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UNIT-3 Approaches to Studying Comparative Politics: Traditional and Neo-Institutionalisms Notes


  • The political world is complex, involving various institutions, actors, and ideas that interact to govern society.

  • Comparative politics aims to understand and compare different political systems and their functioning.

  • Approaches in politics, particularly comparative politics, are needed to navigate the vast amount of available information and focus on relevant data.

  • Political theories provide frameworks for analyzing political phenomena and developing a comprehensive understanding of politics.

  • Positivist and constructivist approaches offer different perspectives on politics and social life.

  • Various theories contribute important insights about politics but may not capture the full complexity.

  • Governments worldwide face common challenges such as accommodating diverse identities, ensuring security and economic growth, promoting citizenship, and managing demands for democracy and participation.

  • Different cultures, political systems, state administrations, and public programs contribute to the diversity of cases in comparative politics.

Traditional Approaches to Comparative Politics

(i) Philosophical Approach

  • Comparative politics has a long history and has been influenced by philosophical approaches.

  • Philosophers, from Plato to Hegel, have used deductive methods to draw conclusions and then seek to validate them with empirical evidence.

  • The philosophical approach lacked a connection with facts and practicality, making it difficult to implement the ideals proposed by philosophers in real-world contexts.

  • Examples like Plato's ideal state and Sir Thomas More's Utopia illustrate the challenges of translating philosophical ideals into practical realities.

  • Over time, the limitations of the philosophical approach became apparent, leading to its reduced use in comparative politics.

(ii) Historical Approach

  • The historical approach has been widely used in the study of comparative politics.

  • Thinkers like Aristotle, Marx, and MacIver adopted the historical approach to analyze political theories and the development of states.

  • Historical analysis helps explain the production, survival, and evolution of states.

  • The historical approach has enriched the field of comparative politics by providing valuable insights through comparative studies.

  • However, the historical approach also has limitations and challenges.

  • Historical events and experiences should not be given excessive importance, as history does not always repeat itself.

  • The historical method can raise more questions than it answers.

  • Comparative politics encompasses a vast field, and the historical approach offers only one perspective.

(iii) Formal and Legal Approach

  • Comparative political analysis focuses on studying constitutions, law, administration, policy-making, and bureaucracy.

  • Thinkers like Theodore Bullseye, Budrow Wilson, and Diuti have adopted formal and legal approaches in their studies.

  • The importance of the formal and legal approaches remained even after the rise of modern approaches, as seen in the works of writers like Carter, Herz, and Newman.

  • However, the legal and formal approach has faced criticism for its overemphasis on formal institutions, laws, and constitutions, neglecting other socio-economic and psychological factors.

  • There can be a disconnect between what is true from a legal perspective and what is true from a political perspective.

  • Studies based on the formal and legal approach tend to be more descriptive than analytical.

(iv) Problematic Approach

  • Comparative study addressed problematic areas such as democracy and economic planning, Panchayati Raj (local self-government) and women's representation, administrative development, division of power, and decentralization of power.

  • These studies mainly focused on formal institutions and structures.

  • Thinkers suggested reforms in formal institutions, including the reorganization of the House of Lords, development of functional representative assemblies, establishment of economic unions, empowerment of the executive, and involvement of business groups in policy-making.

  • The contemporary approach contributed to solving problems in traditional formal sectors and provided insights on applying the problematic approach to human behavior, political institutions, and other socioeconomic institutions.

  • It opened up avenues for studying the behavior of individuals and institutions in a broader context.

(v) Configurative Approach

  • The drafting method emerged after the historical and legal approaches in comparative political analysis.

  • It involves studying the political system of a specific country within its unique context, focusing on its governance, law, and constitution.

  • Data and facts are collected first, followed by a comparative study.

  • Prominent political thinkers such as Newman, Carter, Herz, Rocher, and Finte adopted this approach.

  • Critics argue that the drafting method is regionally descriptive and comparative, lacking in depth.

  • However, it is acknowledged that studying the political system of a country first provides a solid foundation for comparative analysis.

  • To enhance its scientific rigor, the drafting method can incorporate social and economic factors in the study of different political systems.

(vi) Regional/Area Approach

  • The native approach to comparative politics gained popularity after World War II.

  • It focused on studying the politics of developing and underdeveloped countries.

  • The native approach emphasized socio-economic and political uniformity among countries within a specific region.

  • It aimed to analyze self-government and security in a country based on its unique conditions.

  • Conclusions drawn from analyzing different country conditions were useful for understanding the post-World War II world system.

  • However, the regional approach has limitations as social-economic and political uniformity does not necessarily correspond to geographical proximity.

  • Prominent thinkers, such as Robert Scalapino, Barrington Moore, and Merle Fainsod, followed the regional approach in their books.

  • In modern times, with the growing popularity of interdisciplinary approaches, the regional or geographical approach is considered less fruitful.

  • Comparative studies now incorporate economics, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, and political science for a more comprehensive understanding.

(vii) Structural-Functional Approach

  • The structural-functional approach is widely used in modern comparative politics.

  • It emphasizes studying both the institutions and their functionality.

  • The approach considers the entire political system as a unit of study.

  • Proponents of this approach include Herman Finer, Karl Fredrich, Maurice Duverger, K.C. Wheare, among others.

  • The approach provides a modern perspective and holistic understanding of comparative study.

  • However, there are several limitations and criticisms of the structural-functional approach:

    1. It lacks the ability to study the dynamic and changing nature of politics.

    2. Different institutions may perform different functions in different situations, challenging the universality of conclusions drawn from this approach.

    3. Democracy, parliament, political parties, Election Commission, and other institutions can vary significantly across countries, undermining the notion of uniform functionality.

Overall, while the structural-functional approach offers valuable insights, its limitations highlight the need for complementary approaches that account for the mobility and contextual variations in political systems.

Criticism of Traditional Comparative Politics

  • Lack of empirical evidence: Traditional comparative politics often relied on deductive reasoning and philosophical approaches without sufficient empirical evidence. It lacked a strong empirical foundation to support its claims and conclusions.

  • Overemphasis on formal institutions: Traditional approaches tended to focus excessively on formal institutions such as constitutions, laws, and political structures, neglecting other important factors such as socio-economic, cultural, and historical contexts.

  • Neglect of individual and agency: Traditional comparative politics often overlooked the role of individuals and their agency in shaping political outcomes. It disregarded the impact of individual leaders, decision-making processes, and popular movements on political dynamics.

  • Eurocentrism and Western bias: Critics argue that traditional comparative politics had a Eurocentric bias, predominantly focusing on Western political systems and concepts. It failed to account for the diversity of political systems and experiences across different regions and cultures.

  • Limited scope of analysis: Traditional approaches sometimes had a narrow scope of analysis, focusing on the formal structure of governments and institutions while neglecting broader societal factors, power dynamics, and socio-economic inequalities that shape political outcomes.

  • Lack of interdisciplinary perspective: Traditional comparative politics often operated within disciplinary boundaries, disregarding insights from other disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, economics, and psychology. This limited its ability to provide a comprehensive understanding of political phenomena.

New Institutionalism Approach

  • The New Institutionalism emerged as a response to the limitations of traditional approaches in comparative politics. It gained prominence in the 1980s and 1990s as a fresh perspective on understanding political institutions.

  • The approach sought to integrate insights from various disciplines, including economics, sociology, and political science, to provide a more comprehensive understanding of institutions and their impact on political behavior and outcomes.

  • The New Institutionalism emphasized the importance of institutions in shaping individual behavior, social interactions, and political processes. It recognized that institutions are not mere reflections of individual preferences but have their own independent effects on outcomes.

  • The approach highlighted the role of formal and informal rules, norms, and organizational structures in shaping political behavior. It focused on studying how institutions shape incentives, constrain actions, and provide stability and predictability in political systems.

  • The New Institutionalism brought attention to the historical and cultural context in which institutions operate. It recognized that institutions are path-dependent, meaning that their development and evolution are influenced by past events and experiences.

  • Scholars within the New Institutionalism approach used a variety of research methods, including case studies, comparative analysis, and quantitative techniques, to examine the role of institutions in political processes and outcomes.

  • The New Institutionalism opened up avenues for dialogue and integration with other approaches, such as behaviourism, rational choice theory, structuralism, Marxism, and post-structuralism. It promoted interdisciplinary research and collaboration.

  • The approach contributed to a more nuanced understanding of power, conflict, and the dynamics of institutional change. It recognized that institutions are not static but subject to contestation, adaptation, and transformation.

Models of New Institutionalism Approach

(i) Historical Institutionalism

  • Historical Institutionalism emerged as a response to the pluralist and structural-functional interpretations within political science.

  • It was more influenced by the structural-functionalists, particularly in accepting the idea of the polity as an overall system of interacting parts.

  • Historical Institutionalism focuses on the impact of timing, sequence, and path dependence on institutions and how they shape political and economic behavior.

  • It emphasizes the uneven distribution and operation of power influenced by institutions.

  • Historical Institutionalism explains how institutions generate specific paths and structure a nation's response to emerging challenges.

  • The approach is attentive to the relationship between institutions and ideas or beliefs.

  • Historical Institutionalism takes into account the historical context and acknowledges that institutions are not static but subject to change and adaptation.

  • It utilizes a comparative analysis of different historical cases to understand the role of institutions in shaping political outcomes.

  • Historical Institutionalism draws from multiple disciplines, including political science, economics, and sociology, to provide a comprehensive understanding of institutions and their effects.


  • Overemphasis on historical analysis: Critics argue that Historical Institutionalism places too much emphasis on historical context and path dependency, which can limit its applicability to understanding contemporary political dynamics.

  • Lack of generalizability: The focus on unique historical trajectories and specific contexts may make it difficult to generalize findings across different cases or contexts.

  • Neglect of agency: Critics argue that Historical Institutionalism often overlooks the agency and strategic behavior of political actors, placing too much emphasis on the impact of institutions and historical legacies.

(ii) Rational – Choice Institutionalism

  • Rational Choice Institutionalism is a theory-based approach that focuses on the study of institutions and how they affect rational individual behavior.

  • It was inspired by the observation of phenomena in American Congressional conduct that couldn't be explained by conventional rational choice assumptions.

  • RCI assumes that actors have fixed preferences or goals and that they maximize their individual self-interest.

  • It views politics as a series of collective action dilemmas, where actors make choices based on their perceived costs and benefits.

  • RCI draws from the "new economics of organization" and emphasizes the role of property rights, rent-seeking, and transaction costs in understanding institutional behavior.

  • The approach seeks to explain how institutions shape individual behavior and how rational actors strategically navigate institutional constraints to maximize their utility.

  • RCI focuses on analyzing the incentives, constraints, and decision-making processes of actors within institutional contexts.

  • It employs formal models, game theory, and quantitative methods to analyze institutional behavior and outcomes.


  • Simplistic assumptions about rationality: Critics argue that Rational Choice Institutionalism relies on simplistic assumptions about individual rationality, ignoring the complexity of human decision-making and the influence of social and cultural factors.

  • Neglect of non-rational factors: The exclusive focus on rational individual behavior may neglect the role of non-rational factors, such as emotions, values, and social norms, in shaping political outcomes.

  • Limited explanatory power: Critics argue that Rational Choice Institutionalism may provide limited explanatory power when it comes to understanding complex political phenomena and the role of institutions beyond individual decision-making.

(iii) Sociological Institutionalism

  • Sociological Institutionalism defines institutions as entities that provide "frames of meaning" that guide social action. It focuses on the relationship between institutions and society.

  • It views authorized structures as rational and efficient, suggesting that similarities in the form of distant institutions arise from the need for rational efficiency in their functioning.

  • Sociological institutionalists argue that societies adopt new institutional practices not necessarily because they are more effective in achieving desired outcomes, but because these practices enhance the acceptance and legitimacy of the institutions or their participants in the eyes of the public.

  • Sociological Institutionalism offers a distinct perspective on the relationship between institutions and individual action.

  • It suggests that societies constantly adopt new institutional practices to enhance the acceptance and legitimacy of institutions or their participants, rather than solely based on the effectiveness of these practices in achieving desired ends.


  • Lack of theoretical clarity: Critics argue that Sociological Institutionalism lacks theoretical clarity and precision, making it difficult to establish clear causal mechanisms and testable hypotheses.

  • Limited attention to individual agency: The focus on the social aspects of institutions may neglect the role of individual agency and strategic behavior in shaping political outcomes.

  • Underestimation of rationality and efficiency: Critics argue that Sociological Institutionalism tends to downplay the importance of rational decision-making and efficiency considerations in the functioning of institutions, focusing more on social acceptance and legitimacy.

Old and New Historical Institutionalism

Old Historical Institutionalism

  • Emphasis on long-term historical analysis: Old Historical Institutionalism focuses on tracing the historical development and evolution of institutions over time.

  • Path dependence: It emphasizes the notion of path dependence, suggesting that historical events and choices shape the trajectory of institutions, making them resistant to change.

  • Continuity and stability: Old Historical Institutionalism highlights the persistence and stability of institutions, often treating them as relatively fixed and resistant to rapid transformation.

  • Limited attention to individual agency: It places less emphasis on individual agency and more on the broader structural and historical forces that shape institutional outcomes.

  • Less concern with policy analysis: Old Historical Institutionalism is primarily concerned with understanding the origins, evolution, and endurance of institutions, rather than analyzing specific policy outcomes.

New Historical Institutionalism

  1. Expanded focus on agency: New Historical Institutionalism acknowledges the role of individual agency and strategic behavior in shaping institutional change and outcomes.

  2. Comparative analysis: It emphasizes comparative analysis across different countries, regions, or cases to understand variations in institutional development and outcomes.

  3. Multiple levels of analysis: It incorporates multiple levels of analysis, including the role of non-state actors, social movements, and international influences in shaping institutional change.

  4. Policy feedback effects: It examines how institutions influence political and policy processes, and how policy outcomes can, in turn, shape institutions.

  5. Broader understanding of institutions: New Historical Institutionalism recognizes that institutions extend beyond formal rules and structures, encompassing informal norms, practices, and beliefs.


  • Institutions encompass various elements such as rules, norms, conventions, traditions, and practices that structure human organizations and shape individual behavior in political processes.

  • Institutionalism is an approach that focuses on understanding politics from an institutional perspective.

  • Traditional institutionalism, which emphasized legal, formal, normative, and descriptive aspects, lost prominence with the rise of the Behavioral Movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

  • New institutionalism emerged in the 1980s as a response to the dominance of behavioral approaches, seeking to bring the focus back to the state and institutions.

  • New Institutionalism recognizes the importance of institutions in shaping individual political behavior and outcomes, as well as the broader structure of socio-economic systems.

  • The new approach is more logical, explanatory, and empirical, with a focus on context and relativity.

  • Comparative politics should maintain a central position in political theory and understanding, utilizing the natural laboratory of the world to test and develop theories.

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