top of page

UNIT-2 Approaches to Studying Comparative Politics Notes (CGP)


1. Scope and Nature of Comparative Politics: The previous unit familiarized readers with the scope and nature of comparative politics.

2. Three Dominant Approaches: This chapter focuses on three crucial approaches in comparative political theory - Institutional approach, Systems approach, and Structural-functional approach.

3. Understanding and Reflecting on Approaches: The chapter aims to engage in debates on these approaches, understand their merits and demerits, their role in the development of the discipline, and their relevance for researchers.

4. Definition of Approaches: Approaches in comparative politics refer to different ways of comparing political phenomena. They provide rules and criteria for comparison.

4. Traditional and Modern Approaches: Comparative politics approaches can be categorized into traditional and modern approaches. Traditional approaches are normative and focus on formal structures and institutions. Modern approaches emphasize scientific criteria and measurable aspects of political systems.

5. Evolution of Approaches: Each approach has evolved from a complex intellectual history and has been shaped by the events of its time. It is important to recognize the relevance of each approach in the discipline.

6. Transition from Traditional to Modern: The behavioral revolution in social sciences challenged traditional methods and advocated for scientific criteria in comparative research. Modern approaches utilize scientific methods to study political systems.

Institutional Approach


  • The institutional approach is a perspective used in comparative politics to analyze political systems.

  • It focuses on formal structures, rules, and organizations within political systems.

  • Institutions include governmental bodies, legal systems, political parties, bureaucracies, and other formal entities.

  • The approach emphasizes the importance of institutions in shaping political behavior and outcomes.

  • It examines the functions, interactions, and dynamics of institutions within a political system.

  • The institutional approach seeks to understand how institutions affect governance, decision-making processes, and policy outcomes.

  • It considers the historical development, design, and effectiveness of institutions.


  • Critics argue that the institutional approach tends to overlook informal practices and power dynamics that influence politics.

  • It may oversimplify complex political phenomena by focusing solely on formal structures and rules.

  • The approach has been criticized for its limited ability to capture cultural, societal, and individual factors that shape politics.

  • Some argue that institutions alone do not determine political outcomes, and other factors such as leadership and societal attitudes play significant roles.

  • The institutional approach may be less adaptable to dynamic and changing political contexts.


  • The institutional approach provides valuable insights into the role and impact of formal structures and organizations in politics.

  • It helps understand how institutions shape political behavior, decision-making processes, and policy outcomes.

  • However, it is important to recognize the limitations and criticisms of the institutional approach.

  • Combining the institutional approach with other perspectives and methodologies can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of comparative politics.

  • Despite its criticisms, the institutional approach remains a significant and widely used perspective in the study of political systems.

Systems Approach

Characteristics of the Systems Approach

  • The systems approach is a theoretical framework used in comparative politics to study political systems as complex, interconnected entities.

  • It views political systems as dynamic and self-regulating systems with various components and subsystems.

  • The approach emphasizes the interdependence and interactions between different elements within a political system.

  • It considers inputs, throughputs, outputs, feedback, and the environment as key components of the system.

  • The systems approach analyzes how political systems adapt and respond to internal and external changes.

  • It seeks to understand the functioning, stability, and development of political systems.

David Easton's Systems Analysis

  • David Easton pioneered systems analysis in political science.

  • His work, "A Systems Analysis of Political Life" (1965), introduced new concepts for understanding political phenomena.

  • Easton emphasized the need for scientific methods in political analysis and rejected normative approaches.

  • He defined politics as "the authoritative allocation of values" and a political system as a set of interactions for value allocation.

  • Easton viewed political systems as dynamic and self-regulating, with a coping mechanism to handle disturbances.

  • Feedback plays a crucial role in transmitting information between the environment and the political system.

  • The political system may face stresses, including demand stress and support stress, which require balance and adjustment.

  • Structural bases such as elections, political parties, and public beliefs are essential for the survival of the political system.

  • Overall, Easton's theory portrays the political system as an input-output mechanism dealing with political decisions and activities.


  • Critics argue that the systems approach oversimplifies complex political phenomena by reducing them to abstract concepts and models.

  • It may neglect important cultural, historical, and individual factors that influence politics.

  • Critics also question the assumptions of system equilibrium and stability, arguing that political systems are often characterized by conflict and power struggles.

  • The systems approach has been accused of lacking empirical precision and being difficult to test and validate.


  • The systems approach provides a valuable framework for understanding political systems as interconnected and adaptive entities.

  • It offers insights into how political systems respond to internal and external pressures and maintain stability.

  • However, the approach should be used alongside other perspectives and methodologies to gain a comprehensive understanding of comparative politics.

  • Critics' concerns should be considered, and the limitations of the systems approach should be acknowledged.

  • Overall, the systems approach remains influential in the study of political systems, but its application requires careful consideration of its strengths and weaknesses.

Structural Functionalism

  • Structural functionalism is an approach in comparative politics that focuses on explaining the functions of political structures.

  • It involves comparing political systems by understanding the functions performed by different structures within those systems.

  • Structures within a political system are arrangements that perform functions, which can be simple or complex.

  • Functions are observed consequences that contribute to the adaptation or readjustment of a system.

  • The structural-functional approach gained prominence in the mid-1960s and became a dominant mode of explanation in political science.

  • Prominent scholars in this approach include Radcliffe Brown, Malinowski, Marion Levy Jr., Robert K. Merton, and Talcott Parsons.

  • David Easton, William C. Mitchell, David Apter, and Gabriel A. Almond are notable political scientists associated with structural functionalism.

  • Easton focused on the stability of political systems, Mitchell viewed the political system as a sub-system of the social system, Apter studied Third World political systems, and Almond explored the transition from traditional to modern political systems.

  • Almond emphasized the importance of understanding Western political systems as an ideal for analyzing political change in developing societies.

  • Four characteristics of a political system according to Almond are specialized structures, similar political functions, multiple functions performed by structures, and a distinct political culture.


  • Structural functionalism became dominant in political science after the behavioural revolution.

  • It has limitations such as focusing on static relationships and neglecting dynamic and historical aspects of political systems.

  • Functionalism tends to prioritize the stability and survival of the system, which can be seen as a status quo-ist approach.

  • Marxist and critical scholars criticized functionalism for hindering revolutionary change and being defenders of the bourgeoisie and imperialism.

  • Functionalism's frameworks for understanding developing societies were seen as disconnected from political realities and biased towards Western societies.

  • The approach's parochial nature and emphasis on quantitative methods validated exploitative Western societies and disregarded the complexities of Third World countries.

  • Despite criticisms, the structural-functional approach can have advantages in studying Western democracies, but caution is needed when applying it to Third World countries, considering political and societal realities.

Political Culture Approach

  • The political culture approach focuses on the study of continuous interactions between society and the political system.

  • It emerged as part of the behavioral science movement, prioritizing causal explanations over interpretative descriptions.

  • Behavioralist political science emphasizes the study of human behavior and interactions with political institutions and society.

  • Political culture gained significance in political science as it provided legitimacy and authority to the discipline after World War II.

  • The sociological and behavioral aspects became prominent in the scholarly investigations of political science.

  • Gabriel Almond's work, "Comparative Political Systems" (1956), popularized the concept of political culture in modern political science.

  • According to Almond, every political system is embedded in a particular pattern of orientations to political action, which he defined as political culture.

Almond and Verba’s Conception of Political Culture

  • Almond and Verba's conception of political culture is outlined in their influential book, "The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations" (1963).

  • They sought to understand the relationship between political culture and democratic stability.

  • Almond and Verba identified three types of political cultures: participant, subject, and parochial.

  • Participant political culture is characterized by active citizen involvement, high levels of political knowledge, and a strong belief in democratic values.

  • Subject political culture is marked by limited citizen participation, a reliance on authority figures, and a low sense of political efficacy.

  • Parochial political culture reflects apathy and disengagement from politics, with citizens having little interest or awareness of political affairs.

  • Almond and Verba argued that a strong participant political culture is conducive to democratic stability and effective governance.

  • They conducted comparative studies in five countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Mexico) to analyze the relationship between political culture and democratic systems.

  • Almond and Verba's work contributed to the understanding of the role of citizens' attitudes, beliefs, and values in shaping the functioning and success of democratic systems.

Civic Culture

  • Ronald Inglehart and the Link between Cultural Factors and Political Stability:

  • Inglehart links cultural factors with political stability and economic development.

  • He defines "civic culture" as a coherent syndrome of personal life satisfaction, political satisfaction, interpersonal trust, and support for the existing social order.

  • Societies with a high degree of this syndrome are more likely to be stable democracies.

  • Positive attitudes towards democratic institutions contribute to a stable democracy.

1. Historical Perspectives on Political Culture

  • Historians like John L Brooke and Daniel Walker Howe employed the political culture approach in their historical inquiries.

  • Howe extended the conceptual arena of political culture by including social movements and their struggle for political power.

  • Political culture was broadened to include all struggles over power, not just those decided by elections.

2. Social Capital and Political Culture

  • Robert Putnam studied the working of Italian regional governments and introduced the concept of social capital to analyze people's engagement in politics.

  • Social capital refers to networks, shared norms, values, and understandings that facilitate cooperation within or among groups.

  • Putnam hypothesized that societies with high social capital encourage political participation, contributing to political stability and effective governance.

3. Political Culture and Ideology

  • Neo-Marxist scholars like Louis Althusser emphasized the role of ideology in analyzing the role of culture in politics.

  • Althusser distinguished between repressive state apparatuses (coercive) and ideological state apparatuses (operating through ideology).

  • Political culture becomes the prevailing value system and knowledge structure disseminated by the dominant classes to maintain their political dominance.

4. Subcultures within Political Culture

  • The existence of multiple subcultures within a political system challenges the assumption of a single national political culture.

  • Subcultures refer to distinctive identities and behaviors of diverse social groups and communities.

  • Different subcultures develop based on various factors such as elite versus mass culture, cultural divisions within elites, generational subcultures, and social structure.

  • The interaction of different subcultures has an impact on the political system as a whole.

Limitation of Political Culture Approach

  • Critics of the political culture approach argue that it tends to generalize the national political culture of a society and overlooks the subcultures based on race, class, caste, religion, and other factors that may have different political cultures.

  • The approach lacks a comprehensive account of its origin and evolution in social science, hindering the development of a historical understanding of the concept.

  • Political culture studies have primarily focused on Western democracies, limiting the scope of analysis and creating a Western-dominated perspective.

  • The approach has been criticized for reducing cultural factors to social system characteristics or statistical aggregations of individual orientations, resulting in a narrow understanding of the cultural factors that shape politics.

  • The cross-national survey method used in political culture studies may inaccurately assume equal leverage and subscription to dominant cultural patterns among all members of society, disregarding variations in individual capabilities and access to politics.

  • Critics argue that the political culture approach tends to favor the status quo and the interests of ruling elites, neglecting the need for social and political change to promote democracy and values such as justice and equality.

  • However, despite these criticisms, scholars like Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel have sought to address the deficiencies of the approach and advocate for its retention as a significant comparative analytical tool in political science.


  • Political culture is a key approach in comparative politics that allows researchers to analyze the interactions between individual behaviors and the political system.

  • It enables empirical analysis of the relationship between individual behaviors and the political system.

  • Political culture helps in understanding the significance of civic engagement in political stability and governmental effectiveness.

  • The emergence of the political culture approach has supplemented the behavioralist analysis of individual political decisions.

  • Political culture provides realistic explanations for political phenomena.

  • Continuous scholarly efforts are needed to revise and update the components and scope of the political culture approach to ensure its relevance over time.

New Institutionalism

  • Institutions are fundamental to politics, and without institutions, there is no politics.

  • The new institutionalism aims to focus on politics itself rather than assuming institutions as given.

  • Not all institutions are political; some, like family and religion, may seek to stay outside the realm of politics.

  • Politics should not be reduced to power and interest; it encompasses ethical contestation.

  • An institution is an enduring collection of rules, practices, and meanings that is relatively resistant to individual preferences and external circumstances.

  • The new institutionalism emerged as a response to the dominance of behaviouralism and rational choice approaches.

  • Behaviouralism and rational choice approaches undermined the importance of institutions and emphasized self-seeking individuals.

  • The new institutionalism is not a single unified approach but consists of multiple strands, including historical institutionalism, rational choice institutionalism, and sociological institutionalism.

  • There are disagreements within the new institutionalism regarding the significance of behavioralist and rational choice approaches.

  • Despite overlapping interests, collaboration among the different strands of new institutionalism is limited.

(i) Historical Institutionalism

  • Historical institutionalism focuses on understanding political phenomena through the lens of institutions and their historical development.

  • Judith Goldstein's work on American trade policy demonstrates how contradictory ideas about state policy coexist in the United States, highlighting the persistence of conflicting ideas rather than their replacement.

  • Prominent scholars like Suzanne Berger, Theda Skocpol, and Peter Katzenstein have contributed significantly to the field of historical institutionalism.

  • Historical institutionalism emerged as a response to behavioralist and rational choice approaches in political science.

  • It draws inspiration from economic institutionalist-historians who emphasized socially and politically constructed preferences.

  • It distinguishes itself from Marxism and group theories by considering institutional and national differences that affect policy outcomes and contestation.

  • Structural-functionalism also influenced historical institutionalism by highlighting systems as aggregates of interacting parts or groups.

  • The approach can be divided into two approaches: the calculus approach, which emphasizes strategic and instrumental individual behavior within institutional constraints, and the cultural approach, which emphasizes the socially constructed nature of individual actions within institutions.

  • Historical institutionalism examines how institutions shape and influence individual behavior while acknowledging the agency of actors within those institutions.

1. The Calculus Approach

  • The calculus approach is one of the two approaches within historical institutionalism.

  • It views individuals as strategic, calculative, and instrumental actors.

  • Individual actions are influenced and constrained by institutions.

  • Individuals calculate their actions based on other actors and the rules and codes of institutions.

  • Instrumentality is mandated by institutions.

  • Individuals organize themselves and act in accordance with socially constructed, publicly known, anticipated, and accepted rules and practices.

  • The calculus approach emphasizes individual calculation at the center of analysis.

  • It recognizes the socially constructed and publicly accepted nature of individual instrumentality, but does not prioritize it in the analysis.

2. The Cultural Approach

  • The cultural approach is one of the two approaches within historical institutionalism.

  • It emphasizes the role of cultural norms, beliefs, and values in shaping individual behavior and institutional outcomes.

  • Institutions are seen as carriers of cultural meanings and symbols.

  • Individuals internalize cultural norms and values, which guide their actions within institutions.

  • Cultural understandings and shared meanings shape the choices and preferences of individuals.

  • Institutions are not just rule-based structures, but also repositories of collective meanings and historical legacies.

  • Cultural continuity and stability are important factors in understanding institutional persistence and change.

  • The cultural approach highlights the social construction of individual behavior and the importance of cultural context in shaping institutional dynamics.

  • It recognizes the influence of cultural factors on individual agency and decision-making processes within institutions.


  • The strength of historical institutionalism lies in its eclectic nature, allowing it to incorporate diverse perspectives and approaches to understand institutions.

  • It has the flexibility to draw insights from various disciplines, theories, and methods, enabling a comprehensive analysis of institutional dynamics.

  • Historical institutionalism emphasizes the role of historical context, path dependency, and institutional legacies in shaping political outcomes.

  • It recognizes the importance of both formal and informal institutions in shaping individual behavior and decision-making processes.

  • Historical institutionalism highlights the role of power, interests, and social norms in influencing institutional change and continuity.

  • It provides a nuanced understanding of the complex interplay between individuals and institutions, taking into account the influence of both agency and structure.

  • The approach emphasizes the significance of long-term historical processes and gradual institutional evolution.

  • Historical institutionalism enables the analysis of specific cases and contexts, allowing for in-depth examination of institutional development.

  • However, the eclectic nature of historical institutionalism also leads to criticism, as it lacks a unified and standardized model for interpreting the relationship between individuals and institutions.

  • Critics argue that historical institutionalism may lack theoretical precision and struggle to provide generalizable explanations across different contexts.

  • Despite its limitations, historical institutionalism offers valuable insights into the dynamics of institutions and their impact on political processes.

(ii) Rational Choice Institutionalism

  • Rational Choice Institutionalism is an approach that combines rational choice theory with the study of institutions.

  • It assumes that individuals are rational actors who make decisions based on their self-interest and the costs and benefits associated with different choices.

  • Institutions are seen as the rules of the game that structure political interactions and provide incentives for individuals to act in certain ways.

  • The approach emphasizes the importance of analyzing individual decision-making processes and how institutions shape those decisions.


  • Critics argue that Rational Choice Institutionalism oversimplifies human behavior by assuming individuals always act rationally and in their self-interest.

  • It overlooks the role of social norms, values, and cognitive limitations that can influence decision-making.

  • The approach often neglects historical context and path dependency, focusing more on static analysis rather than considering institutional change over time.

  • Critics question the assumption that institutions are solely designed to maximize individual utility, arguing that they can also reflect broader societal values and collective goals.

  • Rational Choice Institutionalism may struggle to explain cases of institutional persistence or change that are not easily captured by individual utility calculations.

  • The approach may not adequately account for power dynamics, inequalities, and social structures that shape institutional outcomes.

  • Critics argue that Rational Choice Institutionalism is limited in its ability to address collective action problems and coordination issues that go beyond individual rationality.

  • The approach may rely too heavily on formal institutions, neglecting the influence of informal norms and practices that also shape political behavior.

Overall, while Rational Choice Institutionalism offers insights into individual decision-making and the role of institutions, it has faced criticism for its assumptions, simplifications, and limited explanatory power in certain contexts.

(iii) Sociological Institutionalism

  • Sociological Institutionalism is an approach that emphasizes the role of social norms, values, and shared beliefs in shaping institutions and political behavior.

  • It highlights the importance of social context, historical legacies, and cultural factors in understanding institutional development and change.

  • The approach views institutions as social constructions that are embedded in broader social structures and systems.


  • Critics argue that Sociological Institutionalism tends to overlook individual agency and decision-making, focusing too much on societal-level factors.

  • It can struggle to provide clear causal explanations and often relies on descriptive analysis rather than offering predictive theories.

  • The approach may face challenges in operationalizing and measuring social norms and values, making it difficult to test hypotheses rigorously.

  • Critics contend that Sociological Institutionalism may neglect the role of power dynamics and conflicts in institutional processes, focusing more on consensus and stability.

  • It can be criticized for its tendency to rely on qualitative research methods, which may limit generalizability and replicability of findings.

  • The approach may not adequately address the role of economic factors and rational calculations in institutional dynamics.

  • Critics argue that Sociological Institutionalism is sometimes overly deterministic, assuming that institutions determine behavior without allowing for individual variation and agency.

  • It may struggle to explain cases of institutional change and adaptation, particularly when social norms and values are contested or subject to transformation.

Overall, while Sociological Institutionalism provides valuable insights into the social and cultural dimensions of institutions, it has faced criticism for its limitations in accounting for individual agency, providing causal explanations, and addressing power dynamics and conflicts within institutional processes.


  • The new institutionalism revitalized the old institutionalism by elaborating the interaction between individuals and institutions, giving it new direction and impetus.

  • It created a space for dialogue and integration with other approaches in political science, including behavioralist, rational choice, structuralism, functionalism, Marxism, post-structuralism, and structural-functionalism.

  • The new institutionalism recognizes that institutions are more complex than mere collections of individuals striving to maximize utility.

  • Historical institutionalism brings conflict to the core of institutional analysis, highlighting power dynamics, struggles, and the mobilization of biases.

  • The new institutionalism engages with diverse fields over a long period, providing support for broader historical and cultural theories at the micro-level.

  • While there may be disagreements among institutionalists at the core, there is room for merging and dialogue at the margins.

  • Rational choice theorists are increasingly open to cultural and historical analysis, emphasizing collaboration across different strands of new institutionalism.

5,597 views0 comments


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page