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10 cp of 100-level units in Politics and International Relations

Unit rationale, description and aim

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s generated great hope for the transition of all authoritarian regimes to democracy. However, this period of hope proved to be short-lived. A significant number of countries opted not to transition to democracy, whilst others, Russia for example, experienced the de-democratisation of political life and centralisation of power. For students of politics to understand the current political mosaic of the world necessitates the study of authoritarianism. This course explores the debate surrounding the concept of authoritarianism and how it differs from despotism, totalitarianism and other forms of non-democratic governance. What is an authoritarian regime? How do such regimes function? How do they become dis-functional and collapse? What mechanisms do they employ in their governmental and bureaucratic processes? These are some of the questions that will be discussed in this course.

In addition to investigating explanations for the resilience of authoritarianism in the 21st century, this course will discuss issues such as authoritarianism and its various forms, pathways traversed during the transition to democracy, authoritarianism and political economy, and the international dimension of authoritarianism.

Learning outcomes

To successfully complete this unit you will be able to demonstrate you have achieved the learning outcomes (LO) detailed in the below table.

Each outcome is informed by a number of graduate capabilities (GC) to ensure your work in this, and every unit, is part of a larger goal of graduating from ACU with the attributes of insight, empathy, imagination and impact.

Explore the graduate capabilities.

On successful completion of this unit, students should be able to:

LO1 - Describe the nature of authoritarian regimes and the contexts in which they operate in the 21st century (GA5) 

LO2 - Critically discuss diverse perspectives of how authoritarian regimes exercise their power and sustain themselves (GA1, GA2) 

LO3 - Apply concepts, theories, and methods used in the study of political science to the analysis of interests, institutions and behaviors of authoritarian regimes (GA6) 

LO4 - Demonstrate the capacity to gather, analyse, and advocate for ethical solutions to problems specific to authoritarian forms of government (GA4, GA8).  

Graduate attributes

GA1 - demonstrate respect for the dignity of each individual and for human diversity 

GA2 - recognise their responsibility to the common good, the environment and society 

GA4 - think critically and reflectively 

GA5 - demonstrate values, knowledge, skills and attitudes appropriate to the discipline and/or profession 

GA6 - solve problems in a variety of settings taking local and international perspectives into account

GA8 - locate, organise, analyse, synthesise and evaluate information 


Topics will include: 

  • Introduction to, and conceptualisation of, authoritarianism 
  • Origins of authoritarianism: national and international 
  • Authoritarian control: mechanisms and consequences 
  • Authoritarian rulers and institutions 
  • Regime types: single-party regimes, personalist regimes, military regimes 
  • Managing the opposition: ideology and repression 
  • Authoritarian resilience in the 21st century 
  • Hybrid regimes: competitive and electoral authoritarianism 
  • Islamic authoritarianism 
  • Political economy of authoritarian regimes 
  • The international dimension of authoritarianism 
  • The future of authoritarianism and democracy 

Learning and teaching strategy and rationale

This unit offers two formal ways of learning and teaching. Lectures are organised based on case-based learning, a format that involves deep learning. Students explore real world challenges and problems, an undertaking that requires them to demonstrate their investigative, problem-solving and decision-making skills. Case-based learning requires learning specific theories and concepts that complement the conceptual tools and theoretical knowledge critical to analysing approaches to authoritarianism. In addition to conceptual and theoretical discussions, students closely investigate a specific case study to illustrate the institutions, mechanisms employed, and behaviour patterns commonly exhibited by authoritarian regimes. 

Tutorials for this unit provide opportunities for active and collaborative learning. Students engage in course-specific activities including writing, interrogating ideas, exploring case studies and giving presentations. Relevant readings also enhance students’ knowledge of the various perspectives on authoritarian regimes As well as promoting analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of lecture content, these activities are designed to build skills appropriate to second year study in Politics and International Relations. The unit will consist of face-to-face teaching using lectures and tutorials or equivalent.  

This 10-credit point unit has been for 150 hours in total across the semester. To achieve a passing standard in this unit, students will find it helpful to engage in the full range of learning activities and assessments utilised in this unit, as described in the learning and teaching strategy and the assessment strategy. The learning and teaching and assessment strategies include a range of approaches to support your learning such as lectures, tutorials, reading, reflection, discussion, webinars, podcasts, video etc. 

Assessment strategy and rationale

The assessment tasks for this unit are specifically designed to enable students to demonstrate their clear understanding of the complexities of authoritarian regimes in the contemporary world. There is no “right” answer to enquiry in the field of political science: one can approach a question or topic in several legitimate ways. Students are required to provide a coherent, substantiated, structured, and persuasive answer to the specific question asked in each assignment. This unit is assessed based on two take-home written tasks: the first an opinion editorial and the second an essay that reviews themes, analysis and subject matter covered in the unit over the semester. The tutorial assessment requires students to prepare and give an oral presentation that will trigger further discussion and debate in class and respond to the debate/discussion of another presentation. The purpose of this oral assessment is to establish if students can competently apply their understanding of theories of authoritarianism to an empirical case study. 

Overview of assessments

Brief Description of Kind and Purpose of Assessment TasksWeightingLearning OutcomesGraduate Attributes

Tutorial presentation and participation in debate following another presentation. 


LO1, LO2, LO3 

GA1, GA2, GA5, GA6 

Opinion editorial: requires students to write an 800 word opinion editorial to develop a position on an ongoing issue related to authoritarian regimes  


LO2, LO3, LO4 

GA1, GA2, GA4, GA6, GA8

Final essay/take home exam: requires students to demonstrate thorough understanding of the subject matter, critical analysis of the relevant literature, and to incorporate and synthesise relevant conceptual/theoretical ideas   


LO2, LO3, LO4 

GA1, GA2, GA4, GA6, GA8

Representative texts and references

Arendt, H. (1973). The origins of totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. 

Brown, W., Gordon, P. E., & Pensky, M. (2018). Authoritarianism: three inquiries in critical theory. London: The University of Chicago Press. 

Brownlee, J. (2007). Authoritarianism in an age of democratization. New York: Cambridge University Press. 

Diamond, L., & Plattner, M. F. (2014). Democratization and authoritarianism in the Arab world. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Diamond, L. J. (2002). Thinking About Hybrid Regimes. Journal of Democracy, 13(2), 21-35.  

King, S. J. (2009). The new authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 

Levitsky, S., & Way, L. (2010). Competitive authoritarianism: hybrid regimes after the Cold War. New York: Cambridge University Press. 

Linz, J. J. (2000). Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers. 

Márquez, X. (2017). Non-democratic politics: authoritarianism, dictatorship, and democratization. London: Palgrave. 

Ottaway, M. (2003). Democracy Challenged: The Rise of Semi-Authoritarianism. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

Schedler, A. (2013). The politics of uncertainty: sustaining and subverting electoral authoritarianism. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Svolik, M. W. (2012). The politics of authoritarian rule. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

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