Foundations and Methods of Political Theory

The details
Colchester Campus
Postgraduate: Level 7
Thursday 03 October 2024
Friday 13 December 2024
23 April 2024


Requisites for this module



Key module for

MA L20212 Ideology and Discourse Analysis,
MA L20224 Ideology and Discourse Analysis,
MA L202EB Ideology and Discourse Analysis,
MA L20512 Political Theory,
MPHDL20D48 Government (Ideology and Discourse Analysis),
PHD L20D48 Government (Ideology and Discourse Analysis)

Module description

This module aims to introduce students to the foundations and methods of political theory. Students will learn how to engage in systematic normative theorizing and be introduced to many of the key components of the methodology of political theory. This includes learning how to use reflective equilibrium, how to create and employ thought experiments, and how to distinguish and move between ideal and non-ideal theory.

The module also introduces a variety of perspectives on what science is, why we do it, and what we can achieve with it. In particular, the module examines the foundations of political scientific and political theoretical research, focusing on normative analytical approaches; to provide a critical overview of different philosophies of science and social science; and to consider a range of methods and research strategies for those embarking upon graduate study in political theory and analysis, broadly construed.

It is traditional to divide the study of political theory into normative and empirical domains. Normative political theorists endeavour to construct, evaluate, justify and criticize the principles and norms underlying political practices, whereas empirical political theorists are concerned to explain, understand and interpret political practices and events by constructing and testing abstract models of those practices.

In recent years, this clear division has become somewhat blurred, as normative political theorists seek to ground their research in the description of empirical phenomena, or at least to speak to matters of empirical import, while positive political theorists have become more attentive to the implicit or explicit values that structure their research. The task of this module is to sensitize students to the presuppositions underpinning different approaches to questions of description, explanation, and critique.

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To introduce and evaluate a variety of perspectives on the philosophy of science;

  • To critically consider the key assumptions underlying social-scientific research;

  • To provide a critical overview of different approaches to normative political theory;

  • To introduce students to key concepts in political theory, in particular the concepts of “ideal theory” and “non-ideal theory”.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of this module, students will be expected to be able to:

  1. Have a good understanding of central debates in the philosophy of social science;

  2. Be familiar with key assumptions of mainstream social-scientific research and be able to assess these critically;

  3. Be familiar with key methodological assumptions of normative political theory; and

  4. Be in a position to develop and execute an advanced research project in this field, including a master's dissertation.

Module information

Syllabus Information

Part A: The Social Sciences and the Role of Political Theory

  • The Aim of Political Theory

  • Falsification, Programmes, and Paradigms

  • Values in the Social Sciences

  • Adaptive Preferences

  • Activist Political Theory

Part B: The Methodology of Normative Political Theory

  • Reflective Equilibrium

  • Ideal Theory and Feasibility

  • Non-Ideal Theory and Realism

  • Hypothetical Examples and Thought Experiments

  • Epistemic Injustice

Learning and teaching methods

This module will be taught in a weekly 2-hour seminar.


This module does not appear to have a published bibliography for this year.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Coursework weighting
Coursework   Essay 1    30% 
Coursework   Essay 2    70% 

Exam format definitions

  • Remote, open book: Your exam will take place remotely via an online learning platform. You may refer to any physical or electronic materials during the exam.
  • In-person, open book: Your exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer to any physical materials such as paper study notes or a textbook during the exam. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
  • In-person, open book (restricted): The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer only to specific physical materials such as a named textbook during the exam. Permitted materials will be specified by your department. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
  • In-person, closed book: The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may not refer to any physical materials or electronic devices during the exam. There may be times when a paper dictionary, for example, may be permitted in an otherwise closed book exam. Any exceptions will be specified by your department.

Your department will provide further guidance before your exams.

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
100% 0%


Coursework Exam
100% 0%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Dr David Axelsen, email: d.v.axelsen@essex.ac.uk.
Dr David Axelsen
Please contact govpgquery@essex.ac.uk



External examiner

Dr Adrian Florea
University of Glasgow
Senior Lecturer in International Relations
Available via Moodle
No lecture recording information available for this module.


Further information

* Please note: due to differing publication schedules, items marked with an asterisk (*) base their information upon the previous academic year.

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