Political Theory

Political Theory & Political Science

Political Theory is a distinct field within the discipline of political science. Political theorists tend to focus more on theoretical claims rather than empirical claims about the nature of the politics. Normative political theory is concerned with questions about such concepts as justice, equality, and rights. Historical political theory engages political philosophers from the past (e.g. Thucyides and Plato) to the present (e.g. Wendy Brown and Seyla Benahabib), and may focus on how particular philosophers engaged political problems that continue to be relevant today. While the focus has traditionally been on Western traditions, that is beginning to change in this field.

It is a mistake to think that the work political theorists do is completely distinct from the work that other political scientists do. There are many ways in which the approaches are complementary and benefit when they engage each other. A recent volume edited by Mantzavinos, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, includes contributions by both philosophers and social scientists, where they react to and learn from each other. Social scientists can often benefit from the close attention philosophers pay to concepts; theorists can often benefit from the descriptions of the world that social scientists provide.

There are number of ways in which writing a paper or senior thesis in political theory is different from the process of doing the more empirical work that other political scientists engage in. Empirical work often involves such tasks as hypothesis testing, the collection of new empirical data, and the use of specific methodologies to collect and or analyze the data (statistics, field research, surveys, etc.). Typically, the focus for political theory work is on two things: the logical consistency of your own ideas and the way you engage other theorists. (See: http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/political-science/)

As suggested above, there are several different ways of doing political theory. While many theorists engage philosophers from the past, this is not always necessary. What is important is that you discuss the approach and the questions you plan to address with your advisor/instructor.

How to Use this Website

In general, as a political theorist you may use this guide very differently from the way your more empirically-minded colleagues will use it.  As suggested on the homepage, the steps in your research and writing process will be a little different. Some of the sections that may be useful include:

  • Approaches to Political Theory [will be updated soon]
  • Causality [will be updated soon]
  • Concepts and Measurements [will be updated soon]
  • Writing (and all of its sub-pages)



Articles & Chapters

  • Aristotle. “Book 1”. The Nicomachean Ethics.
  • Brown, Wendy. 2002. “At the Edge.” Political Theory, 30:4, 556-576.
    • Abstract: Brown examines the different spheres defined inherently in the practice of political theory, drawing from historical and recent developments in academia, political theory, and the world as a whole. She also delves into the interactions between those spheres and the forces they individually exert on political theory, inquiring as to their effects. More generally, she pursues the problem of how political theory proves itself useful to issues of the contemporary world.
  • Grant, Ruth W. 2002. “Political theory, political science, and politics.”   Political Theory, 30:4, 577-595.
    • Abstract: “Is research in political theory worth doing, (and) can politics be adequately understood without it?” Political theory, political science, and the practice of politics are entirely separate things, and in her inquiry, Grant seeks to further flesh out the duty that political theory performs and its relevance to its two sister fields. Arguing for political theory as research of a humanities flavor, she discusses its possible interpretations and roles in academia.
  • Katznelson, Ira, and Helen Milner. 2002. “Political Theory and Political Membership in a Changing World.” In Political Science: The State of Discipline, New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Moon, J. Donald. 2004. “The Current State of Political Theory: Pluralism and Reconciliation.” In What is political theory?, ed.  Stephen K. White and Donald J. Moon. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.
    • Abstract: In his essay, Moon challenges an assertion earlier made by Isaiah Berlin that “political philosophy is dead” and using the theory of John Rawls as a counterpoint, he assesses the current condition and discusses the contemporary normative role of political theory. By doing so, he provides a microcosm of the analytical process that charges political theorizing, makes a case for a revival of philosophy, and examines the role of the political philosopher in society.
  • Shapiro, Ian. 2002. “Problems, methods, and theories: what’s wrong with political science and what to do about it.” Political Theory, 30:4, 596-619.
  • Smith, Anna Marie. “Guidelines for Writing a Political Theory Essay.”
    • Presents one Professor’s (Cornell University) view at what a political theory essay should do. An extensive and useful discussion.
  • Tampio, Nicholas. 2005. “Writing Political Theory: Lessons from an Apprenticeship.” Political Science 38: 391-92


Online Indexes

Associations & Conferences


updated July 11, 2017 – MN