanation of collection action, or for an account of international politics, or for a theory of collective choice such as Arrow’s, or for a normative theory founded on a conception of individual autonomy?

(2) Foucault says that the disciplines make the body both more useful and more obedient. Can you think of circumstances in which obedience and usefulness are at odds?

(3) If discipline makes individuals, who makes discipline? Is there a conception of individual agency assumed by the account of the emergence of a disciplinary society?

(4) What does Foucault mean when he says that "the real, corporal disciplines constituted the foundation of the formal, juridical liberties"? (222) Does this assertion (assuming it is right) suggest problems for an Hayekian account of liberty and the rules of law?

(5) Foucault says that "discipline makes individuals." Can you think of other social processes that, in the same sense, "make individuals." Do you think that discipline is more or less important than these other processes?
8Organizations in International PoliticsWriting Assignment

Allison and Zelikow distinguish three questions that an account of the Cuban missile crisis needs to answer:

(1) why did the Soviet Union put strategic offensive missiles in;

(2) why did the United States respond with a naval quarantine; and

(3) why did the Soviet Union take the missiles out? Which of these three issues, if any, is illuminated by insights drawn from organization theory? In your answer, mention some specific events that appear anomalous until seen "through the lens of organizational behavior" (197).

For Further Reflection

(1) Olson contrasts his "organizational imperatives" explanation of job control unionism with Perlman's explanation, which focuses on the preferences and beliefs of union members. How does Olson's conception of organizational imperatives, with its focus on the need to provide potential free-riders with selective benefits, compare with the organization theory presented in Allison and Zelikow, with its emphasis on internal norms and standard operating procedures? How would the style of organization theory in Allison and Zelikow account for job-control unionism?

(2) Consider an organization in which each member has a responsibility, in normal conditions, to follow certain standard procedures associated with his/her position in the organization, and also has a responsibility, under unusual conditions, to act for the good of the organization, even if that means violating the standard procedures. How much light would organization theory (of the kind described by Allison and Zelikow) through on such an organization? Are many organizations like this hypothetical one? If not, why not?

(3) Consider two explanations of puzzling conduct by a state: one appeals to the organizational roles of major players, the other appeals to the beliefs of those players (which may have nothing particularly to do with their roles). What kinds of evidence would help to decide which of these explanations is more compelling?
9Global SocietyWriting Assignment

(1) What does Bull mean when he says that "the element of a society has always been present, and remains present, in the modern international system";

(2) how does Bull show that presence;

(3) are there patterns in international political life that explained by the presence of "the element of a society" are difficult to explain otherwise? (Consider the discussions of war and the balance of power.) Be sure to say explicitly and specifically what he means by "the element of a society."

For Further Reflection

(1) Imagine a parallel to Bull's book, but focused on domestic politics. Suppose the book says "the element of a society (in Bull's sense of a society) has always been present, and remains present, in domestic politics." What difference might this "social" conception of domestic order—with common interests and values, common rules, and common institutions—make for the issues of collective action discussed by Olson? Would it make any difference at all?

(2) How would you go about deciding whether "the element of society" is present in a system of states? Is it an allor-nothing matter? Or do different systems have different degrees of the social element? Could there, for example, be common institutions but not common values? Or common values and rules, but not common institutions?

(3) Suppose that the (Waltzian) distribution of capabilities across units remains more or less fixed, but that the "degree of society varies (more institutions, more rules, more common values and interests): would you expect different outcomes in international politics?"

(4) Bull says that the "principle of preservation of the balance of power" works to favor the great powers and operates at the expense of the small (103). What alternatives to balance-of-power system would be more favorable to smaller states? What about the alternatives to the states system that Bull explores (240-47)?
10Social Norms and Collective ActionWriting Assignment

Elster says that "everyday Kantianism and the norm of fairness interact to produce much more cooperation than either could do by itself" (205). Explain this statement about the joint effects of Kantianism and fairness: be sure to include some account of "social norms" and "collective action," as well "everyday Kantianism" and "the norm of fairness."

For Further Reflection

(1) Would it be reasonable to expect that the combination of everyday Kantianism and the norm of fairness would qualify or undermine Olson's claims about the troubles with voluntary cooperation in larger groups?

(2) How would you tell if people were motivated by the norm of fairness or by everyday Kantianism? Would it help to ask them? Why? Why not?

(3) What role, if any, do everyday Kantianism and norms of fairness play in relations between states, or in fostering non-state cooperation across political boundaries?

(4) How pervasive are norms of fairness and everyday Kantianism? Are there some domains of social action in which their presence looms larger?

(5) Does Elster’s conception of collective action makes Rawls's idea of a well-ordered society seem more plausible?
11The Importance of InstitutionsWriting Assignment

Keohane says that the "functional theory of international regimes" helps to account for the persistence of cooperation among states in areas of money and trade in the 1970s and 1980s. Focusing on either money or trade, explain what elements of international cooperation cannot plausibly be accounted for (according to Keohane) by the theory of hegemonic stability and instead require the functional theory of regimes for their explanation. Be sure to sketch the central ideas of the theory of hegemonic stability and the
functional theory of regimes.

For Further Reflection

(1) Keohane and Bull both present international institutions as serving certain functions (helping to establish international order, making mutually beneficial agreements possible). What exactly is the relevance of these functional claims in explaining the existence or operation of international institutions?

(2) Keohane emphasizes the role of international institutions in "facilitating mutually advantageous bargains among independent states" (184). But in virtually all circumstances, a wide range of possible agreements are mutually advantageous. How (if at all) do institutions help to account for which of the wide range of possible mutually beneficial arrangements actually emerges?

(3) Do regimes plausibly play as large a role in matters of security as in the arena of economic cooperation?

(4) According to Keohane, "the crucial issues are precisely those of how interests are defined, and how institutions affect states' definitions of their own interests" (99-100). Does Keohane offer a plausible account of the formation of state interests?

(5) Do the everyday Kantianism and/or norms of fairness discussed by have any important role in explaining collective action among states—including such phenomena as regime formation and regime stability?

(6) If Bull is right in his social conception of international order, what difference would that make for Keohane's account of regimes and cooperation?
12Democracy and Peace?Writing Assignment

Doyle says: "Liberal states have not escaped from the Realists' 'security dilemma,' the insecurity caused by anarchy in the world political system considered as a whole. But the effects of international anarchy have been tamed in the relations among states of a similarly liberal character." Explain this claim, focusing in particular on how liberal regimes tame the effects of anarchy. Why might the security dilemma have no bite—or considerably less bite—in relations among liberal states?

For Further Reflection

(1) How might Waltz respond to the claim that liberal states "have yet to engage in war with each other?" Is there counterevidence? A plausible alternative explanation?

(2) What implications does the claim that liberal democracies are able to maintain pacific relations have for a policy of promoting democracy in places that are not democratic?

(3) What explanations of peace between and among liberal democracies are consistent with the war-proneness of democracies in relation to non-democracies?

(4) What role does democracy, as distinct from constitutional liberalism, play in accounting for peace among democracies?

(5) Sen has argued that democracies with a free press do not suffer from famines because an elected government that presided over a famine would be completely discredited. Is there a comparably strong reason to expect that democracies will not fight other democracies?

Student Response Papers

Paper on Waltz (Courtesy of Chris Lebron. Used with permission.) (PDF)

Paper on Waltz (Courtesy of Caitlin Talmadge. Used with permission.) (PDF)

Paper on Allison/Zelikow (Courtesy of Paul Staniland. Used with permission.) (PDF)

Paper on Allison (Courtesy of Caitlin Talmadge. Used with permission.) (PDF)

Paper on Bull (Courtesy of Paul Staniland. Used with permission.) (PDF)

Paper on Elster (Courtesy of Chris Lebron. Used with permission.) (PDF)

Students in the Department of Political Science at Western Michigan University will want to review these sample research topics when selecting their own research topic.

  • A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Office of Independent Counsel
  • A Study on Equitable Water Provision in Latin America
  • Affirmative Action: National Origin Minorities
  • Aid to the Health-Related Sector: The United States, Japan, and Germany
  • An Assessment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
  • An Evaluation of International Law as Applied to Genocide from Nuremberg to the Balkans
  • Celebrity Influence on Political Campaigns
  • Children Soldiers in Africa
  • Development of a Constitutional Right of Privacy
  • Educational Outcomes in Michigan: A Lack of Focus and Context
  • Effectiveness of Rape Shield Laws
  • Globalization and the Anti-Globalization Movement
  • Legislative Redistricting in Illinois for 2002
  • Mexico, Corporate Globalization and the Media
  • Mexico's Changing Political Party System
  • Nature Within the City: The Greenway Movement and the Transformation of Urban Form
  • Pretextual Automobile Stops and the Fourth Amendment
  • Public Education and Religious Establishment
  • Racial Profiling in post 9/11 United States Content Regulation in Broadcasting
  • Religious Exercise in Public Schools: Continuing Debate
  • Rights and Their Progression from State to Federal Policy: The Case of the Disability Rights Movement
  • Sexual Harassment: Comparative Legal Analysis
  • Squatter Settlements in Post-Apartheid South Africa
  • Stereotypes Between American and Arab-Americans in the United States
  • Telecommunications Policy in China
  • The "Political Question" Doctrine and Reapportionment
  • The Austrian Freedom Party in 2000
  • The Debt Crisis in Heavily Indebted Poor Countries
  • The Effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement
  • The Equal Rights Amendment: Why Controversy Ensured its Defeat
  • The Evolution (and Devolution) of Affirmative Action Initiatives
  • The 14th Amendment and Privacy
  • The Influence of the Antislavery Movement, Republican Ideology, and Federalism on the 14th Amendment
  • The Lemon Test and the Religious Establishment Clause
  • The Patriot Act: Security/Rights Issues in Historical Perspective
  • The Political Economy of the Micro-Island Nations of the Caribbean: The Impact of Tourism on Caribbean Culture, Environment and Society
  • The Supreme Court and Reproductive Rights
  • The Supreme Court and Sexual Preference
  • Title IX and Collegiate Athletic Opportunities
  • Truth Commissions and Civil Society
  • U.S.-Japanese Trade Policy: A Defense of Limited Unilateralism
  • Weapons of the Weak and the Chinese Occupation of Tibet
  • Women and Equal Pay: An Assessment of Differences in Universities
  • Women, Identity and Political Activism During the Allende Regime in Chile