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Introduction to Political Science

1.6 Individuals, Groups, Institutions, and International Relations

Introduction to Political Science1.6 Individuals, Groups, Institutions, and International Relations

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain why it makes sense to begin learning about political science with a study of individual behavior.
  • Discuss what human motivations, political ideologies, and public opinion have in common.
  • Distinguish between civil liberties and civil rights, and explain why the former are examined in the section on individuals and the latter in the section on groups.
  • Identify the key types of groups and institutions involved in politics.
  • Identify the central themes in international relations and globalization.

To develop your understanding of the key concepts and content in politics and political science, this book begins with the micro, focusing on the smallest political unit, the individual, in Part II. Part III turns to individuals acting collectively through groups. When groups become formalized by establishing rules and developing common practices, they become institutions, the focus of Part IV. Finally, Part V examines how clusters of institutions, whether within the government of a single country or across countries through international organizations, comprise a macro-level view of politics.

All politics is based on human behavior—on how individuals interact with each other—so that is where our political exploration begins. Chapter 2: Political Behavior Is Human Behavior considers questions in political philosophy, such as “What are human rights?” and “What is social justice?” The chapter then examines empirically how individuals generally make decisions, whether in political action or in any other context. Two ideas stand out. First, humans act instrumentally, or strategically or “rationally,” as they pursue their goals. Second, much of human behavior serves expressive and emotional ends.

Chapter 3 explores political ideology. Ideology is a set of beliefs—a systematic set of concepts—that helps individuals make sense of the world and their place in it. Ideologies help guide an individual’s decisions regarding what is right and wrong, good and bad, and appropriate and inappropriate. Your political ideology determines, in part, how you see the proper roles of citizens and their governments. Although ideology is individual—only you can determine your political ideology—it connects you to many others in the same way that those with similar religious beliefs gather together. Ideology is both an individual and a group phenomenon.

The essential freedoms and rights to which all humans are entitled, human rights, can be divided into two categories. Chapter 4 examines the first category, civil liberties, which involve individual freedoms to think and act without government interference. Later, Chapter 7 considers the civil rights groups have to do certain things, like voting or gaining access to public buildings. Citizens around the world ask their governments to protect and defend their human rights, both as groups—their civil rights—and as individuals—their civil liberties. Yet the boundaries of these human rights are disputed, and they are frequently under attack.


What Is a Human Right?

This United Nations video introduces a basic definition of human rights and how governments and the UN work to promote and protect them.

The last chapter in Part II explores political participation and public opinion. Political participation includes all the various ways you and others can engage in the political process. In democracies, voting may be the most important and most common form of political participation, but there are countless other ways to participate. Even watching or reading political information is a form of participation, although, as Tufts University professor Eitan Hersh warns, if people only consume political news rather than acting on it, they are hobbyists rather than engaged citizens.47

Individuals also have their own political opinions (typically, a political poll will ask questions like “Do you believe . . .”), but these opinions are aggregated into group categories and reported as public opinion. Chapter 5 examines how polls are constructed and how they convert individual views into valid measures of public opinion.

Political participation and public opinion bridge individual and group behavior. When individuals vote as Republicans or Democrats, contact public officials on behalf of the Sierra Club or the NRA, or march in support of Black Lives Matter or the Right to Life, they are also participating as members of a political party, interest group, or social movement. A political pollster asks questions of individuals, but their answers are reported by group affiliations like “A majority of Republicans believe . . .” or “Supporters of BLM generally favor. . . .”

Political action invariably involves groups, and Part III examines different aspects of group behavior, rights, and forms of political action.

Chapter 6: The Fundamentals of Group Political Activity, should remind you of Chapter 2: Political Behavior Is Human Behavior. Both chapters consider two aspects of human behavior— the “irrational,” expressive, and symbolic elements, as well as the rational, instrumental, and strategic components. The first part of the chapter examines political socialization and political culture. Political socialization is the gradual process by which individuals develop their political personality over time, and this personality is heavily influenced by others in their environment—their family and friends, people in their schools and places of worship, and more broadly, people in their social networks. Political culture is the common set of political attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors characterizing a group, whether the group is a country or a community of any sort. The second part of the chapter introduces the concept of collective dilemmas, the logic underlying our difficulty in overcoming them, and potential ways to resolve these dilemmas. Collective dilemmas occur whenever multiple individuals interact with one another to make a group decision. Problems arise when they disagree on what the solutions should be or even how to decide what to do. A special form of collective dilemmas—collective action problems—exists when individuals have incentives not to cooperate with others even though cooperation would benefit the group as a whole.

Chapter 7 focuses on civil rights. Governments must take action for these rights to exist in practice, and governments typically extend these rights to certain groups. Consider the right to vote. For this right to be exercised, the government must provide places to vote, ballots, and ballot counters. When voting rights are extended—or withdrawn—they are extended to or withdrawn from specific groups. Voting rights were extended to African Americans in 1870 in the United States and to women in Switzerland in 1971; in Ethiopia, Nicaragua, and Scotland, 16-year-olds have the right to vote. Because governments must take action for civil rights to be realized, they are matters of intense political debate.

Contests over civil rights—in fact, political battles over every issue—usually involve group conflict, competition, and cooperation. Chapter 8 focuses on interest groups, political parties, and elections. Interest groups are organizations of individuals united by common identities and goals who seek to obtain their objectives through political action. Political parties are organizations that try to gain political power, most often in democracies by running their candidates for office. The main goal of interest groups is to influence public policy, including by supporting political parties as they try to win elections. Political parties seek to win elections in order to set public policy as their candidates enter office. Interest groups, political parties, and elections are inextricably linked.

What Can I Do?

Communication Skills and Political Science

Two men speak to each other in a hallway.
Figure 1.12 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (right) talks with the editor-in-chief of Native News Levi Rickert (left) at the National Congress of American Indians Tribal Nations Legislative Summit in 2012. (credit: “20120307-OSEC-LSC-0144” by US Department of Agriculture/Flickr, Public Domain)

Political science is fundamentally about interactions between different actors. When we study political science, we learn how to explain and describe those interactions. We can also think about political science as the study of how various conflicts (both actual and metaphorical) are resolved. In both conceptualizations, effective communication plays a fundamental role. We cannot understand how relationships work if we cannot effectively describe those relationships, and we cannot truly understand the conflict process without being able to analyze the communication between adversaries. Communication skills, therefore, become an essential part of the political scientist’s toolbox. These communication skills are among the most widely desired by employers and utilized in the workforce, regardless of field. While you may learn how to write a detailed analysis of a particular policy or situation in a political science class, you may end up applying that skill as a city manager or journalist. In political science, you may also learn how to translate large, often complex, amounts of data into understandable conclusions or findings. This form of communication is applicable to multiple different professions outside of political science—you are learning to translate data into something meaningful for non-experts.

Part III moves to yet a higher level of complexity: political institutions. An institution is an organization with a set of rules and practices that inform its members about their relationships with one another and how they should interact. Institutions may be formal, with written rules, or they may be informal. Your family is an institution, and if you belong to a religious faith, it is an institution too. Gangs are institutions, as are businesses. Our main interest in this book is institutions that are part of the political system either because they are part of the government or they seek to influence it. The first three chapters in Part IV introduce you to three types of institutions likely to exist within any government: a legislature, an executive branch, and a judiciary.

As discussed in Chapter 9: Legislatures, a legislature is an institution composed of individuals who have the power to propose, deliberate on, adopt, and alter the laws of a state. Parliaments, congresses, and national assemblies are all examples of legislatures. In democracies, legislators are elected. In nondemocratic states, they may be appointed by a supreme authority. The United States, like about 40 percent of the world’s democracies, has a bicameral, or two-chamber, legislature; the other democracies have unicameral, or one-chamber, legislatures.

Chapter 10 turns to executives and the executive branch, which includes cabinets and bureaucracies. The chief executive of a country goes by various titles, such as president, premier, or prime minister, and their responsibilities vary from country to country. This person may be the head of the government, with the powers of a chief executive officer; the head of state, with ceremonial powers; or both. A chief executive’s cabinet, composed of the leaders of the various governmental ministries (sometimes called departments) such as defense, treasury, or interior affairs, supports the chief executive. The bureaucracy executes most of the functions of a government, from defending the country to delivering its mail, serving under the direction of the chief executive and their cabinet.

The courts are institutions established to interpret and apply a country’s laws regarding criminal, civil, and in some cases constitutional disputes. They can be either appointed or elected. The courts and the judges or justices are more powerful when they are politically independent. This means they can decide cases and issue rulings without facing retribution from the voters or the legislative and executive branches. In the United States, for example, the Supreme Court can void laws and policies of the legislative and executive branches that it deems unconstitutional. In other countries, the courts largely serve at the direction of other politicians. Chapter 11: Courts and Law describes what courts do, the different types of legal systems, and questions regarding their power and its limits.

Chapter 12 introduces the news media and its role in politics. The news media—often called the fourth branch of government—is itself an institution. The news media, whether owned or controlled by a government or commercial businesses, is evolving rapidly. Thirty years ago, the news media could be defined as including television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. Today, with the rise of social media platforms that allow users to share and stream videos, images, and text, the news media is almost literally anyone with a smartphone and internet access. And although misinformation and disinformation have always been part of the political world, social media’s speed and scope for spreading “fake news” is unprecedented. Democracies require a free press—one that operates without government interference—but they also require a press that reports real, not fake, news.

Legislatures, executives, and courts are the institutions that together compose the three formal branches of a country’s government, with the media as the fourth branch serving to keep the other three branches honest by reporting on their activities. Part V moves beyond individual institutions to explore the politics of countries and the relations between them.

Chapter 13 looks within individual countries, or states, to describe the different types of governing regimes, or systems of government, that exist around the world. The chapter highlights two main regime characteristics: how concentrated or distributed governmental power is, and how the government is structured. The broader the distribution of government power, the more democratic the country. The more concentrated the distribution, the more authoritarian the regime. Structurally, governing regimes can be unitary, where all legal authority resides with the national government, or they can be federal, like the United States, where national and state governments each have their own legitimate sources of power.

Big questions concerning the relations among countries are at the heart of Chapter 14: International Relations. The chapter begins by discussing the different ways political actors wield power in the international system. The structure of the system and the different actors within it are then examined. Political scientists have different perspectives on how to interpret the motivations and behavior of countries in their relationships with each other, and the most prominent of these perspectives, including realism, liberalism, and constructivism, as well as critical theories that challenge traditional viewpoints, are outlined.

As the countries of the world have interacted with each other, they have developed institutions to help overcome their collective dilemmas. Chapter 15: International Law and International Organizations introduces the purposes and work of the most important international organizations, such as the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The chapter goes on to examine military alliances like NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). These organizations all have countries as members, but the international political environment also contains important “non-state” actors, including legal ones, such as multinational corporations and financial institutions, and non-legal ones like drug cartels and terrorist groups. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the threats to the international order posed by terrorism and revolution.

The final chapter focuses on the international political economy. International political economy concerns itself with the impact of political actions on domestic and international economies. If politics is about who gets what, when, where, how, and why, IPE tells us who the winners (who got) and losers (who didn't get) are, how they got that way, and analyzes the tactics they may employ to maintain or improve their position. Winners and losers may be governments, private interests, or social classes, among many others, and the chapter concludes with a discussion of current widespread crises confronting winners and losers with stark choices regarding poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation.

Meet a Professional

Mark Carl Rom, Associate Professor of Government and Public Policy at the McCourt School of Public Policy and the Department of Government, Georgetown University


Please explain what you do for your organization.

I teach courses in US politics, public policy, data visualizations, and the role ethics and values play in politics. I have conducted research and published books and articles on many different topics: sex education, same-sex marriage, financial regulation, and welfare reform, among others. Some of my current research focuses on the college classroom as a political environment.

What did you study in school?

I majored in political science at the University of Arkansas. Before becoming a political scientist, I worked as a janitor, a field hand, a waiter, a ticket taker, a library clerk, a gas station attendant, an assembly-line laborer, and a backpacking guide, among other odd jobs.

What did you learn as an undergraduate that helps you in this position?

Classrooms raise questions regarding power, legitimacy, and consent. The allocation of grades depends on the classroom’s rules, its reality, and the choices that teachers and students make. How should grades be allocated, and how are they allocated? I want to find the answer to those questions.

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