M.A. in Political Science
Representative Samples of Comprehensive
Exam Questions in Political Theory
The following selected questions appeared on the Political Theory Comprehensive
Exams between 1989 and 1997. They are presented in the same schema
as the exam itself. The exam is formatted virtually identically to
the MA Reading List for Political Theory.
Use these questions to practice your answers and general prepare for
the exam. The questions below are NOT the exam questions which may
appear on the exam when you enroll for it. However, they are representative
of the types of subject matters covered and the style of questions asked.
I. The Nature of Theory
A. What is so difficult about establishing empirical concepts in political
science? In your answer discuss 1) essentialism, 2) nominalism 3)
operational definitions, 4) validity, and 5) reliability. Use specific
examples to illustrate your answer.
II. The General
History of Political Theory European Political Theory (with some American
B. Those who are against the scientific study of politics have argued
that this type of study is 1) logically impossible, 2)practically difficult,
and 3) normatively undesirable. Give specific and detailed examples
of each of these three arguments as well as specific and detailed arguments
criticizing each of these views.
C. "The difference between instrumental political theory and normative
political theory is that the former totally ignores values and the latter
totally ignores facts." Agree or disagree in whole or part with this
statement. Explain in detail.
D. According to Easton, what should be the focus of political science?
Why? In your answer explain why he rejects power and the state as
orienting concepts and then explain what virtues and limitations he sees
for his own.
E. Thomas Kuhn writes only about the history of natural sciences, but
political scientists are fascinated by his arguments. What are the
major concepts Kuhn uses to discuss science and how are these conceptions
relevant to our understanding of political science?
F. Some scholars have argued that politics cannot be studied scientifically.
Why do they take this position? Explain. How can their arguments
be rebutted? Explain.
G. Western social scientists have found that when democracy ios defined
in temrs of competitive politics, capitalism is a necessary condition for
the establishment of stable democratic regimes. In other words, no
democracies exist in socieites without a market system economy. Given
the validity of this relationship, is it scientifically proper for American
economists and political scientists to tell Russian and eastern European
leaders seeking to introduce western style democacy in their countries
tha they ought to institute market economies? Why or why not?
Discuss this fully in terms of the distinctions between normative and instrumental
H. Before Kuhn, the conventional view of science focused on scientific
method and the cumulative knowledge produced by reliance on this method.
How does Kunm challenge this view? With what does he replace it?
How does this change affact those who want to study politics scientifically?
I. Defend the use of the methods of natural science to study politics.
Your defense should be positive, but not uncritical. In other words, you
should be clear about the limitations of a scientific approach to the study
of politics as raised by relevant critics, but explain why the scientific
approach is valuable despite these limitations.
J. What does Easton mean by orienting concepts? Why are they important?
What examples does he use? What does he think is wrong with prior orienting
concepts in the discipline? Why? How does he propose to solve these problems?
K. On the basis of what you have read about Kuhn's view of science,
do you think he would say that political science is really a science? Why
or why not? If you argue that he would call political science a science,
describe what kind of science he would call it and explain your position
fully. If you argue that he would not call political science a science,
explain your position fully. Whatever conclusion you draw, be sure to explain
the implications of your position for those who want to scientifically
study politics in the future.
A. The idea of the "community" or "body politic" in Western political
theory has been a concept which has shaped the notions of purpose and power
from the Greeks through the early 20th century theorists. Identify
the varying concepts of the "community" or "body politic" developed
in different epochs of Western political thought and the thinkers identified
with these concepts. Discuss.
III. Areas of Concentration
B. Trace the development of the concept of Natural Law from the Stoics
and Romans, through its role in Medieval, Scholastic political theology,
to its secularization, to the refocusing of its content on individual rights,
to its incorporation in Enlightenment concepts of the "laws of nature"
and the "market," to its virtual destruction as a philosophical construct
by the 18th Century empiricists. (Identify the philosophical contributors
with the changes in this fundamental concept in political theory.)
C. Describe how the individual became the focus of many, if not most,
modern political theorists. Does the selection of the individual
as the fundamental unit of the political system affect the role and functions
of society and the state in those theories? Analyze, explain,
D. Political theorists listed below are representative of the great
political thinkers in Ancient, Medieval and Modern Western European political
theory and in American Political Thought. From each of a, b, c, and
d, select ONE theorist. Describe the basic components and structure
of the political theory of each. Compare and contrast these FOUR
selections, identifying the similarities and differences in their theories.
E. Political theorists have developed something of a consensus on the great
figures in Western European and American Political Theory. From the thinkers
listed below, select four thinkers, one from each of a, b, c, and d.
Describe the basic components and structure of their political theories.
- a) Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas
- b) Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume
- c) Burke, Bentham, J. S. Mill, Marx, Nietsche
- d) Madison, John Adams, T. Jefferson, John Calhoun, H. D. Thoreau
a) Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas
F. Those listed below are among the important but lesser figures
in the history of Western and American political thought. Identify
four from a and two from b, and briefly describe their distinctive contributions
to the evolution of political theory in Western Europe and the U.S.
b) Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume
c) Burke, Bentham, J. S. Mill, Marx, Hegel
d) Madison, John Adams, T. Jefferson, John Calhoun, Transcendentalists
a) Sophists, The Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, Cicero, Martin Luther,
John Calvin, The Anabaptists, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, Jean Bodin, Johannes
Althusius, Hugo Grotius, The Levellers, James Harrington, Spinoza, Montesquieu,
Physiocrats, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas R. Malthus, Herbert Spencer,
Thomas Hill Green, Freud, Lenin, Max Weber, Roberto Michels.
G. The emergence of the democratic nation-state in Western Europe was the
probable cause and probable effect of the growth of ‘modern’ political
theory. Identify the key new contributions to political thought which
became necessary to explain and justify the modern democratic ‘nation-state.’
(Among those who should be mentioned are Machiavelli, Luther, Calvin, Bodin,
Althusius, Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, and Marx) Begin
by setting out what the theoretical requirements of the modern democratic
nation-state. Relate the contribution(s) of each theorists toward
those theoretical requirements. Discuss.
b) John Winthrop, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, The Federalist Papers,
The Antifederalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alexis De Tocqueville, Elizabeth
Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, Edward
Bellamy, Henry George, Lester Ward, William Graham Sumner, W. E.
B. Dubois, Woodrow Wilson, Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, Walter Lippmann,
John Kenneth Galbraith, Martin Luther King, Jr., C. Wright Mills, Robert
H. Describe the similarities in the political theories of the following
a. Aristotle and James Madison
What are their main theoretical differences? Discuss.
b. The Stoics and Thomas Jefferson
c. Plato and John C. Calhoun
I. The State, society, and human nature are central concepts in the
history of Western political thought from ancient times to the present.
Select six major western political theorists and describe their views
of these fundamental concepts, the roles that the concepts play in their
theories, and the ways in which the theorists justified those views.
Justify your selection of the six thinkers by reference to their roles
in the development of Western political thought.
J. What concepts were necessary to the emergence of modern social contract
theory? Identify the key thinkers in the development of social contract
theory and describe their specific contributions to its development.
Which modern political theorists represent the most developed form of social
contract theory? Explain.
K. Compare and contrast the theories of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke,
Rousseau, and Marx on individualism, community, private property, and the
L. Identify the major theorists and describe their theories of the relationship
between the State and Private Property. Is there an historical development
of ways of thinking on this issue? Discuss.
M. Select three political theorists from modern period and Plato and
Aristotle to discuss the evolution of the concept of the 'nature of man.'
Make your selections on the basis of the significance of their contributions
to the concept of the nature of humankind. Describe and discuss the
role of the concept of human nature in their theories. Discuss.
American Political Thought
N. Describe the political theories of the following: a. James Madison,
b. John C. Calhoun, c. Henry David Thoreau, d. William Graham Sumner, e.
Thorstein Veblen. Why are these theorists important in American political
O. Though James Madison's writings form a semi-official justification
of the U.S. Constitutional system, there are several very important theorists
who have had fundamental disagreements with that theory. Describe
Madison's theory; then, describe the theories of two thinkers who
have substantially disagreed with that theory. Discuss.
P. Describe the major differing perspectives within American political
thought. Identify the theorists who developed these ideas.
Compare and contrast the major features of these theories. Discuss.
Q. Compare and contrast the political theories of the following: a.
James Madison, b. John C. Calhoun, c. Henry David Thoreau, d. William G.
Sumner or Ralph Waldo Emerson, e. John Dewey, f. Thorstein Veblen or Walter
Lippmann or C. Wright Mills or Henry George.
R. The role and function and the limitations of government have been
contentious subjects from the founding of the American Republic.
Identify the major types of thought on these on these issues and describe
the justifications of the major theorists of each type, regardless of the
period of time in which their writings appeared.
A. Classical Political Thought
1. According to Plato’s Republic, is it possible to be a good person
in a bad state? Is it possible to be a bad person in a good state?
To answer these questions requires that you examine what goodness and badness
are in both the individual and the state. What is the relationship
of these questions to justice? Discuss.
2. Why doesn't Plato agree with the argument that justice is something
imposed by social convention and practiced as an unwelcome necessity?
Describe the elements of Plato's theory which constitute the major arguments
(proof) that 'justice is not merely useful as bringing external rewards,
but intrinsically good as an inward state of the soul, even though the
just man be persecuted rather than rewarded.'
3. Describe Plato's theory of the psychology of human nature.
What is the relationship between human psychology and human society?
How did Plato use his psychology to set up his vision of the ideal society?
Describe the features of Aristotle's Polity, the virtues of each segments,
and the main principles which govern its dynamics. Compare and contrast
Plato's ideal society with Aristotle's best practicable form (polity).
4. Plato's Republic is said to be the first work which explicitly ties
human 'psychology' to the structure of society and the state and which
directly ties morality and rectitude to that structure. Compare and contrast
the features of Aristotle's vision of the best possible state (Polity)
with Plato's morality-individual-society-state architecture in the Republic.
Be specific in your references, explaining 'why' the two are
alike or different. Discuss.
5. Drawing upon Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics
and his Politics, discuss the question of whether it is better to be ruled
by good men or good laws. Is it possible to be a good person in a
bad society? If so, why? If not, why not? In answering
these questions, develop the general theoretical concepts of both Plato
and Aristotle and compare and contrast their theories and epistemologies.
6. What is the meaning of ‘distributive justice’ in Aristotle’s political
theory? Why is the "mean important? What does the form of government have
to do with distributive justice? In what form of government is distributive
justice possible? What purposes does the best possible form of government
serve which the others cannot? Discuss.
7. Describe the features of Aristotle's ideal society. Why
does Aristotle believe that it is desirable and possible? Explain
B. Modern Political Theory
1.Trace the development of the theory of ‘limited government’ in modern
Western political thought. What are the basic concepts used to make
points relative to this notion? Who constituted its major enemies?
2. Why is Rouseau an important modern political theorist? Take
the pattern of his arguments and key concepts and place them within the
history of the development of modern political thought, addressing such
ideas as social contract theory, natural law, the sources of morality,
and human nature. What theoretical kinship does Rousseau have with
Edmund Burke? Explain and discuss.
3. Describe, compare, and contrast the political theories of Thomas
Hobbes, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill.
4. Compare and contrast the Marx and Engel's analysis of the history
and dynamics of capitalism with Rousseau's arguments in his Discourse
on the Origin of Inequality.
5. Describe the fundamental elements of Karl Marx’ political theory.
Where does Marx belong in the historical development of modern political
thought? Why? Explain.
C. American Political Thought
1. That the individual has occupied an exceptionally high place in the
theories of American political thinkers is certainly true. However,
it begs the question of what ‘individualism’ is. There are several
strains of individualism in American political thought. There are
those who hail the virtue of the individual and those that see dangers
in excessive individualism. Identify and describe the different strains
of individualism in American political thought. What are the concepts
and who are the thinkers that exemplify these major differences?
2. Identify and describe the political theories of those major American
thinkers who placed an primary emphasis upon ‘community’ or society.
What were the concepts they used to justify their emphases? What
was the place of the individual in their thinking? How important
has this strand of political thought been in America? Discuss.
3. The political theories of the following are four of the most
important variants of American political thinking. Describe main
features of these theories carefully and note what distinguishes them from
a. James Madison
b. Thomas Jefferson
c. Henry David Thoreau
d. John C. Calhoun
Select three major American political thinkers from the late-19th and
early-20th Century; to which of the four listed above does each bear a
theoretical similarity? Discuss.
4. Both John C. Calhoun and Robert A. Dahl see themselves as building
upon Madison's theory of factions and the extended republic. Describe
Madison's theory and compare and contrast the theories of Calhoun and Dahl.
5. Alexis de Tocqueville is concerned with the growth of what he calls
'individualism.' Other American political theorists (such as Henry
David Thoreau and James Madison) portray individualism as the glory of
American life. Describe the dangers of individualism that Tocqueville
sees, and contrast it with the theories of Thoreau and Madison. Was
Tocqueville right or wrong? Why?
6. Robert A Dahl and C. Wright Mills developed theories of the way in
which the American political system works. Describe these theories
and compare and contrast them. Where, in the development of American
political thought, do these two theorists belong? Discuss.
7. Select the four greatest political theories in the history of America
(they should be substantially different). Describe and explain your
criteria for determining the 'greatest.' Describe, compare, and contrast
the content of political theories.
8. The term 'Liberalism' represents varying points of view in American
political thought in different times. Describe the main proponent
and schools of 'Liberal' political thought in America. What are the main
conceptual features of each school? What are the similarities
between these schools of 'Liberal' thought, and what are the theoretical
bases for the distinctions we make between them?
9. Select FOUR conservative political thinkers in the American
political tradition. Explain why they are conservative and why you
have selected them rather than others in this tradition. Describe,
compare, and contrast their political theories (concepts and definitions).
10. Select FOUR radical political thinkers in the American political
tradition. Explain why these thinkers are radical and why you have
selected them rather than others in this tradition. Describe compare, and
contrast their political theory (concepts and definitions).
11. Select the four greatest political theories in the history
of America (they should be substantially different). Describe and
explain your criteria for determining the 'greatest.' Describe, compare,
and contrast the content of political theories.
12. Although the contemporary culture has consistently attempted to
minimize or obscure them, social class issues have always been extemely
important in American politics, and American Political thought reflects
this importance. Choose two writers (e.g. James Madison, Andrew
Jackson, William Graham Sumner, Eugene Debs, John Dewey) or two groups
of writers (e.g. federalists, populists, socialists, conservatives) and
show how each used the issue of social class in his (or their) arguments.
Explain why the issue is important.