How to Read Political Science

How to Read Political Science:
Advice, Instruction, Suggestions, & Warnings from
the Gonzaga University Political Science Department

When we sit down to read poems, we know we need to read the words in ways that are different from reading a newspaper report. Likewise, reading political science is not like reading poems or most newspaper reports, and we have to have habits and tools which help us get from political science literature what authors aim to communicate, or what we can recognize as of sense and value. Coming into college studies there is no particular reason you will have trained yourself to read political science essays and books, so this note offers you some advice, some suggestions, and some warnings from us, the faculty in the Political Science department at Gonzaga University.

First bit of advice is this: Do not get yourself overwhelmed by imaginary troubles; most political science writing is actually structured in simple ways. This note aims to show you that structure, that road map, to help you see where the authors start from, the steps they will take, and the end of the journey they intend to reach.

Second note of advice is also simple: Provide yourself time to actually read, and read carefully, thoughtfully. The structure of most political science you will read in college is simple enough, but there tends to be lots put on that structure, so reading as quickly as one can won’t be much help, while giving real time, patiently, and effort, genuinely, will be rewarding.

Third note of advice: Take notes (NOT in library books, ever!), short ones at least, of major interpretations, claims, questions, or conclusions put forward by the author, and of your own questions and reactions. Maybe write a paragraph synopsis of the essay or book.

Now, on the reading as a set of practices, because reading in college is reading as a set of practices:

Begin by setting the essay, chapter, or book in the context of the course you are taking. So, if you are reading an essay on American civil rights in Politics 101, the introduction to American Government, ask how civil rights are important in the overall account of government and politics in the U.S.. You want to know how your readings fit with the whole course, or how and why they may not seem to fit.

Next, take a good look at the table of contents, the first chapter and the concluding chapter, and the in between chapters, so that you get a sense of what topics the author thinks are important for readers to appreciate, and in what order these topics are best studied. Or, if you are reading only a chapter or an essay, there is usually a statement, perhaps as a paragraph, in which the author says what will occur in the rest of the essay, a sort of written up outline statement. Keep in mind such outlines; when you might wonder what is going on in some technical or sluggish part of the text, these road maps can give fine help.

Many political science authors build on what was done by other scholars, so they contrast their work with some previous one. You do not need to know at the moment that other work, but noticing the contrast being highlighted can help you recognize just what particularly the work you are reading might be about. For example, if Prof. Smith wants to explain “asymmetrical federalism”, likely some Prof. Jones has objected to the concept, or given it a different interpretation. Your author then states his or her unique idea, and so you jump in and take that along as you read the rest, not for now giving a fig for the idea of Prof. Jones. (Something similar happens even when political science writers say they agree with one another. We are a charming lot, us political scientists! Even when we agree, we see better or different reasons for agreeing.)

At different junctures of a chapter or essay something strong, declarative, definitive is said. The author says that

       To the extent that Bismarck’s ministers worried about maintaining office, such considerations
       actually made policy investment more rather than less attractive. To see why, we have to consider
       the specific structure of the political challenges the government confronted. [from Alan M. Jacobs.
       2011. Governing for the Long Term: Democracy and the politics of investment. Cambridge
       University Press, 83]

Here the author has put to us a puzzle, that politicians worried about staying in office, but found the better strategy to be investing, not spending, public funds. The author then tells us that he will next explain this seemingly odd decision. The reader is thus urged to notice that an explanation is about to be laid before us.

In conclusion statements political science authors tell us what they want us to appreciate or understand, or be persuaded by, but these statements should also be examined by us to be sure we did indeed follow the previous material. For example:

       These brief examples serve to illustrate the importance of race as a critical variable in organizing
       inequality in Latin American societies and, likewise, how systems of racial classification come into
       being through environmental formations. [Juanita Sundberg, “Tracing Race: Mapping
       environmental formations in environmental justice research in Latin America”, 43, in David V.
       Carruthers, ed.. 2008. Environmental Justice in Latin America: Problems, promise, and practice.
       The MIT Press.]

So, from such a concluding statement, we should be able, given the entire essay, to know some key lessons the author wants to convey to us: race as a critical variable; organizing inequality; systems of racial classification and environmental formations. That is lots to know, but if we have read well, likely any review of the essay will soon capture what the author thinks are her major lessons for her readers.

In reading political science works, we want to pick out trees and forests, knowing when a particular item is important because it is (a) uniquely significant or (b) is a good example of a common matter, and we want to know when a general, whole reality is important in some way, according to the writer. Most political science authors leave us lots of clues, even rather blunt statements as to their sense of what is important to learn from their texts. Catching authors declaring a turning point, a contrast with another writer, making a concluding statement, or saying something like “my finding is therefore that…” is where we can use good habits and skills to see not only the simple structure of political science writing, but also the weighty, valuable ideas and lessons placed on that structure.

Finally, making a list of key terms, major persons mentioned in the text, and then doing a quick visit or two to a dictionary or an encyclopedia, can help given background and greater clarity to anything not so familiar to you. For example, in this note you might want to look up “asymmetrical federalism”, Bismarck, and ideas about race and colour. Maybe you do not need to or want to do such extra bits of work, so you will decide if knowing something about Bismarck really is needed for you to best appreciate the politics of investment. Another way of finding the sense of key terms is to turn to the book’s index and go to the first or second uses of the mysterious term. Often political science writers will explain when first or second used, at least some, the meaning of terms and the role of a person.

Find for yourself a set of habits and strategies for reading in your college studies. You are developing here skills which you can use in future times, in business, the professions, and in scholarship, so investing time and thought and energy now pays off, likely in ways you cannot now predict.

Consult with any of your professors for advice, hints, and techniques for getting from required and suggesting reading all that is there to be learned. Good reading habits, like other good habits, can be improved, but mostly they just need to be put to use. The worst thing to do is to presume you cannot and need not improve your reading practices. The best thing to do is to get into some solid, workable habits of being a keen reader, alert and engaged.

Best regards,
The Political Science Department at Gonzaga University