Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Complete Syllabus (PDF)

Why you should take this course?

Coups, civil wars, revolutions, and peaceful political transitions are the "real stuff" of political science. They show us why politics matters, and they highlight the consequences of political choices in times of institutional crisis. This course will help you understand why democracies emerge and why they die, from ancient times to the recent wave of democratization in Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, and the developing world.

What this course is about?

Few things are more dramatic than the collapse of a political system, whether through violent conflict or the peaceful negotiation of new institutions. Explaining why regimes break down, why new ones emerge, and how these new regimes become consolidated are among the most important questions in political science. Not surprisingly, regime change has obsessed scholars for centuries, from Aristotle to Machiavelli to the current theorists of democratization.

You will review several broad explanations for regime change before turning to a more detailed examination of some of history's most famous and theoretically interesting political transitions: the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany; democratic breakdown, the consolidation of military dictatorship, and re-democratization in Chile; the breakdown of British colonial rule in the Massachusetts Bay Colony; and protracted political transition in Mexico. There will be shorter discussion of democratization in Spain, South Africa, and South Korea, as well as democratic collapse in Brazil, Austria, and Italy.

Please note that there are two numbers for this class, 17.508 and 17.507. Graduate students should register under 17.508; no prerequisites are required. Undergraduates should register under 17.507, unless they wish to take the graduate-level version of the class (for which you must receive my permission).


Readings are assigned for each week, including for the first week (Class #1). Weekly reading requirements are different for graduate students and undergraduates. Undergraduates are expected to read approximately 100 pages per week, which will focus on the central themes or cases for that week. These readings should take you about three to four hours, depending on how fast you read.

Graduate students are expected to read 100-125 additional pages that cover other cases or expand on theoretically challenging issues raised by the principal case. For instance, undergraduate readings on the rise of fascism in Europe examine the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany. Additional graduate readings in that week examine the rise of fascism in Italy, as well as the case of Austria (where fascist and Nazi parties failed to take power). Graduate students should be able to complete all the readings for a typical week in about eight hours.

Overall Workload>

Combining the readings, class preparation, class presentation(s), small assignments, written work, and actual time in class, undergraduates should plan to devote approximately eight hours per week to the class on average, over a thirteen week semester. Graduate students should plan to devote about twelve hours per week.


Twenty-five percent (25%) of your grade will be based on class participation, including your presentation(s). Each presentation grade will count as the equivalent of six sessions of regular class participation. The other 75% of your grade will be based on your written work–i.e., either one long paper or five short papers. Short papers will all count equally (15% each); if you are feeling ambitious and want to write more than the requisite number of papers, your best five papers will be counted.

Components of the long paper (if you choose that option) will be graded as follows: list of potential topics (5%), 1-page summary of topic and comprehensive bibliography (10%), first installment of paper (15%), second installment of paper (10%), completed draft of paper (10%), completed paper (15%), and presentation of paper in class (10%). If you submit a revised version of your paper in response to suggestions from your classmates, any improvement will be reflected in the grade for your completed paper.

The purpose of this grading system is to spread work for the long papers evenly over the semester, and thus to ensure that research and writing is not rushed. It also reflects my view that much of the writing of a good research paper, like a good experiment in the hard sciences, lies in the design and set-up. For this reason, I take the early submissions seriously and will grade them that way. For instance, a list of potential topics that demonstrates a conscientious attempt to identify researchable cases of regime change will be graded highly; a cursory list assembled at the last minute will be graded harshly. Similarly, a bibliography that lacks theoretical or empirical sources relevant to the topic will be graded harshly, while one that comprehensively covers the literature (including articles in academic journals, chapters edited books, primary sources, etc.) will be graded well.

Grading standards for the longer papers are different for graduate students and undergraduates. A good undergraduate research paper, for instance, should present a solid description of a particular case and a compelling explanation for why things turned out the way they did. A good graduate research paper should do these same things, but it should also situate your case in the context of broader scholarly debates on regime change, and it should demonstrate why your case is theoretically relevant to those debates. In other words, undergraduate research papers should explain trend (that is, why things turned out the way they did); graduate research papers should explain variation (that is, why things turned out one way in certain countries and differently in others). Put another way, a good undergraduate paper should tell me something new; a good graduate paper should tell me something that is both new and theoretically interesting.