Junior Seminar: Contested Concepts -- "Democracy, Torture, and Many Others"

Course Description: 

 The Junior Seminars are intense writing seminars which focus on the research area of the faculty member teaching the course. The seminars provide an opportunity for students to have direct intellectual interactions with faculty members while also giving the students an understanding for faculty research. This junior seminar falls within the Comparative Politics subfield, and can fulfill an upper division requirement for the major.

Description: Political scientists employ many concepts with complex meanings that are routinely contested: by scholars, politicians, lawyers, and many others. Examples are democracy, justice, abortion, genocide, rule of law, rape,hate crime, equal protection, political correctness, racism, feminism,torture, international security, and globalization.

These contested concepts raise a series of challenges:

1. Understanding their diverse meanings.

2. Grasping the "normative" judgments that these concepts routinely convey -- that is to say, judgments that some things are "good," and other things are "bad."

3. Linking these concepts to the "real world." Which countries are democracies? What is the borderline between torture and other techniques of interrogation? Which of the horrendous episodes of killing in different parts of the world should be treated as genocide, and which not?

4. Granting alternative understandings of what these concepts mean, how do we think about causes and consequences? When do genocides occur? What difference does it make if a country is democratic?

The seminar is based on intensive analysis of specific concepts, with substantial use of Internet sources -- which will serve to locate scholarly discussions and also examples of "real world" usage. The seminar will have a website on which, as appropriate, students' findings regarding particular concepts can be posted, shared, and discussed.


Political Science Majors of Junior and Senior status, with a minimum overall GPA of 3.3. Students must place themselves on the waitlist through TeleBEARS. Selection and notification will occur around January 10, 2010.