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Understanding politics: ideas and institutions in the modern world

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What is politics? Who is engaged in politics locally, nationally and internationally? How do we study politics? This online module answers questions like these and explores how political ideas, institutions and processes help govern our world. Using a range of study materials, you'll explore the interrelationships between politicians, pundits and publics. You'll learn the key practical skills that are used to explore and explain the ways in which politics, in all its forms, helps order the social world and provides for the governance of persons and the administration of things.

What you will study

This module is explored in the following six blocks.

Block 1: Introduction
The first block focuses on the core question: What is politics? By examining the many interpretations and impacts of this question, the block addresses ‘who?’ or ‘what?’ is political, exploring the spaces and places ‘where’ politics is conducted and considers ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ politics is best practised or studied.

Block 2: Political concepts
You'll explore political concepts and see how ideas shape how we think about, talk about and practise politics. You'll look at key concepts such as freedom, equality, power and sovereignty and examine how ideas can influence the social world and so offer helpful answers to urgent political questions.

Block 3: Ideas and ideologies
This block examines how concepts, once turned into ideologies, can be taken up and used by practitioners of politics and the public. By being produced and consumed in a number of ‘public’ and ‘private’ locations, ideologies such as conservatism, liberalism, socialism and feminism offer explanatory frameworks which organise our opinions, help us interpret and navigate the political world, and provide us with some sense of identity.

Block 4: Political institutions in liberal democracies
You'll look at political institutions in liberal democracies, comparing and contrasting the very different political systems of two particular nations, the UK and the US. This block outlines their different executive, legislative and judicial arrangements, explains the structures of their constitutions, and explores the political roles of the Prime Minister and the President, political parties, electoral politics, interest groups and social movements.

Block 5: Global politics
You'll investigate global politics by looking at the interrelationship of the ‘national’ to the ‘international’, the ‘local’ to the ‘global’. The block introduces you to key themes and perspectives in the study of international politics, looking at the role of international institutions, non-state actors and issues, exploring the ways in which globalisation is making the world smaller and more interlinked.

Block 6: Revision
The module concludes by revising the key concerns, issues and arguments raised in the previous blocks.

Supporting study materials
The module is delivered online via the module website, which includes all study support, a multiplicity of online text, audio and visual assets, together with two printed module books.

You will learn

You will acquire and apply knowledge and understanding of key political debates, applying these to your understanding of the contemporary social world. This will help you explain and evaluate issues of ethical, social, political, policy and public concern, with the ability to assess their impact on real-world institutions and events.

As well as building your interdisciplinary social science knowledge, you will develop practical and transferable skills. These include critical thinking; report and essay writing; making presentations; ICT skills; collaborative working skills; synthesising and applying knowledge. You will also learn how to:

  • manage your time effectively, organising and completing a programme of work to a specified standard
  • learn from feedback from others
  • critically reflect on your own learning.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 2 module, and you need to have a good knowledge of the subject area, obtained either through OU level 1 study or by doing equivalent work at another university.

We recommend that you start with our key introductory module Introducing the social sciences (DD102). This interdisciplinary OU level 1 module, with its integrated teaching of key study skills, provides a firm foundation for OU level 2 study.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

What's included

You’ll be provided with two printed module books and access to the module website, where the majority of the module content is delivered. The website includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials
  • audio and video content
  • assessment guide
  • online tutorials and forums.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You'll have a tutor whom you can ask for advice and guidance related to your studies.  They will provide help with the study materials and will mark and comment on your written work. We aim to provide online tutorials. While you’re not obliged to attend any of these tutorials, you are strongly encouraged to take part.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying DD211 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Understanding politics: ideas and institutions in the modern world starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2027.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
1 Interactive computer-marked assignment (iCMA)