17.871 | Spring 2012 | Undergraduate

Political Science Laboratory


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


It is recommended that MIT students take 17.801 Political Science Scope and Methods, or get the permission of the instructor.


The purpose of this class is to introduce undergraduate political scientists to the basic quantitative tools of political science research. In particular, this class explores the key statistically-based research tools that social scientists use to frame and answer empirical questions. When you finish this subject successfully, you will be able to conduct quantitative research, be better able to read critically much of the professional literature in political science and other statistically-based fields, and have an employable skill. The most important purpose behind the political science laboratory, however, is to help you move from a passive reader of social scientific tomes to a creative producer of new insights.

Producing new knowledge, or systematically probing someone else’s claims, can be a lot of fun. In order to get to the fun, there is a lot of stuff we have to consider. Consequently, this subject runs on three (roughly) parallel tracks.

Leaving on Track 1 is statistics. Statistical reasoning is the most important method of testing hypotheses in the social sciences. Therefore, the statistical introduction offered here forms the core of the subject. The approach I will take to statistics is informal and intuitive. The approach could be more formal and less intuitive, but that would leave us with less time to get on to the new knowledge part. If this subject piques your interest in statistical methods, or if you want a more rigorous treatment of the statistical topics addressed here, consider taking 17.800 (Quantitative Research Methods I) or 14.32 (Econometrics).

Leaving on Track 2 are research mechanics. Serious scholarship requires hard work, organization, and attention to detail. Lots of people have lots of interesting ideas about how the social world works. Some of these ideas are right, others, nuts. In the long run, the researchers who are taken the most seriously and who make the biggest contributions are the ones who get down and dirty with the data. And doing good empirical research involves knowing how libraries work, how to convince people to be interviewed by you, how to type numbers into a computer, how to write code in monster statistical packages, and how to craft a clear English-language sentence. We will therefore spend a good amount of time with the mundane tasks of learning how to use one statistical package (called STATA®) and learning how to write papers that follow a specific style book:

Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. 6th ed. University of Chicago Press, 1996. ISBN: 9780226816272.

Leaving on Track 3 is a project of your own making. There is an old Chinese proverb that says, “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” It is this philosophy that drives the Institute’s lab requirement, and it is the philosophy that drives this subject. You will be responsible for finding a question that interests you and applying the skills you’re learning in this subject toward learning (and understanding) something new. This is the most interesting part of this subject. It can be fun, but it’s also much more difficult than it first appears. Because doing original research is so hard, I generally enforce the prerequisite (17.869 Political Science Scope and Methods). You need to have a good understanding about what political science is and what political scientists do before taking this class. Otherwise, I can guarantee that you will be totally at sea the last half of the semester.

Subject Organization

We will meet twice each week. During the first half of the semester the primary purpose of these meetings will be to review materials in two formats: lecture and discussion. The subject schedule that is given in the calendar section delineates what will happen each class meeting. I expect you to be prepared for each class. Preparation will involve different things, depending on what we will be doing in that meeting. During some meetings I will be presenting material from one of the textbooks. For those, you will be expected to have done the textbook reading before the class. I will pay attention to who seems prepared and who is not. If you are unprepared for a particular class meeting, come to class anyway, because I will grade down people who are regularly absent.

During the second half of the semester we will meet twice each week to talk about your research projects. You will be required to make two class presentations during this period. At the first presentation, you will be responsible for introducing the class to the problem you wish to address, how you plan to address it, and your preliminary findings. At the second presentation you will be responsible for presenting your findings. These will be brief presentations, probably no more than 15 minutes apiece. Because you will be graded on these presentations, you should practice them beforehand.



Class Attendance, Quizzes, and Discussion of Assigned Readings.

See the comments in the first paragraph of the section on Subject Organization. Come to all the regularly-scheduled class meetings. Attending the oral presentations that your colleagues give about their research is not optional; your constructive participation in these sessions from the perspective of the audience will be a major aspect of this part of the grade. You also will provide brief written feedback on at least two other students’ research projects. Finally, there will be a brief assignment about identifying and evaluating causal claims.


Data Analysis Exams and Problem Sets.

There will one short (30-minute), in-class exam, that covers material from the lectures, text book, and problem sets. These are intended to make sure you have been serious about mastering the most basic technical and mechanical aspects of conducting quantitative research.


Group Project.

There will be a group project assigned the first month of the semester, to give you a short introduction to doing quantitative social science research. The final product of each project will be graded; with you assigned a grade that is a linear combination of your own effort and the effort of the group.


Final Research Project.

The final project is the culmination of this subject. You should start on the first day of the semester in thinking about what you want to research and getting together your data. Keep in mind that there is an old adage about estimating the amount of time it takes to gather and analyze data for an original project: Take your original estimate. Double it. Double it again. And again. You will still be wrong by a factor of two. In writing up your research project, you must organize the paper using a style book, preferably Kate L. Turabian’s. The final write-up is due the last day of class. Do not assume that I will grant you an extension. You will also be graded on your two presentations.


Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2012
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Presentation Assignments
Written Assignments