17.50 | Fall 2022 | Undergraduate

Introduction to Comparative Politics


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week; 1 hour / session

Recitations: 1 session / week; 1 hour / session


There are no prerequisites for this course.

Class Objectives

This class addresses the fundamental problems of governance: the rationale for the state and ways to make sure that the state does what is in the best interests of people subject to its authority. The central purpose of the class is to help you think critically about these issues, which will include interrogating the assumptions that you– like everyone else– probably have about them.

The class also has a few corollary goals:

  • To help you identify improvements in how your country could be governed;
  • To help you make and critique arguments about public policy and social issues, based on analytical reasoning and empirical evidence;
  • To give you practice in writing and presentation; and
  • To provide the foundation for more specialized polisci classes, if you wish to take them.


Readings are listed under the specific session for which they are required. There is a logic to the choice of sessions and to the order in which readings are listed. Readings total 50–100 pages per week and should take you at most 4 hours to do. If you have trouble completing the readings in that time, please see me or the teaching assistant about strategies.

See the Readings section for further detail.

Class Participation

This subject is designed so that there is extensive class participation. The first day of each week normally involves more in the way of lecture from me to frame the salient issues, provide the necessary background for those unfamiliar with the topic, and generally make sure everyone is on the same page. The second session of each week and the recitation typically involve much more student participation, in the form of breakout groups and presentations. Even the lectures, however, are usually interactive.

I’d ask that you be prepared to participate actively and intelligently in class throughout the semester. For some people, that may mean pushing yourself to talk more than feels instinctively comfortable; for others it may mean holding yourself back. If participation becomes unbalanced, I may “cold call” people.

In formal presentations, there is a strict time limit, so be sure to practice and to time yourself ahead of time; you should make sure to frame your question clearly in the beginning and then move on swiftly to your main points. 

Several class sessions are devoted to breakout groups. We will check informally throughout the semester to make sure that everyone is pulling their weight in the breakout groups and adjust participation grades accordingly. If you are concerned that your group cannot reach consensus on any point, you should not try to force one. Rather, use the division in your group to sharpen your argumentation and to highlight the pros and cons of different options. Basically, imagine that you are teeing the issue up for a decision-maker.

Tests and Exams

In the first week, we have a pop quiz (which will not be graded). There will also be an exam at the end of the semester that focuses on material not covered in other graded assignments (e.g., the readings and lectures from weeks in which no paper was due) and on synthesizing the material from the semester. The goal of this exam is to allow students who took the time to master this material to demonstrate that they have done so. Some questions may require you to extrapolate a bit, but if you have given some thought to the subjects covered in the class, done the reading over the course of the semester, and understood the lectures, you really should not need to study; briefly reviewing your notes ought to be sufficient. The format of the exam changes from one year to the next: it may be a single essay, several shorter essays, a multiple choice exam, or some combination. 

Grading Policy

Map test 5%
Presentations in breakout groups 15%
Participation in unstructured class discussions, breakout sessions, buzz groups, etc. 15%
Response papers 50%
Final exam 15%

For more information on the activities in the table, see the Assignments section.

Other Engagements

Informal One-on-Ones

I’d enjoy the opportunity to meet one-on-one with each of you, for perhaps fifteen minutes, during the first half of the semester (in person or by Zoom). These meetings are designed to provide some informal, “get-to-know-each other” interaction unrelated to course content. They are a supplement to office hours, not a replacement for them; I hope you will still avail yourself of office hours with me or the TA for questions related to the class.

Gab Sessions / Cocktails / Mocktails

I will hold an entirely optional and informal gab session by Zoom most weeks, usually on Friday afternoons. To emphasize the informal nature of these conversations, please feel free to bring food and any beverage of your choice that you are legally allowed to consume. (I will almost certainly have a beverage in hand, and I am legally allowed to consume anything.) Drop in via Zoom when you like and leave whenever you like, without explanation or apology.

All topics, including current events and heretical questions, are fair game during these sessions. For instance, one of my favorite questions from last year was “What sort of political system do you think extraterrestrials would have?” In the absence of questions or a noteworthy event, I have listed some possible conversation starters for each week.

In the classroom, I obviously keep my personal opinions to myself. If you just attend classes and do no background research on me (positions I have held in government, campaign donations, party affiliation as listed on the voter rolls, public presentations I have given outside MIT, media appearances, etc.), you should be able to go the whole semester without being able to guess my political views or partisan leanings. In these informal gab sessions, however, I may sometimes speak in my own voice. Do not let any of the opinions I express in these instances – whether you agree with them or not – influence how you approach the regular class; in other words, you may have to compartmentalize information that you serendipitously acquire in these conversations.

I may occasionally invite some interesting friends to drop by. If any guests are present, the Chatham House Rule also applies: nothing people say may be attributed to them specifically, and you may not mention that they attended the session.

My wife and I have two active sons (ages 12 and 14) and an even more active dog. Any or all of them may make an unscheduled appearance during the gab sessions, and be advised that you may hear the sound of boys hitting each other with Wiffleball bats in the background.

Curated Outside Reading

The TA or I will occasionally send you articles on current events. We will choose these articles because they strike us as (a) particularly insightful, (b) balanced in their presentation of issues, and (c) relevant to course themes – with the idea being that “if you are going to read anything about this topic, check out this one.” Of course, you are under no obligation to read them.

Random AnecdotesTM

I will sometimes begin class with a very brief story or factoid about comparative politics (“Random AnecdoteTM”), a comment on a recent event, a mention of historically significant event on its anniversary, or something similar. The purpose of these remarks, which are not necessarily relevant to the subject matter for that particular class session (hence the “random”), is to get you thinking about some apparently puzzling political issue.

Classroom Norms

My classroom is meant to be a welcoming and comfortable environment. However, it is also a professional one. With this in mind, some rules of decorum:

  • Per MIT norms, MIT’s codes of conduct, and Massachusetts state law, do not under any circumstances make video or audio recordings of class sessions. I cannot emphasize this stricture strongly enough.
  • Please do not use any electronic devices during class.
  • You should feel free to have water with you, but do not eat in class.

Historically, most students have called me “Professor Lawson,” but some have called me by my first name (“Chappell” – pronounced like “chapel” – or “Chap”), and the trend is in that direction. It’s up to you. Of course, you should also free to address me as “Jefe,” “Lawson-Zi,” or “Dominus et Deus” if you wish to more or less ensure getting extra credit.

Trigger Warnings

I am unconvinced that trigger warnings provide any real psychological benefit – the scientific literature provides grounds for skepticism – and I also find them vaguely infantilizing. Nevertheless, these days some people ask for them.

I believe that there is little in the readings or lectures that could cause re-traumatization, with three possible exceptions. First, if your family has been subjected to ethnic cleansing, or if you are from Rwanda or Burundi, note that that the pop quiz contains a question on the Rwandan genocide. Second, if you happen to be a relative of one of the leaders I mention in the week on corruption, and you do not like the way I have characterized him, please talk with me about how we can make sure the class hears an alternative perspective about your thuggish, kleptocratic grandfather. Third, we will touch on some controversial political topics in which people may feel they have a very personal stake: reproductive rights, immigration policy, ethnic identity, etc. Please let me know ahead of time if you are concerned about how these topics will be discussed, and afterward if something about the discussion troubled you.

Whether anything in the class could cause offense is a more difficult matter. I occasionally tell anecdotes about or make references to certain countries or regions, especially those where I have lived – whether it be my interactions with the police in Mexico City, a ridiculous jeremiad I once had to endure from a particular Minister in Ankara, the driving habits and manners of people in Boston compared to those from other parts of the country, and so forth. In addition, as noted above, I often discuss particular rulers and politicians. I refer to real places and people for concreteness, but in every case I could have chosen from many different people or places around the world. In addition to these examples, I occasionally make casual or jocular asides about certain individuals, countries, or historical incidents. Most people find such remarks to be amusing, trenchant, illuminating, and memorable. If you instead find them problematic, inappropriate, or offensive, please let me know; I will make appropriate adjustments. Given the choice between talking to me and reflexively posting your disgruntlement on Instagram, I would recommend the former.

Finally, I should add a general trigger warning for the semester: many aspects of the class are deliberately designed to provoke cognitive dissonance, lead you to question your own views, or compel you to argue analytically for things that you may be used to taking for granted. If you find the points advanced in some of the assigned readings – or anything I say – off-putting, that is likely by design. Your job will be to figure out how to respond based on logical argumentation and empirical facts, not emotions or prevailing social norms.

Comments in class should not be gratuitously insulting. But I am not a fan of people trying to regulate one another’s views, much less which subjects get debated, through social pressure. Rather, people must be prepared to defend their views and explain their language when questioned. For instance (to use a not-very-hypothetical example of a conversation I had last year), different terms with very different connotations are used to refer to the (non-Druze) Arab citizens of Israel – “Israeli Arabs,” “Arab-Israelis,” “Palestinians in Israel,” “Palestinians with Israeli citizenship,” “Palestinian Arabs,” “48-Palestinians,” “48-Arabs,” etc. It would not be appropriate for someone in the class to attempt to censor another student’s use of one of these terms simply by saying that she regarded it as offensive; that would constitute an attempt to police others’ language, constrain expression of their opinions, and even (if the famed British author George Orwell is to be believed) control their thought. However, it would be perfectly appropriate – in fact, desirable – for a student to call the class’s attention to what the use of specific terms implies and to interrogate another student’s choice of terms based on her understanding of the context. Such an exchange might then lead to a broader discussion about why there is a sizeable Arab population within the current boundaries of Israel in the first place, what the status of this population is in law and in practice, how identities have changed within that population during the last two generations, and therefore why different terms have particular connotations.

These sorts of exchanges are, in my view, the heart of teaching social science. They are why I teach, and why I enjoy teaching – especially students like you.

Further Classes in Political Science

If you like this class, you will probably like other political science subjects. If you did not like this class, that is surely a result of my deficiencies, and you will like other political science classes much more.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2022
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Written Assignments