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Understanding Comparative Politics


  • The act of comparison is a basic human nature.

  • Comparison helps us understand issues and events in better manner.Within the field of Political science, Comparative Politics is that major sub field makes comparison its essence. It is concerned with the comparative study and analysis of political systems. A comparative method helps us go beyond mere descriptions, towards looking for ways in which political and social process can be explained and based on such explanations general theoretical propositions made.

  • Thus remarks Edward. Freeman that the establishment of comparative method of study has been the greatest intellectual achievement of our time.

  • Kopstein and Lichbach consider Comparative Politics, Political Theory and International Relations as three important poles in Political Science.

  • From the Greek political discourse, Aristotle came up with the first comparative study of different kinds of political regimes.

  • Comparativists describe and explain, whereas the political theorists bring out the deeper philosophical meanings of these findings.

  • Aristotle was one of the earliest philosopher to study Greek City State by applying Comparative method.

  • Aristotle considers six forms of government: Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Polity on one side as 'good' forms of government, and Tyranny, Oligarchy, and Democracy as 'bad' forms.

Why we should compare?

  • By comparing different political institutions, their functioning, different political organizations, associations and their influence, confrontations put up by non state actor’s and states response to all of them introduce us to the various ways in which politics take place.

  • Comparative method immediately opens the gate for intensive study of the subject and projects nuanced understanding of the political life that a single case study alone could never provide.

  • . It also helps us to assess whether theoretical models of decisions making are able to claim universal validity

  • Kenneth Newton and Jan W. Van Deth give us three most important reasons why we should study Comparative Politics

  1. First, that we cannot understand our own country without knowledge of others.

  2. Second, we cannot understand other countries without knowledge of their background, institutions and history

  3. Third, we cannot arrive at valid generalizations about government and politics without the comparative method.

Methods of Comparison

  • J S Mill has proposed two useful strategies of comparative research.

  • The comparison of societies or smaller groups that are concerned with reasonably similar problems is more likely to lead to satisfactory conclusions than comparisons between societies existing many centuries apart.

  • Aristotle: Classification of Governments: Aristotle considers six forms of government: Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Polity on one side as 'good' forms of government, and Tyranny, Oligarchy, and Democracy as 'bad' forms.

  • Max Weber: Classification of Authority (Traditional Authority, Legal Rational Authority and Charismatic Authority).

  • Gabriel Almond and Birmingham Powell: Political System Approach.

Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba: Work on Civic Culture (The first major cross national survey of attitude to determine the role of political culture in maintaining the stability of democratic regimes).

  • Montesquieu: Remarkable work on law, linking the institutional and modern phase.

  • Finer: Classification of Regimes into Liberal Democratic, Totalitarian and Autocratic types.  Alexis de Tocqueville: Analysis of Democracy in America.

  • Barrington Moore: Work on Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (1966)

  • Theda Scokpol: Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China were the scholar compares the major revolutions of France, Russia and China: three basically similar events which took place in three very different contexts).

  • Geovani Sartori: Analysis on Parties and Party System.

Domains of Comparative Politics

  • The focus of study of scholars of comparative politics has been on the origin and impact of various types of government or regime types or political orders in the world.

  • They explore their characteristics, reason and time of occurrence.

  • Kopstein and Lichbach have identified three important tools of analysis as determinants of comparative politics

  1. Interests

  2. Identities and

  3. Institutions.

  • Among these, ‘interest’ appears to be the most decisive. People tend to support that political regime that maximises their material benefits.

  • They organise themselves in form of interest groups, trade unions, social movements and political parties.

  • Some comparativists maintain that interests of citizens are guided by their ascriptive identities like religion and ethnicity

  • These identities are seminal in shaping their political choices in terms of voting preferences, support for certain policies.

  • The growing complexities of modern societies supplement the new variants to these identities, based on sexual orientation, commitment to environmentalism etc. which is either accommodated or rejected by the political order.

  • The third determinant happens to be the institution. Contemporary political analysis finds the role of institutions decisive in running a political regime

  • Institutions represent the long nurtured rules and formalisation of political process in a society

  • These institutions run the wheels of government machinery and are the bedrock of political life. Therefore, what emerges from the discussion is that these are institutions like elections, parliaments, judiciary, and political parties etc. that make any political regime work.

  • Scholars may apply these different approaches and line of reasoning to understand any particular problem.

Evolution of Comparative Politics

  • Comparative Politics has also evolved with time gradually.

  • Most specifically, it has been the post second world war era that it got entrenched as a sub discipline and consolidated itself under leadership of David Easton in American Political science Association (APSA).

  • Jean Blondel has produced a critical account of evolution of Comparative Politics by categorizing it in three phases- from beginning till middle of 18th century and from mid 18th century till 1914 and from then to the present time.

  • In his review of Comparative Politics, Blondel remarks that before 1914, Comparative Politics has successively taken two main forms. First phase extends up to mid 18th century where blueprints for organizing societies were proposed, and second from mid 18th century to 1914.

  • The initial phase employed normative approach, explicit in the work of Thomas Aquinas to Locke and Rousseau.

  • The subsequent period adopted a legalistic and constitutional approach till First World War.

  • Subsequently, democracy got firmly established in many countries therefore setting up successful constitutional rule. Scholarship of that time concentrated on the issue of constitutional rule and procured this discipline a special status.

  • A new phase started from 1914 when comparative politics became separate and special branch of study of politics.

  • New works from various scholars in twentieth century gradually expanded the domains of the subject providing some truly comparative works.

  • Some examples are H. Finer, Theory and Practice of Modern Government (1949), Herbert Simon Administrative Behavior (1947), Maurice Duverger Political Parties (1950), etc.

  • The decade of 1950s was outlined by behaviouralism, 1960s with developmental models, dependency approach, political culture approach, and the most recent ones as new institutionalism, rational choice theory.

  • Klaus von Beyme‘s attempt to understand the entire history of Comparative Politics by dividing it in 3 different phases find resonance with similar attempts by other scholars like Chilcote.

  • Beyme names these three phases as pre-modern, modern and post-modern, which bear some semblance with other typology in form of pre-paradigmatic and paradigmatic phases proposed by Chilcote.

Pre-Modern Phase

  • The pre-modern or pre-paradigmatic phase is the traditional phase ridden with many limitations like being descriptive, assumptive, too generalized and impressionistic.

  • Pre-modern comparisons mostly aimed at classification of whole political orders.

  • As such this phase was marked by porosity of boundaries of different disciplines like philosophy, history, jurisprudence etc.

  • There was pressure to find similarities and overall the objective was to establish classification or typologies rather that focused or meticulous study of any particular systems.

Modern Phase

  • The phase of modernity had overwhelming stress on scientific comparisons, empiricism, experimentations.

  • Machiavelli unleashed the unconventional, followed by Montesquieu, Tocqueville, J S Mill. Scientific temperament was specially encapsulated by approaches adopted by Darwin, Spencer, Talcot Parson, Max Weber, Karl Popper, and Charles Merriam. The more recent works of David Easton, Almond Powell, Sydney Verba, Crane Brinton, Theda Schokpol etc. have greatly expanded the nature and scope of the discipline and this process is ongoing.

  • The phase of modernity had overwhelming stress on scientific comparisons, empiricism, experimentations.

  • It resulted in establishment of separate disciplines such as Political Science and sociology in social sciences and aided scientific and aimed comparative studies.

  • This endeavor was formalized with the Behavioral movement under David Easton in post Second World War era.

  • Modernization theory and political development approaches was typically ethnocentric and Eurocentric

  • Its severe limitation gave rise to the Dependency theory.

Dependency Theory

  • The first approach emerging from the non western countries.

  • Dependency theory tried to analyse the inequality and problems of the developing counties in light of the global pursuits of imperialism and colonialism.

  • It offered the understanding of the globe in terms of center and periphery.

  • This theory stated that it has been the imperial rule and colonial drainage of resources, labor and raw material which responsible for the impoverished conditions of the developing societies

  • In the globe, the core or center is represented by the handful countries of the developed west and the periphery or the margin is signified by the developing societies.

  • The core gets richer by the continuous and perpetual usurping of resources from the poor and vulnerable peripheries.


  • However, this theory failed to recognize the nuanced variation among the developing societies by clubbing it under one roof.

  • It ignored the influence of vital determinants like history, culture, different colonial experience of these societies

Political Culture Approach

  • The Political Culture approach appeared in 1960s, having a larger canvass and greater inclusivity.

  • It emphasized the study of set of belief, orientation and attitudes, those governing the polities.

  • It emphasized the study of set of belief, orientation and attitudes, those governing the polities.

  • Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba initiated the discourse on political culture and Arendt Lijphart made required modifications to it.


New Institutionalism

  • The most recent approach that has created considerable interest in the field is the New Institutionalism that came in late 1970s.

  • It symbolizes the renewed interest in studying the vitality of institutions.

  • Important work in this regard has been done by James G. March and Johan P. Olsen.

  • This approach called upon the researchers to take into account the interaction of the institutions amongst themselves and its effect on the society.

  • It shifted the focus to study how these institutions influence citizens, organisations, associations and other variables in that society.

Post modern Phase

  • The Post Modern era stands with clear difference with its predecessor, the phase of modernity.

  • There cannot be any universal concept of good or bad.

  • Many scholars felt helpless, as such theories like post modernism and relativism opened a Pandora box of problems, but never came up with any solutions.

Third World Perspective

  • The contribution of post modernism can be seen in terms of providing inner critique and skepticism rather than adding some substantial new theories to the field.

  • In the decade of 1950s and 1960s, the emergence of third world as been seen as the most significant aspect of social science

  • Third world began to acquire a distinct character by the end of sixties, the Eurocentric discourse of social science gradually started to acknowledge it and also introspect its own credentials due to unpredicted crisis like youth uprisings, anti-war movements, China’s Cultural Revolution etc.

  • Analyzing the discourse of comparative politics in 20th century, Manoranjan Mohanty state that this field has undergone three phases of development:

  1. The period of institutionalism from the 1920s till the middle of the 1950s,

  2. the period of behaviouralism and modernization which saw its climax in the mid sixties.

  3. The emergence of third world challenge since the beginning of seventies.

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