Overview and Learning Goals


The major in government provides a broad introduction to the art, and science, of politics—that is, of the mechanisms by which human beings solve collective problems and pursue the common good. The subfields of contemporary political science are encompassed by courses in American politics, political theory, comparative politics (with regional coverage of much of the globe), and international relations. These may include offerings in political institutions and behavior, US and international law, public policy (including environmental politics), political economy, and the qualitative and quantitative methods used in the discipline. Students take courses in each of the subfields, choosing to concentrate in one— study that may culminate in an optional, substantial honors project. Government students go on to pursue a variety of careers after they graduate, including teaching, law, politics and administration, journalism, and business.

Courses within the department are divided into three levels:

Level A Courses (GOV 1000–1999)

  • First-Year Writing Seminars (GOV 1000–1099)
    • All first-year writing seminars offered by the department are designed to provide an introduction to a particular aspect of government and legal studies. Students are encouraged to analyze and discuss important political concepts and issues, while developing research and writing skills. Registration is limited to sixteen first-year students in each seminar.
  • Introductory Lectures (GOV 1100-1900)
    • GOV 1100 Introduction to American Government, GOV 1400 Introduction to Comparative Government, and GOV 1600 Introduction to International Relations are large lecture courses, limited to fifty students in each, and designed to provide a substantive introduction to American politics, comparative politics, or international relations, respectively. These courses are intended for first-year students and sophomores. Others may take them only with the permission of the instructor.

Level B Courses (GOV 2000–2969)

Courses are designed to introduce students to or extend their knowledge of a particular aspect of government and legal studies. Courses range from the more introductory to the more advanced. Registration is normally limited to thirty-five students in each course. Students should consult the individual course descriptions regarding any prerequisites.

Level C Courses (GOV 3000–3999, and see "Honors Projects and Independent Study" below)

Courses provide seniors and juniors, with appropriate background, the opportunity to do advanced work within a specific subfield. Registration is limited to fifteen students in each seminar. These courses are not open to first-year students. Students should consult the individual course descriptions regarding any prerequisites.


Courses within the department are further divided into four subfields and outlined as follows:

American Politics

  • GOV 1000–1009, 1037–1039, 1100, 2000–2199, 2700–2799, 3000–3199, and 3700–3799
  • Topics of study include the major governing institutions and actors—Congress, the presidency, the courts, public bureaucracies, state and local governments, political parties, the media, and interest groups—and the primary modes of political participation, including lobbying, social movements, elections, public opinion, and voting.
  • Institutional studies focus on how rules and enduring governing structures shape political processes and outcomes. Behavioral analyses examine how individuals—from activists to the general public—think about and engage in political activity. No single methodological approach to the study of American politics is adopted. Some courses focus on the historical development of American institutions and policy; a number of courses document the jurisprudence surrounding key questions and controversies; other courses focus on statistical relationships between variables and the predictive and explanatory power of these models.

Political Theory

  • GOV 1007–1019, 1040–1045, 2100–2399, 2800–2899, 3100–3399, and 3800–3899
  • Political theory courses at Bowdoin explore the fundamental issues of political life—human nature, justice, authority, virtue, freedom, equality, natural rights, democracy, and history—through a careful examination of what the greatest minds have thought about these issues.
  • The courses range from broad surveys (Classical Political Philosophy, Modern Political Philosophy, Contemporary Political Philosophy, American Political Thought) to thematic courses (Liberalism and Its Critics, Religion and Politics, Eros and Politics) to advanced seminars on individual thinkers (e.g. Jefferson, Nietzsche, Rousseau, Tocqueville). The courses are designed to provide students not only with a deeper understanding of the history of political thought from Plato to Rawls, but also with the ability to read complex philosophical texts and write rigorous analyses of them.

Comparative Politics

  • GOV 1017–1029, 1400, 2300–2599, and 3300–3599
  • Comparative politics is a field of study and a methodology within political science. The subfield of comparative politics focuses on power and decision-making within national boundaries: the rules and institutions that govern states and the social groups they comprise. Some scholars focus on politics in a single country, others specialize regionally, while others investigate variation in patterns of authority cross-nationally.
  • As a method, comparative political science strives to make propositions that can be tested empirically, through qualitative or quantitative analysis, and that hold validity across all systems or within well-defined limits. Topics central to the field include the origins of democracy and dictatorship, reasons for economic growth and stagnation, sources of social conflict, and avenues for participation and representation.

International Relations

  • GOV 1025–1045, 1600, 2500–2899, and 3500–3899
  • International relations is the study of relationships in the international political world, including matters of war and peace, global economic development or crisis, and transnational issues such as terrorism or environmental degradation.
  • Traditional areas of study include international law, international institutions, security studies, states and non-state actors, nuclear weapons, cyber warfare, international political economy, international cooperation, foreign policy, eras of warfare, and conflict resolution.
  • To the benefit of both subfields, topics in international relations often interconnect with areas in comparative politics, with comparative politics bringing nuance to issues like war and development; while international relations can paint a “big picture” of politics across state borders and between diverse populations.

Learning Goals

Substantive Knowledge of Government and Politics

Students should gain an understanding of essential concepts and theories in all of the four major subfields of the discipline (American politics, political theory, comparative politics, and international relations) and be able to employ these concepts and theories independently in analyzing empirical events.

In that sense, the department seeks to graduate students who can describe in analytical terms the actions undertaken by political actors in the domestic and international arenas. The department expects students to concentrate in one of these subfields, however, and to therefore be more proficient in questions derived from that study.

A capstone seminar in their concentrated subfield will be the principal course used to assess the degree to which this disciplinary learning objective has been met. (Students can also meet this requirement with an advanced independent study or by completing an honors project.)

Critical Analysis and Argumentation

Students should be able to critically analyze readings in government and politics. They should additionally be able to formulate clear oral and written arguments that address issues in dispute in the discipline of political science and defend their arguments with adequate evidence.

Effective Writing

The department seeks to graduate students who can write clearly and effectively. Specifically, the department wants students to be able to articulate a clear thesis, to support it with logic and evidence, and to present it in clear, grammatically correct prose. It is also important that students understand and make use of appropriate citation.

Analytical Thinking

The department seeks to expose students to a variety of perspectives on politics and approaches to political science designed to foster their ability to assess and evaluate competing viewpoints.

Critical Reading

The department seeks to help students learn how to read and evaluate a text. Specifically, the department wants students to be able to identify the main thesis question or hypothesis and to evaluate the author’s use of evidence and logic in support of the thesis or hypothesis.

Library and Research Skills

The department seeks to have students learn how to locate and to utilize effectively the rich array of paper and electronic resources available to them.

Options for Majoring or Minoring in the Department

Students may elect to major in government and legal studies or to coordinate a major in government and legal studies with digital and computational studies, education, or environmental studies. Students pursuing a coordinate major may not normally elect a second major. Non-majors may elect to minor in government and legal studies.

Department Website

This is an excerpt from the official Bowdoin College Catalogue and Academic Handbook. View the Catalogue