Subject Overview

What is Politics?
Why study politics? We might have many kinds of motives: curiosity, ambition, hope for the future, fear for the future… Perhaps it is better to start a step further back and ask ourselves what politics is? It is hard to avoid, that’s for sure. It is on our TV screens, and in our newspapers, and all over the internet. Politics comes knocking at our doors in the shape of activists, campaigners, candidates, councilors, MPs. Sometimes politics knocks down doors, knocks down buildings, knocks down states, knocks heads. But what is it? What do we understand by politics? Do we mean elections, political parties, the competition to govern in a democratic society? Or is it something broader? Can the study of politics get to grips with the government of China, or Russia, or Iran or Saudi Arabia? Do Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin understand politics in the same way as Barack Obama or Angela Merkel? For that matter, do David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn understand politics in the same way? Can studying politics help us understand movements of popular protest, or the frequent disappointments that popular movements meet with? Can it help us with the great challenges of our day: inequality within and between nations, the breakdown of states, war and the refugee crises it creates, terrorism, climate change? Are these political problems, and if so, in what sense? Are race, gender, sexuality, religion and culture political questions?

The Study of Politics
Many of these questions are new variants on old themes, some of them very old indeed. We borrow the word ‘politics’ from the Ancient Greeks. They used it to describe what it meant to live in a particular kind of society, a polis, or city-state. The Ancient Greeks were inquisitive people; they wanted to understand the world around them, and that included the society they lived in. Philosophers like Aristotle wanted to know what politics was for, how it worked, what problems it might create, and what form of government was best equipped to help a polis flourish. Politics was both an object of enquiry and of reflection, and a necessary practical part of a life well-lived. Understanding politics better could make the difference between a relatively comfortable life and disaster, for individuals and for the city as a whole. This could mean improving our empirical understanding of how politics works or has worked here or there, now or then. Or it could mean sharpening our self-understanding as enquirers, reflecting critically on the conceptual tools we use when thinking and talking about politics. Both these ways of approaching the problem remain central to the study of politics today, and it makes politics unusually open to collaboration with different disciplines such as economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, history, law and philosophy.

Thinking about studying Politics at university?
Entry requirements may differ from institution to institution, but generally speaking are not overly prescriptive in terms of A Level subjects and previous study of Politics at A Level is not usually required.

Universities will expect to see evidence of a developing interest in politics. This doesn’t mean you have to be a political activist, or a supporter of a political party. It does mean making a commitment to furthering your own understanding of politics. Reading a quality newspaper or news magazines, following the news on television or radio, or exploring some of the many political blogs or podcasts available on the internet - all are simple ways of informing yourself about contemporary political developments. A good starting point might be ‘Election – The Cambridge Politics Podcast’ (http://www.polis.cam.ac.uk/about-us/election) from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Politics and International Relations.

Studying Politics does demand clarity of thought and of expression, and an ability to communicate well is a necessity. Essay-writing is central to most courses, but so too is the ability to develop your ideas in discussion or debate with others.

  • Borders and the Refugee Crisis

    Today, more people are on the move than ever before, and sociologists are striving to make sense of what shapes this movement and how it is changing the world.

  • War in International Society

    If we go back to the very start of human history, we have always seen violence employed to achieve what we today might term political change.

  • Examining the Importance of the British Empire

    We will examine some sources that ask the critical questions about the impact of the largest empire the world has ever known, covering at its height a quarter of the globe, for the people who lived within it – and think about why the political, cultural and economic influence of Britain continues to predominate in the world today.

  • The Rights of Religious Minorities and Constitutions

    The core challenge for a secular country is to address the concerns of preserving and protecting community identity while at the same time making sure that the rights of individuals are not curtailed. Societies with a wide range of ethnic and religious minorities often face this challenge. It is important to secure their rights as a group. However, individual citizens in these communities also need to be awarded rights similar to those of their counterparts in majority communities.

  • Sociological Approaches to Racism in the USA

    Racism in the USA is a systemic ideology that affects the daily experiences of minority citizens in numerous ways, including access to housing, medical care, certain vocations, and social groups. Whilst legalised discrimination is no longer tolerated, de facto discrimination continues in many of these areas. The purpose of this module is to map the ways in which attitudes about racial difference and hierarchy have changed in the USA since the period of slavery, and to trace the continuing underlying assumption that race is a key signifier of individual character and potential.

  • British Politics and the 'Education Gap'

    Polling companies and political scientists have spent the last couple of years struggling to catch up with a rapidly changing political landscape, with some successes to their credit. What were once safe predictors of people’s voting intentions, such as social class or income, no longer seem so decisive. Instead, age, education, and whether we live in a city or the countryside seem to be the most reliable indicators of political attitudes.

  • Britain's EU Referendum and the Power of Historical Narratives in Politics

    The UK held a general referendum on whether to remain in or leave the European Union (EU) on 23 June 2016.

  • Political Religion and Conservative Christianity in the USA

    Politics and religion have long been linked; from 380AD when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, to the founding of the

  • Evidence-Based Policy-Making

    The resources in this topic will help you to delve into the complicated process of policy-making, and find out how researchers are trying to encourage policy-makers to use more evidence in their decisions.

  • Power and Propaganda: The Persian Empire

    How do you get people to do what you want? This question is particularly important for people in positions of authority and especially those who control whole nations. There are lots of different options, of course: you can use force (or the threat of force), you can use incentives (most obviously money, but also other expensive goods or privileges), but you can also use persuasion. This resource is all about the propaganda produced by the kings of the ancient Persian Empire.