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Politics, Comparative

Politics, Comparative

The theory of democratic progress

The comparative politics movement

Achievements and prospects


The Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, published between 1930 and 1935, contained no special article on comparative politics or comparative government. There is an article “Government/’ followed by articles on individual governments; but no explicit comparative themes are treated, nor do they appear elsewhere under other topics. Much of the great tradition of political theory, in contrast, is essentially comparative, classificatory, typological. Comparison is such an intrinsic methodological assumption that it is not separated out as a specific subfield or approach. This background suggests the thesis of this article: that contemporary comparative politics is a movement rather than a subfield or subdiscipline.

The case for comparative politics as a movement is quite persuasive. We start from a tradition in which comparison is an intrinsic aspect of political theory, then move to a situation in which it practically disappears along with the creative political theory of which it is a part, and arrive at the contemporary situation, in which it is a salient and separate part of the political science curriculum.

The theory of democratic progress

How can we explain this development? Perhaps we may begin by commenting on the fate of the Aristotelian classification scheme and theory of political change in the history of political science. On the surface it would appear that this Aristotelian macro theoretical tradition continues straight on through subsequent millennia, up to and including Dahl’s Modern Political Analysis (1963). And yet it would be misleading to say that the Aristotelian approach to comparison continues as a dominant intellectual construct into present-day political science, fenlightenment political theory moved away from the relativistic and cyclical approach of Aristotle to a unilinear approach to political history and political development. This is particularly marked in British, French, and American political theory, where at first democracy was justified as the best form of government on the basis of natural law and social contract, and then, as the democratic revolution spread, as the inevitable direction of human history. Locke and Rousseau are typical of the first approach to democratization, while Tocqueville is among the first to view it as historically inevitable. His Democracy in America (1835) reflects a growing conviction that democratic politics is the political form of the future. America is the laboratory from which he seeks to derive some sense of the political, social, moral, and cultural consequences of this inevitable democratization. Ostrogorskii (1902) focused on the development of democracy in Britain and the United States, convinced that this was to be the trend of the future but deeply troubled by the growing elitism and bureaucratism of the mass political party in Britain and America. The important point is that Tocqueville and Ostrogorskii were both concerned with comparisons within the democratic framework and were interested in nondemocratic systems principally as base lines against which democratic systems can be evaluated.

The influence of social and political setting on political theory is reflected vividly in the contrasting reactions to democratic development of Woodrow Wilson (1889) and Bryce (1921) and those of Pareto (1916), Michels (1911), and Mosca (1896). Both the Anglo–American theorists and the continental European theorists reject the Aristotelian relativistic typology and cyclical theory of political change. Pareto, Michels, and Mosca argue that all political rule is oligarchical or elitist, regardless of its formal legal or ideological characteristics, while the British and American political theorists see a sweeping historical movement in the direction of constitutional and democratic forms. Woodrow Wilson’s The State (1889) is an interesting syncretic product. On the one hand, it shows the great influence of nineteenth-century German political theory, with its massive ethnographic and historical learning, and the persistence of the Aristotelian categories, but at the same time the work is suffused with an evolutionary, democratic faith. In Bryce’s Modern Democracies (1921) faith turns into conviction. He speaks in his introduction of “…the universal acceptance of democracy as the normal and natural form of government.”

Thus, on the eve of the development of American political science as a university-based, professional discipline, the theory of democratic progress dominated the field and justified a loss of interest in the classification and comparison of types of political systems or in the general theory of political change. The answers to these questions were viewed as self-evident, and normative speculation about the relative value of different kinds of political systems, and even empirical study of nondemocratic political systems, were pointless, or at best were useful, in the language employed in W. B. Munro’s preface to his The Governments of Europe (1925), to make possible the “…comprehension of the daily news from abroad.”

One might say, therefore, that it was the Enlightenment itself, and in particular the parochial American “populistic” and “progressive” version of that faith, which resulted in an attenuation of interest in political comparison and typologies, as well as of the political theory of which that interest was a part.

Broadly speaking, this unilinear evolutionary theory of political systems and political development characterized American political science as it began to develop into a substantial universitybased discipline in the first decades of the twentieth century. As separate departments of political science began to appear in these decades, the principal stress in the curriculum was on American politics. Research and teaching proliferated around themes having to do with problems of American democracy. The field of public administration was essentially concerned with the development of a professional public service and with the introduction of rational organizational and management practices in American government. Constitutional law was concerned principally with the conservatism of the Supreme Court and with what some constitutional lawyers thought of as the usurpation by the judiciary of law-making and constitutionmaking functions. The “real” functioning of the Congress and the executive also were fields of teaching and research interest. But the distinctive development during this period was the study of the informal, or the nonlegal, aspects of politics— the role of political parties, the political machine, the lobby and pressure groups, and the popular press. While students in these various fields were concerned with generalizing about these phenomena, their theories were based essentially on American experience, and practically the whole burden of the research effort in the growing profession of political science was on American political institutions and processes.

The older tradition of comparison and political theory survived in the work of such scholars as Carl Friedrich and Herman Finer. Both Finer’s Theory and Practice of Modern Government (1932) and Friedrich’s Constitutional Government and Democracy (1937) are works in the older political science tradition. They are comparative, and they treat varieties of forms of government and of governmental institutions and processes in the context of some of the great themes of political theory. But it is of interest that both of these scholars focus their work predominantly on constitutional, democratic systems.

This approach to political science teaching and research was characteristic of American political science in the first four decades of the twentieth century, roughly until the end of World War n. This was the time when the profession was developing its own departments of political science (or government) and when the membership of the American Political Science Association was expanding from around two hundred at the turn of the century to roughly three thousand at the end of World War n. The American profession consisted in the main of students of American public administration, American public law, American political parties and pressure groups, Congress and the executive, and American state and local government. International relations and European governments were essentially minor themes, and students of non-Western political systems were oddities, working in isolation.

The breakdown of this pattern was the consequence of the frustration of Enlightenment expectations resulting from the spread of fascism and communism in the 1920s and 1930s and increasing with the emergence of communism in the postWorld War Ii period as an unambiguously competing form of modernization. Another factor making for the rejection of the earlier confidence in democratic development was the emergence in the post-World War ii period of the many new nations of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, with their confusing variety of cultural and structural patterns and developmental processes.

The comparative politics movement

Comparative politics as a movement in political science acquired momentum after World War ii (Interuniversity Summer Seminar…1953; Herring 1953; Kahin, Pauker, & Pye 1955; Macridis 1955; Almond 1956; Heckscher 1957; Neumann 1957; Rustow 1957; Apter 1958; Eckstein & Apter 1963). Among the principal intellectual influences which fed into it are (1) the growing body of data on non-Western political systems; (2) the introduction into foreign political studies of concepts and methods that had emerged in research on American political processes; (3) anthropological, psychological, and psychoanalytic theories of culture and personality; and (4) the concepts and insights of historical sociology and sociological theory.

Acquisition of non-Western data

During the 1950s young political scientists streamed into Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and—somewhat later— into Latin America, producing monographic studies often as sophisticated analytically as the best of American and European political studies. The dominance of the political science profession by Americanists and Europeanists began to be challenged by a young generation of political scientists whose field experience was non-Western. The requirements of their research gave them a sensitivity and sophistication in the use of sociological and anthropological methods and theories that their Americanist and Europeanist colleagues often lacked (Apter 1955; 1961; Binder 1962; Pye 1962; Weiner 1962). Parliamentary institutions, bureaucracies, political parties, and interest groups in these new and developing nations often had quite a different significance than they had in Western nations, particularly the United States. Thus, in their search for the effective policy-making and policy-implementing processes in these nations they were led to look for their functional equivalents. “System,” “process,” and “functional” concepts, anthropological field methods, and anthropological and sociological theory had a natural appeal to these students of non-Western political systems.

The behavioral movement

A second significant influence in the development of the comparative politics movement was the behavioral movement, which had its origins in studies of American electoral and political processes. One significant channel in this process of intellectual diffusion was the Committee on Political Behavior of the Social Science Research Council, which stimulated the organization of the Committee on Comparative Politics, which in turn played an important role in diffusing into the field research in non-Western and European areas many of the insights and methodologies that had developed in American political studies. The principal contributions from American political studies adapted to studies of foreign areas were the “process” frame of reference (Herring 1940; Schattschneider 1942; Key 1942; Truman 1951); the emphasis on the nonformal aspects of political processes—political parties, interest groups, media of communication, and public opinion (Ehrmann 1957; Eckstein I960; Weiner 1962; LaPalombara 1964)—and the newer and more rigorous methodologies employed in the studies of elections and public opinion (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet 1944; Campbell, Gurin, & Miller 1954).

The culture and personality approach

A third influence feeding into the comparative politics movement was the so-called psychocultural approach developing out of the work of Freud and some of his disciples and the psychoanalytically oriented social scientists from the 1920s on, including such figures as Harold D. Lasswell (1930; 1948), Ruth Benedict (1934), Margaret Mead (1928–1935), Abram Kardiner (1939), Ralph Linton (1945), and Nathan Leites (1948). Their work, particularly in response to World War u problems, on the German, Japanese, Russian, and American national characters, created a sensitivity among students in the comparative politics movement to these aspects of politics and public policy. The political culture approach in comparative politics was greatly influenced by this psychoanthropological literature. It sought to relate cognitive and attitudinal patterns in national and subnational populations to the characteristics and functioning of political systems, through the use of cross-section survey methods, studies of particular elite groups, and the like (Almond & Verba 1963; Pye & Verba 1965).

Historical sociology and sociological theory

A fourth intellectual current was that of historical sociology and sociological theory. In particular, the work of such sociological theorists as Max Weber (1906–1924; 1922), Ferdinand Tonnies (1887), Talcott Parsons, and Edward Shils (see Parsons & Shils 1951; Shils 1959–1960) influenced the efforts of some of the newer students of comparative politics to develop theoretical frameworks capable of ordering and codifying the research results and the insights produced by this extraordinary empirical research effort. The system concepts of Talcott Parsons and of the information theorists influenced the work of a group of political theorists and students of comparative politics. These included the theoretical contributions of David Easton (1953; 1965), Karl Deutsch (1963), David Apter (1965), Gabriel A. Almond and James Coleman (1960), and Lucian Pye (1962; 1966).

Achievements and prospects

If one speculates about the future of the comparative politics movement, a number of points are suggested. In the first place, the need to codify the growing accumulation of research on political systems from all of the various culture areas of the world and at all levels of structural differentiation and secularization has brought about a return to the classic themes of political theory. The classifications of Almond (1956), Shils (1959–1960), Dahl (1963), Apter (1965), Almond and Coleman (1960), and others reflect a return to the Aristotelian tradition–but now with greater theoretical sophistication and with more, and more reliable, information. Similarly, the concern with theories of political development among these and other authors is again indicative of a return to the classic theoretical problems of political change. The future of this classificatory and developmental interest would appear to lie with political theory rather than with a special subdiscipline of comparative politics.

A second development brought about by the comparative politics movement is the breakdown in the parochialism of the theories of various special institutions and processes, such as bureaucracy (LaPalombara 1963; Riggs 1964), political parties (Duverger 1951; Neumann 1956; LaPalombara & Weiner 1966), interest groups, and the like. Here again, one cannot see a future in a comparative politics subdiscipline for these developments but, rather, in the more adequate development of theories of particular processes and institutions in the functioning of political systems.

Third, the studies of specific political systems now broadly grouped under the heading of comparative government and politics in most political science curricula are shifting from a configurative approach to one that employs schemes of classification, generic categories of a functional kind, and is illuminated by comparison. It makes no sense to include these studies of individual political systems under the heading of comparative politics, since all political systems will be treated comparatively, whether within the framework of theoretical courses, which will group them into classes and varieties, or in the more intensive analyses of individual cases, which will draw upon general classificatory and developmental theories, and upon specific institutional and process theories.

Another and more recent development in comparative politics would again seem to have long-run implications for the development of empirical and normative political theory rather than for the development of a special discipline of comparative politics. As political scientists have become increasingly concerned with the adaptation and transformation of political systems, and particularly with problems of public policy relating to the new nations, there has been an increasing tendency to focus on the interaction of whole political systems with their domestic and international environments, since it is at this level that it becomes possible to explain political change. This most recent development among students of comparative politics and political development holds out the prospect of bridging the discontinuity between empirical and normative political theories. As methodologies are developed that will make possible precise characterization of the interaction of political systems with their environments, the problem of the ethical evaluation of political systems becomes more of a rigorous, empirically based exercise. This, of course, is not to say that empirical performance is the same thing as ethical evaluation. It can, however, provide the information essential to evaluation and can test hypotheses regarding the ethical properties of varieties of political systems.

Finally, the most recent preoccupation in the field of comparative politics—with political development and with the logic of a theory of resource allocation to effect political change—again holds out the prospect for the enrichment of political theory rather than for the future of a particular subdiscipline within the field. Thus, this interest too may be assimilated into a general body of political theory.

It is difficult to see, therefore, that comparative politics has a long-run future as a subdiscipline of political science. Rather, it would appear that, like the political behavior movement which preceded it, its promise lies in enriching the discipline of political science as a whole.

Gabriel A. Almond

[See alsoModernization; Political Anthropology; Political Culture. Other relevant material may be found inGovernment; Legal systems, article oncomparative law and legal systems; Political behavior; Political Science; Public administration; Public law, article oncomparative public law.]


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Politics, Comparative

Politics, Comparative


Comparative politics designates a distinct subfield in political science. Although Aristotles political writings were arguably some of the first works in comparative political inquiry, the field has been most influenced by the writing of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers including Gabriel Almond, Hannah Arendt, Robert Dahl, Harry Eckstein, Samuel Huntington, Seymour Martin Lipset, Karl Marx, and Max Weber. Research in comparative politics seeks to account for the observed variation over time and among political units on consequential social, political, cultural, and economic outcomes by examining, describing, modeling, and predicting continuity and change resulting from the dynamics among international, national, and subnational actors.

The subfields methodological orientation is catholic in its use of quantitative and qualitative techniques. Historically, the subfield has emphasized the use of case studies, often employing John Stuart Mills methods of difference and similarity, but statistical analysis (mostly on cross-sectional, time-series, and multilevel data), computational methods, and formal modeling have become more prevalent in recent years. Gary King, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba (1994) and Henry Brady and David Collier (2004) offer introductions to some recent issues in comparative political methodology.

The field is organized around substantive topics, though disagreement on these canonical elements remains considerable. However, two broad dimensions can be delineated: the statics of political systems and the dynamics of political conflict and cooperation. The study of political systems evolves around the conditions and prerequisites for the establishment and survival of various regime types. Some of the crucial questions include: What distinguishes democracies from nondemocracies and from what lies in between? What explains the successful transition from one political system to another? What is the nature of liberal democracy?

A core debate in the study of democracy is the relationship between wealth and democracy: Some claim that wealth induces democracy, others that wealth simply accompanies democracy but is causally unrelated to it, and still others (e.g., Adam Przeworski) have suggested that wealth sustains democracy once it has taken root. Closely related is the study of democratic institutions and competitive elections, which has focused on the relationship between political institutions and political outcomes, such as collective mobilization, party formation, and policy preferences (e.g., in the work of Gary Cox, Robert Dahl, Richard Katz and Peter Mair, Herbert Kitschelt, and Giovanni Sartori). The study of autocracies has focused largely on developing typologies of authoritarian regimes and on the strategic interaction of elites during the transition to democracies. The comparative study of political liberalism across countries and over time has also received sustained attention in, for example, the work of Ira Katznelson.

Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verbas The Civic Culture (1963) was an early cross-national comparative study of democracy in which the authors linked civic attitudes and democratic stability using a tripartite typology of political culturesparochial, subject, and participant. The cultures spanned from purely passive to highly engaged attitudes toward the political system and civic life. Almond and Verba argued that political cultures adhere to the principle of congruence between a political structure and the attitudes of its citizens. The study concludes that competent, active citizenries sustain democracies.

The literature on democratization has vacillated between an emphasis on the structural determinants of sustainable democracy and elite incentives and capabilities to modify the political order (Skocpol 1979). The work of Samuel Huntington derives the preconditions for political order both from socioeconomic changes and political institutions. Guillermo ODonnell and Philippe Schmitters work challenges structuralism and represents an actor-centered approach, which argues that the elite split followed by negotiated pacts (which incorporate the preferences of the military) is a necessary precondition for the successful transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Since 1989, the transitions from authoritarian regimes have produced a variety of political outcomes in the gray zone between autocracy and democracy. The study of competitive authoritarianisms (or illiberal democracies) is an emerging field of comparative study.

The study of linkages and distributional conflicts that arise at the intersection between politics, economics, and society has led to the development of an area of inquiry often dubbed political economy. The varieties of capitalism literature is a prime example (e.g., Hall and Soskice 2001; for discussions of corporatism, see Schmitter 1975). The analysis of advanced capitalist democracies (OECD states) was induced by the oil shocks and the collapse of the Bretton Woods system. Political economy, in the work of Torben Iversen, for example, has since focused on the conditions for growth, stability, wage equality, and redistribution and seeks to untangle the ties between political systems, inequality, and policy formation. One line of inquiry focuses on domestic responses to international challenges, such as global economic competition, trade openness, and international institutions.

The study of dynamics among and within political systems focuses on conflict, revolutions, ethnic tensions, and order in society. The study of revolutions, for example, identifies the sources of state collapse and patterns of group alignment and mobilization. Studies of ethnicity and political culture analyze identity formation and the conditions under which identity is or can be mobilized for political purposes. Comparative politics intersects with international relations in many ways, but most often at the interface of ethnic conflict (e.g., Horowitz [1985] 2000). According to such writers as Donald Horowitz, Arend Lijphart, and David Laitin, the causes and consequences of state failure, intercommunal violence, and the institutional conditions under which ethnically divided societies can coexist remain core questions in comparative politics.

The third wave of democratization has raised new questions about the relationship between electoral competition and economic reforms and has moved the field closer, in some ways, to international relations in debating the push-and-pull effects of international organizations (e.g., the European Union) or of global economic strategies (e.g., foreign direct investment). New agendas in comparative politics are emerging at the intersection of ethnic-(and culturally) based identities and political mobilization. Topics and subjects developed in the study of the OECD countries are beginning to migrate outside the region to address related issues. Methodologically, the field has benefited from the massive increase in computing power now available to social scientists, but it has not abandoned altogether its reliance on a small number of in-depth case studies. The field appears to be moving recognizably toward the potentially fruitful cross-pollination of quantitative and qualitative research methods and strategies.

SEE ALSO Almond, Gabriel A.; Arendt, Hannah; Aristotle; Authoritarianism; Autocracy; Class; Democracy; Government; Keohane, Robert; Marx, Karl; Methods, Qualitative; Methods, Quantitative; Mill, John Stuart; Political Science; Politics; Socioeconomic Status; Stratification; Verba, Sidney; Weber, Max


Almond, Gabriel, and James S. Coleman, eds. 1960. The Politics of the Developing Areas. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Almond, Gabriel, and Sidney Verba. 1963. The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Brady, Henry, and David Collier, eds. 2004. Rethinking Social Inquiry: Diverse Tools, Shared Standards. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Cox, Gary. 1997. Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the Worlds Electoral Systems. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Dahl, Robert. 1961. Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Eckstein, Harry 1961. A Theory of Stable Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hall, Peter, and David Soskice, eds. 2001. Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Horowitz, Donald L. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Horowitz, Donald L. 2001. The Deadly Ethnic Riot. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Huntington, Samuel. 1968. Political Order in Changing Societies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Huntington, Samuel. 1991. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Iversen, Torben. 2005. Capitalism, Democracy, and Welfare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Katz, Richard, and Peter Mair. 1994. How Parties Organize: Change and Adaptation in Party Organizations in Western Democracies. London: Sage.

Katznelson, Ira. 1996. Liberalisms Crooked Circle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Katznelson, Ira, and Helen Milner, eds. 2002. Political Science: State of the Discipline. New York: Norton for the American Political Science Association.

King, Gary, Robert O. Keohane, and Sidney Verba. 1994. Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kitschelt, Herbert. 1989. Logics of Party Formation: Ecological Politics in Belgium and West Germany. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kitschelt, Herbert, with Anthony J. McGann. 1995. The Radical Right in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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Lenka Bustikova Siroky

David S. Siroky

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"Politics, Comparative." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 17 Aug. 2017 <>.

"Politics, Comparative." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (August 17, 2017).

"Politics, Comparative." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from