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New political science class to tackle questions of democracy

Thompson Hall, home of the political science department (Marielle Fibish/Collegian)

After Arab Spring swept through the Middle East and years of international debate on the merits of democracy, University of Massachusetts Political Science Professor Frederic Schaffer proposed a new class that asks a simple question: is democracy possible everywhere?

The course, POLISCI 473 “Is Democracy Possible Everywhere?” was recently approved by the Faculty Senate and will be offered starting in fall 2013.

Debate within the social sciences regarding democracy in foreign countries and the importance of democracy to American foreign policy inspired Schaffer to create the course

“I think it’s a really timely, important question and the specific question I propose, ‘Is democracy possible everywhere?’ is provocative,” said Schaffer.

Schaffer said the important question of the course is not just if society should care about democracy, but “whether people should care about democracy and what economic, cultural and social conditions a new democracy will flourish.”

The new course – a small research-oriented class with limited enrollment of 25 students –will be discussion-driven, said Schaffer, who hopes the small size will make him more available to the students.

Students will prepare a research paper for the end of the semester.

In the first half of the semester, students will look at research and analyze “whether a country is democratic or not,” said Schaffer.

Students will then look at the different countries’ economics and question if there are certain economic conditions necessary to establish democracy. They will then consider if it can be accomplished in a poor country, he said.

Schaffer said students will also question if there are any preconditions for democracy to thrive in associational life, such as clubs and organizations. He said students will additionally examine the density of these organizations and if that matters in a democracy.

The class will study the impacts of religion on democracy concentrating on Protestantism, Islam and Confucianism, Schaffer said. Students will find out whether religion helps democracy flourish or hinders it.

There will be two debates held in class. The first will question if democracy will come to Singapore and another will ask if democracy will come to the oil-producing states of the Middle East, said Schaffer.

Finally, students will conduct a research project. Every student in the class will undertake a research project, questioning the possibility of democracy occurring everywhere.

“One reason I love teaching this class,” said Schaffer, “is seeing the research of students and learning something new from the work they are doing.”

In past classes taught by Schaffer, students have conducted some studies that led to intriguing results, he said.

One student went back to her former high school and surveyed the student body to see if science students were as enlightened in civics as the students who were more oriented in the social sciences, he said. Her results concluded that students who were invested in the social sciences believed only educated people should be allowed to participate in democracy, while science-oriented students believed everyone should be allowed to participate, he said.

Political Science 473 will be open to students of all majors.

Schaffer received his doctorate degree from the University of California, Berkeley and is the interim chair of the political science department, according to the UMass political science website.

Brianna Corcoran can be reached at bcorcor@student.umass.edu.

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