Graduate Focus Areas

In addition to the traditional fields of study, the following special foci represent areas of special teaching and research interest for
clusters of our graduate faculty: Democracy and Democratization; Electoral Politics; Political Conflict Resolution; Politics, Race, Law and Minority Groups in America. Students interested in pursuing study in any of these focus areas will have ample
opportunity to do so in regularly scheduled courses within the traditional fields and through participation in faculty research and
colloquia. While these are special foci for the Department’s faculty, there are other concentrations as well. For instance, several faculty have an expertise in political geography. Check out the individual faculty webpages to see the full range of faculty research interests.



Democracy and democratization are important concerns of political science. Questions central to the study of these topics
include the social and economic prerequisites for the establishment and maintenance of stable democracy; constitutional design;
the role of institutional actors such as political parties, interest groups, and government bureaucracies; and the attitudes and
behaviors of individual citizens. Democratic practices in the established democracies of Western Europe and North America
have long been studied by political scientists, and democratization in Southern Europe, Africa, Latin America, and East Asia has
received more recent attention. With the collapse of communism, problems of democratization have become important in yet
another part of the world, and have assumed both a new urgency and increased interest. Moreover, the relevance of many of
these questions to the established democracies has become increasingly apparent with debates over the institutional structure and democratic legitimacy of the European Union, major institutional-constitutional reforms proposed or adopted in Canada, Italy,
and Japan, and the strains of economic and racial polarization in the United States.



The central mechanism by which citizens can control the direction of a democratic government is the electoral process. By electing leaders and political parties that represent their general perspectives on what the powers of government should or should not be used for, voters can affect how government serves the public. Democratic governance depends on a healthy electoral process. 

Political scientists have long been interested in elections and how voters decide whether to vote and for whom to vote. There are many questions about electoral behavior and the electoral process that researchers in both American and Comparative
Politics continue to pursue. Questions range from those concerning political participation to legal and constitutional issues
of voting and elections.

Among the many questions are these: What affects whether potential voters turn out to vote? Why is
turnout higher in some nations or states than others? Why has turnout changed in different periods of  history? What is the effect
on the election results of higher or lower turnout? Why do people develop and sometimes change party identifications?
How much and why does partisanship affect who voters will vote for? What characteristics of voters affect
how people vote and why? How informed are voters about their choice and what are the roles of the media and campaigns in
increasing voter information? How does the organization of votes into districts and the scheduling of elections at different times
affect who gets elected? How do political campaigns affect election results? Why do some potential candidates opt not to run,
while others decide to "throw their hats in the ring"?  To what extent and how does campaign financing affect elections? How
competitive are elections? What could be done to make them more competitive? What are the effects of elections on public
policy? What are the effects of "direct democracy" elections–initiatives, referendums, and recalls–on attitudes toward the political system?



Conflicts of interests are the heart of politics at all levels. Without conflict, political processes are unnecessary. Without
conflict, individual and group interaction is reduced to a coordination game. With complete information and unfettered
communication, such games are, theoretically, trivial. Politics emerges, however, when conflict exists. Conflicting interests
remain to be reconciled–or not. In a sense, then, the study of politics and the study of conflict are one and the same.

In some environments, conflicts are routinely managed. For example, in most industrialized democracies, political parties
compete for elected offices. Laws are enacted and norms institutionalized to govern inter-personal and inter-group disputes. At
times, however, competing interests are not successfully reconciled. Labor-management negotiations break down; strikes are
called. Succession disputes are not settled; revolutions occur. Interstate competitions fester; wars–trade, cold, and hot–erupt.

When and why are some conflicts ameliorated while others are not? What is the nature of electoral competition? What causes
revolutions, ethnic conflicts, civil and interstate wars? Under what conditions can individuals and groups with conflicting
interests manage to cooperate with one another? What is the particular dynamic of conflict in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and other geographical areas? What is the geographic basis of political disputes? What role does or should norms play in
dispute resolution? Research directed at addressing these and related questions constitutes the bedrock of this focus area.



There is no more enduring domestic political issue in the history of the United States than the treatment and conditions of
America’s racial and other minority citizens. In nearly every era of our national development the question of race has ranked
among the most pressing issues confronting the country. It was present in the seventeenth century when slavery first appeared
and became legitimated as an institution, in the eighteenth century when the founding fathers had to reconcile slavery with the
Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution, in the nineteenth century in the struggles over sectionalism, the
Civil War, and Reconstruction, and in the twentieth century in the civil rights campaign for equal rights and, in recent decades,
for economic justice.

In each epoch the political struggles over race have taken on a decidedly legal cast. This has meant that virtually every
significant racial issue in our history has, in one fashion or another, ultimately been treated as a political issue. Accordingly, one
cannot understand race as a political issue in America without focusing on the role that law has played as the handmaiden of
public policies dealing with race. Despite the political significance of race and the links between race and law, there is no other
political science graduate program in the nation focusing on race from the perspective of law, courts, and legal institutions.

The overarching conceptual theme of this focus area addresses how, through the use of law, majority-rule democratic political
systems treat and protect politically vulnerable minority groups. Hence, this focus area also seeks to attract graduate students
who will explore the political and legal struggles of minorities in addition to African-Americans, including Native Americans,
Hispanics, the mentally and physically handicapped, gays, and women. Indeed, in recent decades several of those groups
emulated the efforts of African-Americans by resorting to legal initiatives to achieve political goals. In addition, as the nations
of Eastern Europe, Africa, and elsewhere grapple with the treatment of their own minority groups, the issues addressed by this
focus area may come to have international applications and relevance as well.