Skip to Main Content
Maxwell School
Maxwell / Department of Political Science

 Field Requirements

 Political Theory

Field Coordinators: Elizabeth Cohen, Glyn Morgan

Learning the field of Political Theory requires successful completion of a number of substantive courses as well as significant additional reading outside of these courses. Under ordinary circumstances, students majoring in Political Theory should complete at least four courses in the field during their first four semesters; students minoring in the field should complete at least three courses during this time. Students will then sit for their Qualifying Exams in the August following their second year in the program.

Students who are pursuing advanced language training that is pertinent to their field of study may request modifications of this schedule. Changes for this or any other reason must be approved in writing by the Graduate Director.


Course Work

Course offerings in Political Theory vary from year to year, but in recent semesters have included:

• PSC 797: Contemporary Normative Theory, which explores major normative debates of contemporary political philosophy in areas such as social justice, nationalism, democratic theory, and communitarianism;

• PSC 700: Ethics in International Relations, which explores classic works in International Political Theory (including works by Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Kant, Morgenthau, Walzer, Habermas, and Rawls), the pros and cons of the realist tradition, and a number of current ethical dilemmas, including terrorism, torture, global inequality, immigration, and climate change;

• PSC 800: Recent Work on Democratic Theory, which explores the meaning and merits of democracy as a form of political rule, with attention to the justification of democracy, democracy’s relation to basic rights and liberties, and debates about the best form of, and appropriate limits to, democratic decision-making.

• PSC 700: Classical Social Theory, which explores the causes of social change and social cohesion (aka progress and order) through an examination of the principal works of Smith, Tocqueville, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Foucault, and Habermas. A central topic will be the rise of modern commercial society. This course should be of interest to PhD students across the social sciences, because most contemporary methodological approaches (rational choice theory, historical institutionalism, realism, constructivism, etc.) trace their origins to eighteenth and nineteenth century social theory.

Qualifying Examinations

In addition to completing the required course work, all students majoring or minoring in Political Theory should review the works itemized in the Political Theory reading list. For students receiving summer stipends from the department, we expect the first two summers to be devoted in significant part to this activity. The reading list is meant to serve as a useful guide, not as a substitute for students’ own judgment and initiative in identifying and reading what they take to be the leading works in the field.

The written exams will be offered twice per year, typically in August and January. At least three months prior to their written exam, students should inform Candy Brooks of their intention to sit for the exam.

The single-day written exam will be closed book, although students may bring one double-sided 8.5x11 inch sheet of notes to the exam. The exam will encompass two sections, one general and one specific, which collectively include five questions drawn from the range of substantive areas of inquiry within the field. Students majoring in Political Theory must answer two questions from the general section and one from the specific section; students minoring in Political Theory must answer two questions from the general section. Each essay will be weighted equally, and the faculty recommend that students devote roughly equal amounts of time to drafting each of them.

Roughly two weeks following the written exam, the students will sit for an oral defense, which will be conducted by the two field coordinators plus the student’s advisor, who shall act as chair. Upon completion of the oral exam, the advisor will notify the Graduate Director in writing that the student has passed with distinction, passed, or failed. In the latter case, the student may retake the exam during the following semester. This option may only be exercised once.

Last updated: February 27, 2013.