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Exam Questions


Qualifying and Comprehensive Exam Questions in Political Science 



You need to answer two questions. The first question must be drawn from the pool of general questions. The second question must be drawn from any of the other three pools. Students cannot answer the same questions on the comprehensive capstone exam as they did on the earlier qualifying exam.  Furthermore, students cannot answer the same questions if they fail an exam and have to retake it. 

Each answer should be roughly ten double-spaced typewritten pages with one-inch margins. Please paste the question on the top of your answer. The questions are available at the beginning of the academic year. The exams are written at home. The exams are your own work, but students may schedule an appointment with the Writing Center if that would be helpful. 

Exams are administered twice annually and should be handed in by the second Monday following fall or spring break.   The deadline for Fall 2019 exams is Monday October 28th.  If you need to retake an exam, the retake is due on the Friday of the last week of classes (Reading Day). 


General Guidelines:

Answers will be graded according to the student’s ability to demonstrate mastery of substantive material and integrate concepts learned in their classes.  

Students are expected to cite specific scholarly material covered in classes.  The material has to be cited using either proper footnotes or endnotes. Each answer should draw on and cite at least eight academic sources. The answers have to be integrative and draw on material from at least two different classes.  

Three grades are possible: “exceeding expectations”, “meeting expectations” and “not meeting expectations”. Students must pass their qualifying exam in the semester of their fifth course.  Students who fail the exam must retake it. Failure to pass a second qualifying exam will result in dismissal from the program. Students must pass their comprehensive exam in the semester of their tenth course.  Failure to pass second comprehensive capstone exam will lead to denial of the degree. 

N.B. Students who are enrolled in a 12-course certificate program (such as the Non-Profit Management certificate, or certificate in Applied statistics) may take their qualifying/comprehensive exams in the semester of their sixth/twelfth course. 

The answers will be evaluated according to the following criteria 

1. Engagement with the question: 

  • How relevant are the selected readings for the questions? How carefully have you evaluated the readings? Have you accurately characterized the readings on which your answer draws? 

2. Degree of integration: 

  • To what extent does your answer integrate concepts, theories and empirical literature from at least two different courses? How balanced is your treatment of the concepts, theories, and empirical sources that support your answer? 

3. Quality of writing: 

  • Answers that are substantively solid but are ineffectively organized, poorly written, or contain many typos will receive a conditional pass. Students will then have to make at least two appointments at the Writing Center to seek assistance before resubmitting a revised answer.  


I. General Questions: 

1. Testable theories play an integral role in how political scientists analyze political phenomena. Identify one theory (or hypothesis) that you thought was particularly insightful and articulate how it helped you understand a given political phenomenon in a new light. You may also identify a particular theory that simplified or complicated the analysis to such a degree that it did not help you gain new insights.


2. Identify a common substantive theme (problem, insight, theory, method, etc.)  that was developed across several courses in your Political Science Master’s degree. Briefly describe the theme and discuss how similarly or dissimilarly the various courses approached this theme. 


3. Empirical political scientists like to differentiate themselves from political philosophers by claiming to be value free and only addressing questions for which they can generate empirically-supported answers. In the themes and topics that you have studied, how water-tight is this distinction between empirical and normative political science? Did political theory and non-theory courses cover similar topics in very different ways? Do you see these two elements of political science in conflict with each other, or as compatible with one another? 


4. The accounts of politics in newspapers, television, or other serious media outlets focus heavily on elections, personalities, policies, and conflict among groups. How do journalistic accounts of politics differ from empirical scholarly literature? Discuss the substantive differences in the themes and factors that are emphasized, and assess the consequences of these differences for public understandings and policymaking.  


5. Select a subject matter or phenomenon covered in any of your courses and identify two articles or books that approach the same topic using different methodologies. Those methodological perspectives can include experimental analysis, survey methods, large-N statistical analysis, process-tracing based case studies, or ethnographic research. Compare and contrast the sources in terms of the two (or three) methodologies that you chose.  Your answer should engage the following questions:  How do the methodological choices shape how the scholars framed their research questions? How did it affect how the scholars selected and analyzed their evidence/data? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each methodological approach? How do they complement each other? 


6. Select an empirical phenomenon covered in any of your courses that remains subject to heated scholarly debate in which scholars offer opposing theoretical answers on the same subject matter. Outline the claims the respective theories make and how those claims have evolved over the last two or three research cycles. Your review of this scholarly debate should focus on the following issues: How much (or how little) has each theory reformulated the research question, or have scholars continued to answer the same question? Are the updated research questions more relevant for the empirical phenomenon at hand?  How have scholars refined the concepts and measures they use? How have the theories themselves evolved? How much or little did each theory engage with others and how fairly did they engage? Finally, has the body of scholarship advanced our understanding of the subject matter? (Consult Chris Howard, Thinking Like a Political Scientist, pp. 13-35, for how to evaluate scholarly debates.) 


II. American Politics Questions:

1. Political scientists frequently speak of a tension between “agent-based” and “structural” explanations for certain phenomena. That sort of thinking is clearly present in scholarly analyses of the three branches of government. With respect to Congress, for example, some scholars point to the attainment of individual policy preferences (Poole and Rosenthal) or reelection (Mayhew; Fiorina) as the key explanation for member behavior. Others believe that such perspectives ignore the ways in which institutions like committees and the seniority system (Maltzman; Shepsle and Weingast) constrain members or even alter their preferences.  As for the presidency, explanations of individual behavior that focus on incumbent psychology or persuasive skill (Barber; Neustadt) often run up against claims that incumbent action is limited by longer-term commitments within American politics (Skowronek; Edwards). Turning to the Court, while much ink has been spilled on the proposition that justices are merely politicians in black robes (Spaeth and Segal), more recent scholarship has pointed to the role that other governmental and even non-governmental institutions (e.g, law schools) play in judicial decision-making (Knight and Epstein; Gillman and Clayton). Pick one of the three branches, discuss representative claims from both camps, and offer your own measured assessment of the dominant driver(s) behind congressional/presidential/judicial behavior.  


2. In 1952, concurring in Youngstown Sheet & Tube v. Sawyer (the so-called “Steel Seizure” case), Justice Robert H. Jackson famously wrote that our Constitution “diffuses power the better to secure liberty” (343 U.S. 579, at 635). In this particular case, the diffusion of power was among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches (I.e., the “horizontal” dimension of American constitutionalism). Of course, there is also a “vertical” dimension of American constitutionalism: federalism. It too was devised to diffuse power (this time between states and the federal government) in the service of liberty. Putting these two elements of the U.S. Constitution together, one might argue that the key device by which the Constitution seeks to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” is the non-concentration of political power. In short, no single actor or institution effectively “runs the show.” 
You need not agree with this claim respecting the Constitution’s key device for the protection of liberty. However, you should be able to think about the Constitution’s success in preventing concentrations of power from 1789 until today. Consider the various graduate courses that you have taken within American Politics. Do any of the scholars that you have encountered argue (at least implicitly, but perhaps explicitly) that concentrations of power, either within or outside of government, have emerged within our constitutional system? If so, review one or two of these claims and then assess the actual degree of threat posed by these “concentrations.” If not, identify (based on your course readings) the arena of American politics from which a future threat of concentrated power is most likely to come. 


3. There are different schools of thought about whether elites or the mass public wields the influence necessary to effect political action.  Based on your understanding of public opinion and political processes, who leads political decision-making, who follows, and why?  Make a case for either elites or the mass public, and be sure to defend your choice with careful reasoning.  


4. Robert Dahl argued that in order to sustain a democracy, the public needs access to reliable information about politics and governance.  Drawing on what you know about the information environment, evaluate Dahl’s claim as it pertains to contemporary politics.  Do you believe that citizens have the information they need to make intelligent political choices?  Why or why not?  What are the ramifications of your answer for effective democratic engagement?  


5. One of the dominant themes in today’s American politics landscape concerns polarization.  National and state legislatures exhibit high levels of polarization.  Some scholars find polarization in the executive branch.  The U.S. Supreme Court, and many state supreme courts, seem bitterly divided along left-right lines.  Scholars have wrestled with this issue focusing on causes (Morris Fiorina, Alan Abramowitz), negative consequences (too many books and articles to mention), and remedies (e.g., Nathan Persily’s Solutions to Political Polarization).  Focusing on any two of these three aspects, discuss polarization with particular attention to the following questions: Which causal theory makes the most sense to you, and why?  Do you judge the consequences of polarization to be as severe as popular opinion would suggest?  In which branch of government and at what level is the problem the most severe?  Which of the solutions to and remedies for ending (or coping with) polarization make the most sense to you, and why? 


III. International Relations Questions:

1. Explanations for international political developments are often typologized in terms of different levels of analysis. What assumptions about the causal structure of world politics underlie this typology? What important concepts defy such easy categorization? Are there interactions between these different levels of analysis? Can you think of an alternative framework for studying international relations?  


2. To what extent can international conflicts and civil wars be understood using the same conceptual and theoretical lenses? Draw on theories and evidence to support your argument. 


3. Over the past couple of decades, IR scholars have begun to focus on the role of non-state actors – such as terrorists, activists, and multi-national corporations – in world politics. How compatible is this focus with the major theories of international relations? Draw on theories and evidence to support your argument. 


4. Cooperation is a central concern in international relations, and thus a central preoccupation for scholars of international relations. What factors increase the likelihood of cooperation between states, and what factors make cooperation more difficult? Draw on theories and evidence to support your argument. 


5. A Roman saying states: “If you desire peace, prepare for war.”1 Drawing on evidence and theories of international relations, analyze the logic underlying this statement and assess the soundness of this advice. 


6. The political scientist Kathryn Sikkink argues that “the dominant theories in the discipline do not give us the tools to understand the emergence of human rights as a crucial international issue area, nor the impact human rights ideas and policies can have upon state practices” (1998: 517).  What does she mean by this? Do you agree with this statement? Draw on theories and evidence to support your argument. 


IV. Comparative Politics Questions: 

1. The nature and organizational characteristics of political actors vary significantly across different countries. Political regimes vary tremendously in terms of how the economy and civil society are organized. They also differ in how political parties and interest groups structure the linkage between formal political institutions and society. Compare and contrast a set of political actors across two regions or regime types, describe their organizational differences, and assess how effective they are in linking societal interests with formal political outcomes. Make sure to think carefully about your case selection, and justify the logic behind it.  And identify the factors that contributed to such organizational differences. 


2. Comparative politics focuses a lot on how formal democratic political institutions or broader regime types affect political outcomes. Pick an issue area (e.g. public policy, societal relations, economic structures, etc.) and a set of formal institutions or regime types and explain to what extent institutional differences can or cannot explain different outcomes in your chosen issue area. First describe differences in policy outcomes by comparing at least two countries or regimes. Make sure to think carefully about your case selection, and justify the logic behind it.  Then assess to what extent variations in institutions can explain differences in policies and to what extent non-institutional factors matter. 


3. There is a large comparative literature on political development that seeks to explain present-day differences in regime types or forms of democracy. This literature focuses on a wide range of explanatory factors that include historical legacies, socio-economic structures, cultural factors, and international effects. Compare three countries with at least two different regime types or regime trajectories (i.e. developments across time).  Explain why you chose these countries, describe their institutional differences and offer an explanation for these differences. 


4. Political outcomes are increasingly affected by domestic and international factors. Identify the most important domestic and international factors that have affected a specific political outcome (such as democratization, socio-economic development, global inequality, neo-liberal market reforms, state formation/state capacity, political stability/instability, civil/ethnic conflict, etc.). Then explain what factors (such as international organizations, markets, diffusion of ideas, transnational actors) mediate the impact of domestic and international factors on the phenomenon that you have selected. Has the relative impact of domestic and international factors changed over time? 



5. Political science as a social science discipline split off from law because many scholars increasingly recognized that political outcomes are shaped not just by institutional factors but also by actors and their beliefs as well as broader structural constraints. Select a political phenomenon that you have studied and discuss how it has been affected by non-institutional factors (i.e. religion, economic structure, ethnicity, geopolitics). 



6. “Can international forces that contribute to global inequality be adequately addressed by domestic political and economic policy changes in powerful nations, such as the United States? Also, are specific democratic institutions or political actors better suited than others in addressing the problem of domestic income inequality? By drawing on the literature on comparative political and economic development, address the two-part question above.” 




[Updated September 2019] 


Abigail Minor
Senior Administrative Assistant
Department of Political Science
Villanova University
Villanova, PA 19085-1699
Phone: 610.519.4710
Fax: 610.519.7487