Comparative Politics

The future of comparative politics is in doubt. This sub-discipline of political science currently faces a ‘crossroads’ that will determine its nature and role. In this essay, I make a (willfully distorted) plea that it should eschew the alternative of continuing to follow one or another versions of ‘institutionalism’ or that of opting completely for ‘simpli? cation’ based on rational choice. It should embrace the ‘complex interdependence’ of the contemporary political universe and adjust its selection of cases and concepts accordingly. Without pretending to offer a novel paradigm or method.

I explore some of the implications of conducting comparative research in this more contingent and less predictable context. A promising but controversial future Comparative politics is as old as the empirical study of politics itself. Today, even those scholars who only conduct research on a single polity ? nd themselves ineluctably drawn into the sub-discipline. As soon as they move beyond pure description and start using a vocabulary based on generic analogies or more comprehensive systems of classi? cation, they risk exposing themselves to comment and criticism from aggressive comparativists.

For example, a student of American politics who concludes that a two-party system has been an indispensable element for this regime’s democratic stability may be challenged by those who have studied such exotic polities as Uruguay or Colombia where analogous institutions have sometimes failed to produce the same result. Indeed, in the latter case, one of the most destabilizing features may have been its oligarchic and sclerotic two-party system. Meanwhile, perhaps unbeknownst to the na? ve Americanist, there are many ? multi-party systems in Western Europe that have been models of political stability and policy innovation.

So, even casual students of political science may not be able to escape the tentacles of comparison, no matter how hard they try. Knowing everything there is to know about some period or aspect of one’s own country’s politics could be misleading without some effort at placing it ‘in comparative perspective’. Even seeking refuge in international relations will no longer suf? ce. There may be only one world system to be observed (although there are several of them to be compared over time), but within that single case ambiguous ‘trans-national’.

* Email: philippe. [email protected] eu 33 34 PHILIPPE C. SCHMITTER polities, such as the European Union (EU), other regional and functional ‘regimes’, and a myriad of non-governmental organizations, have emerged. 1 There have been periods of relative tranquility when the sub-discipline was dominated by a single paradigm. For example, until the 1950s, scholarship consisted mostly of comparing constitutions and other formal institutions of Europe and North America, interspersed with wise comments about more informal aspects of national character and culture.

‘Behaviorialism’ became the rage for a shorter while, during which time mass sample surveys were applied across several polities in efforts to discover the common social bases of electoral results, to distinguish between ‘bourgeois/materialist’ and ‘post-bourgeois/post-materialist’ value sets, and to search for the ‘civic culture’ that was thought to be a pre-requisite for stable democracy. ‘Aggregate data analysis’ of quantitative indicators of economic development, social structure, regime type, and public policy at the national and sub-national levels emerged at roughly the same time.

‘Structural-functionalism’ responded to the challenge of bringing non-European and American polities into the purview of comparativists, by seeking to identify universal tasks that all political systems had to ful? ll, regardless of differences in formal institutions or informal behaviors. None of these approaches has completely disappeared and all academic departments of political science are likely to have some mixture of them. But none is ‘hegemonic’ at the present moment.

As one of its most distinguished practitioners described, present-day comparativists are sitting at different tables, eating from different menus, and not speaking to each other – not even to acknowledge their common inheritance from the same distinguished ancestors (Almond, 1990). The prospective student interested in comparative politics had only to look at the dominant ‘fads and fashions’ in American political science, trace their respective trajectories and intercepts, and he or she could predict where comparative politics would be going for the next decade or more.

Who could doubt that this sub-discipline of political science as practiced in the United States of America showed the rest of the world ‘the face of its future? ’2 After all, by far the largest number of professionals applying this method to describing If you have any doubt about whether a given piece of research is comparative, I suggest that you apply ‘Sartori’s Test’. Check its footnotes and compare the number of them that are devoted exclusively to the country or countries in question and those that refer to general sources, either non-country speci?

c or that include countries not part of the study. The higher the ratio of the latter over the former, the more likely the author will be a genuine comparativist. If the citations are only about the country or countries being analyzed, then, it is very unlikely that the author has applied the comparative method – regardless of what is claimed in the title or ? yleaf! ‘Comparazione e Metodo Comparato’, Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica, Vol. XX, No. 3 (Dicembre 1990), p. 400.

2 If you doubt the existence of this assumption of superiority, consult A New Handbook of Political Science, edited by Robert Goodin and Hans-Dieter Klingemann (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). In their introduction, the editors explicitly (and uncritically) assume that the best that one can expect for the future is to imitate contemporary trends in American political science. The notion that Europe (and, needless to say, the rest of the world) might have a different tradition of comparative analysis is not even raised – much less taken seriously.

1 The nature and future of comparative politics 35 and analyzing the widest variety of polities has always been employed in this country. The central assumption of this essay is that the future of comparative politics should (and, hopefully, will) diverge to some degree from the trends and trajectories followed in recent years by many (if certainly not all) political scientists in the United States.

As I have expressed it elsewhere, the sub-discipline is presently ‘at the crossroads’ and the direction that its ontological and epistemological choices take in the near future will determine whether it will continue to be a major source of critical innovation for the discipline as a whole, or dissolve itself into the bland and conformist ‘Americo-centric’ mainstream of that discipline.

3 In other words, this essay will not be an effort that even pretends to survey objectively and comprehensively what has been produced by comparativists – American or otherwise – in the recent past. It will be what the French call a plaidoyer, a biased plea from a particular advocate on behalf of a client who faces a critical ‘mid-career’ choice that will determine his or her status long into the future. First, some congratulations are in order Let me begin, however, with some self-congratulation.

Thanks to the assiduous efforts of many methodologically minded colleagues (mostly Americans, it is true), many fewer students applying the comparative method neglect to include in their dissertations an explicit defense of the cases selected – their number and analogous characteristics, an awareness of the potential pitfalls involved in selecting the cases based on the latter, and to the limits to generalizing about the external validity of ? ndings.

4 Despite many criticisms about the ‘non-cumulative’ nature of the knowledge generated by comparative politics, there have emerged some continuous lines of research in which successive generations have built (critically) upon each other’s work. At the present moment, I would cite the burgeoning ? eld of democratization as one where this has occurred. Even in my other current specialty, regional integration, something like a ‘common tradition’ has developed – despite quite fundamental theory-based differences at the point of departure.

These important gains in methodological self-consciousness have produced (or been produced by) some diminution in the ‘class warfare’ between quantitative and qualitative political scientists. There is still some sniping and some of the former persist in asserting their intrinsic ‘scienti? c’ superiority over the latter, but there is more and more agreement that many of the problems of design and 3 ‘Comparative Politics at the Crossroads’, Estudios-Working Papers, 1991/27, Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Ciencias Sociales, Instituto Juan March de Estudios e Investicaciones (Madrid), 1991.4 Here, considerable credit has to be given to the widespread use by comparativists of Gary King, Robert O.

Keohane and Sidney Verba, Designing Social Inquiry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994) and, more recently, to its critical counterpart, Henry E. Brady and David Collier (eds. ), Rethinking Social Inquiry: Diverse Tools, Shared Standards (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Little? eld, 2004). 36 PHILIPPE C. SCHMITTER inference are common to both and that the choice between the two should depend more on what it is the one wishes to explain or interpret.

Indeed, from my recent experience in two highly cosmopolitan institutions, the European University Institute in Florence and the Central European University in Budapest, I have encountered an increasing number of dissertations in comparative politics that make calculated and intelligent use of both methods – frequently with an initial large N comparison wielding relatively simple quantitative indicators to establish the broad parameters of association, followed by a small N analysis of carefully selected cases with sets of qualitative variables to search for speci?

c sequences and complex interactions to demonstrate causality (as well as the impact of neglected or ‘accidental’ factors). To use the imaginative vocabulary of Charles Tilly, such research combines the advantages of ‘lumping’ and ‘splitting’ (Tilly, 1984). Hopefully, this trend will continue into the future.

The real challenge currently facing comparative politics, however, comes from a third alternative, namely, ‘formal modeling’ based on rational choice assumptions. Much of this stems from a strong desire by American political scientists to imitate what they consider to be the ‘success’ of the economics profession in acquiring greater status within academy by driving out of its ranks a wide range of dissident approaches and establishing a foundation of theoretical (neo-liberalism) and methodological (mathematical modeling) orthodoxy.

This path toward the future would diverge both methodologically and substantively from the previously competing quantitative and qualitative ones. It would involve acceptance of a much stronger set of limiting initial assumptions, exclusive reliance on the rational calculations of individual actors to provide ‘micro-foundations’, deductive presumptions about the nature of their interactions, and reliance on either ‘stylized facts’ or ‘mathematical proofs’ to demonstrate the correctness of initial assumptions and hypotheses derived from them.

The comparative dimension enters into these equations to prove that individual behavior is invariant across units or, where it is not, that institutions (previously chosen rationally) can make a difference. The ‘Genealogical Tree’ of comparative politics As a prospective or practicing comparativist, the reader will ? nd him or herself hanging or, better, sitting somewhere in the tree depicted in Figure 1. It is a spatially schematized and temporally compressed representation of the genealogical roots, trunks, and branches that have evolved into contemporary comparative politics.

Some intrepid young scholars may be agile enough to scramble horizontally from one branch to another in the canopy; most, however, will have arrived and will remain on their roost by climbing vertically up one or another of the multiple trunks rooted in past traditions of political thought. Its deepest root lies in something I have called ‘sociological constitutionalism’ as invented by Aristotle and subsequently nourished by such a diverse group of The nature and future of comparative politics 37 S VER ITARI NI TITUTO U IS O.



‘Dead White European Males’ as Polybius, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville, Lorenz von Stein, Karl Marx, Moisei Ostrogorski, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Roberto Michels, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Herbert Tingsten. Through various extensions and permutations, this has become the branch subsequently labeled as ‘historical political sociology’ with such luminaries as Stein Rokkan, T. H. Marshall, Reinhard Bendix, Otto Kirchheimer, Seymour Martin Lipset, Juan Linz, Hans Daalder, Mattei Dogan, S. N.

Eisenstadt, Harry Eckstein, and Dankwart Rustow located somewhere along it during the decades immediately following the Second World War. Karl Deutsch probably should be placed here at an odd angle, since he was so single-handedly responsible for inserting a cybernetic graft into it. On the outer reaches of this cluster, one generation later, is where I can be most safely located. The other deep root lies in ‘legal constitutionalism’ fertilized initially by distinguished Anglo-French jurists such as Leon Duguit, Georges Burdeau, James ?

Bryce, A. Lawrence Lowell, and Woodrow Wilson, and developed during the subsequent century by scholars such as Maurice Duverger, Herman Finer, Samuel Finer, Giovanni Sartori, Carl J. Friedrich, Samuel Beer, Jean Blondel, F. A. Hermens, and Klaus von Beyme. Someone like Robert Dahl can probably be best located hanging comfortably in a hammock strung between the sociological and legal branches – which, in any case, have been converging. Samuel Huntington is another distinguished comparativist whose roost in the tree is dif?

cult to place, although it is easier to imagine him clinging closer to this branch than to the neighboring one. From these two taproots have been added a number of exogenous grafts during the 20th century. Political science became a voracious consumer of conceptual and methodological innovations from other, increasingly professionalized, social science disciplines – ? rst, from social psychology with the so-called ‘behaviorist movement’ and later (and somewhat more surreptitiously) from anthropology with the ‘structural-functionalist approach’.

The most distinctive product of the former was the rapid rise of comparative survey research, symbolized by the publication of the highly successful (and criticized) work, Gabriel Almond’s and Sidney Verba’s, The Civic Culture, in 1963. Today, this branch of comparative politics is routinely conducted within and often across virtually all of the world’s polities. Certainly, it is the most distinctive (and successful) contribution of American political science to the sub-discipline.

The anthropological graft has contributed much less in volume and attractiveness to the evolution of comparative politics. Its most important contribution was undoubtedly to preside over a vast extension in the range of countries brought under comparative scrutiny. When embracing ‘Non-Western’ politics and faced with the need to explain ‘elections in Albania’, ‘budgeting in Zaire’, ‘civilmilitary relations in Indonesia’, and ‘federalism in Argentina’, scholars such as David Apter, Leonard Binder, Lucian Pye, James Coleman, and Myron Weiner found it dif?

cult to apply the usual legal or sociological categories and took refuge The nature and future of comparative politics 39 behind a variety of ‘functions’ that presumably had to be performed by analogous ‘structures’ in all political systems. After a major ? urry of activities in mid-1950s to the early 1970s under the prestigious auspices of the SSRC Committee on Comparative Politics, scholars began to realize that the stipulated functions were excessively abstract and that the structures they were trying to explain often could not be assigned to a single one of them.

Moreover, the entire notion of ‘systemic equilibrium’ as the central metaphor for guiding comparisons among NonWestern polities came into question when the stability of their institutions was revealed to be highly precarious. Once the key question was seen to be change, especially change in regime from democracy to autocracy or, more recently, the inverse, the approach became much less relevant (Almond et al. , 1973).

Finally, comparativists have always borrowed ideas and concepts from economics, especially from such early political economists as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo, Jeremy Bentham, Friedrich List, and Adolf Wagner. Albert Hirschman, although a heterodoxical ? gure outside the ranks of contemporary neo-liberal economists, has made several seminal contributions. But the real novelty of the past few decades has been the transfer of root assumptions, deductive thinking, and mathematical modeling techniques into the study of politics – ?

rst, in research on American politics and, increasingly, in research on ‘other people’s politics. ’ The leading ? gures have been Anthony Downs, Thomas Schelling, Howard Raifa, Kenneth Arrow, Douglas North, Mancur Olson, Gary Becker, George Stigler, and, most centrally, James Buchanan and William Riker. As we shall see shortly, this graft from economics has opened up a radically new path to the future for comparativists. Presently, the evolutionary tree of comparative politics resembles more a Tropical Banyan than a Florentine Cypress.

It has a wide canopy of branches, certainly not a single tapered and elegant peak. Its most curious aspect, however, is the number of practitioners who roost in the canopy, and who seem content with sharing the same generic label: institutionalists. Closer inspection of the foliage reveals that it contains an extraordinary variety of ? ora and fauna. About all they can agree upon is that ‘institutions matter’. They differ widely on what institutions are, how they come about, why is it that they matter, and which ones matter more than others.

Moreover, some of those perched up there will even admit that other things also matter: collective identities, citizen attitudes, cultural values, popular memories, external pressures, economic dependencies, even instinctive habits and informal practices when it comes to explaining and, especially, to understanding political outcomes. This urge to ? nd shelter under the capacious tent of ‘institutionalism’ can be interpreted either as a bizarre effort to return to their legalistic origins (precisely in a world context in which such formalized constraints are manifestly inadequate for solving problems and resolving con?

icts) or as a desperate attempt to make common cause with the greatest possible number of disciplinary brethren (precisely when so many of them are heading in a direction that would radically challenge their basic assumptions and methods). 40 PHILIPPE C. SCHMITTER At the crossroads of three paths At the top of Figure 1, I have placed a large question mark – a decision point that will determine the future con? guration and even the very viability of the whole tree.

The safest thing one can say today about the future of comparative politics is that it will not be the same as in the past. Of course, not everything is going to have to change. Comparative politics will continue for the foreseeable future to bear major responsibility for the objective description of processes and events in ‘other people’s countries’ and, hence, for providing systematic and reliable information to those politicians and to those administrators charged with making and implementing national policies concerning these countries.

The end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Empire have, if nothing else, led to an impressive increase in the sheer number of polities whose (allegedly autonomous) behavior has to be described. The globalization of capitalism has produced increasingly indirect and articulated systems of production, transport, and distribution that are much more sensitive to disturbances in the behavior of their most remote and marginal components.

The ubiquitous penetration of the mass media has meant that happenings anywhere in the world are immediately transmitted everywhere and comparativist pundits will be expected ‘to place them in context’ for public consumption. Comparison between ‘real-existing polities’ will also remain the best available research method for analyzing similarities and differences in behavior and for inferring the existence of patterns of regularity with regard to the causes and consequences of politics.

It will always be the second best instrument for this purpose, but as long as it remains impossible for students of politics to experiment with most of their subjects and subject matter, political scientists will have to settle for analyzing as systematically as possible variations they cannot control directly. Figure 1 suggests that comparative politics will have to choose among three distinctive paths. It can continue along the very broad ‘institutionalist’ trajectory it has been on for the last decades, presumably adding more ‘neo-neo-neo-’ pre? xes as it permutes into more specialized approaches.

Otherwise, it can take a turn to either the left or the right. Whatever the choice, it is most unlikely that comparative politics will taper toward a single peak – however much some practitioners would like it to. 5 The most ‘clear and present danger’, as I see it, is that the sub-discipline’s evolution will lead to an irreversible split in the canopy with less-and-less communication or cross-fertilization between scholars perched For example, by encouraging everyone to adopt a similar syllabus for introductory courses that is strongly skewed to promoting the new graft from economics.

David Laitin, ‘The Political Science Discipline’, paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, CA, 2001. The very notion that political science – comparative or not – should be rooted in a single theoretical orthodoxy would seem to me to do violence to its subject matter, all the more so in an epoch of radically increasing complexity. 5 The nature and future of comparative politics 41 on its different branches and more-and-more efforts to exclude dissidents from claiming the professional right to call themselves ‘scienti?

c’ students of politics. Those who take a sharp turn to the right towards economics will be opting for ‘simpli? cation’. They will be led by those American colleagues who have already accepted the limited initial assumptions, exclusive reliance on individualistic ‘micro-foundations’, deductive presumptions about how these actors behave with regard to each other, and proof by ‘stylized facts’ or ‘mathematical formulae’ that characterize the path known as rational or public choice.

6 Those who choose the leftward path will opt for what I call, for lack of a better term, ‘complexi? cation’. They will follow the lead of a less well-de? ned and less self-con? dent group of scholars who: (1) Accept far fewer and less restrictive initial assumptions – indeed, who rely upon a calculated proliferation of assumptions about the identity and motives of actors and about the role of entrenched institutions and historical memories in determining seemingly ‘irrational’ behaviors.

(2) Are convinced that adequate micro-foundations in the present world context can not only be based on individual persons – indeed, they must also include collectivities that cannot be simply decomposed into the preferences or actions of individuals and to take more-and-more into consideration the composition effects generated by multiple levels of political power and authority. (3)

Choose to rely upon ‘reasonableness’ rather than rationality, i. e.on ‘improvising’ and ‘avoiding the worst’ in complex situations where optimal pursuit of marginal returns is virtually impossible given the number of actors involved, the plurality of sources of information and the unintended consequences generated by interdependent layers of political aggregation. (4) Consider that the usual fallacies of composition can be converted into novel ‘laws of composition’ to explain outcomes in situations where multiple layers of different types of actors from a plurality of centers of power and authority bargain and deliberate with each other.

(5) Have a healthy respect for ‘real’ data – whether generated by the normal operations of the polity or invented and gathered by themselves, coupled with an abiding suspicion of simple aggregative indicators for complex phenomena, so-called ‘stylized’ facts that suppress confounding observations or simulations produced by impressive mathematical equations. (6)

Insist upon endogenizing as many potentially causal variables as possible, even those notoriously dif?cult to measure such as ‘preferences’ – rather than shoving them into the background, assuming them out of existence, presuming what values they take in a given situation or inserting new ones ex post in order to ‘prove’ the alleged rationality of observed outcomes. 6 They prefer to think of themselves as ‘positive political theorists’, although it is a mystery to me what is so positive about their approach and (presumably) negative about all of the others. And they are de? nitely not ‘positivists’ given their frequent reliance on stylized facts or mathematical proofs. 42 PHILIPPE C. SCHMITTER.

The competition between the three alternative paths depicted at the top of Figure 1 is hardly going to be equal. The middle one, toward various permutations of ‘the new institutionalism’, should be the most favored choice, if only due to sheer inertia rooted in the ? xed intellectual assets of most practicing comparativists. Given the profusion of quali? ers that usually precede it – historical, sociological, legal, and rational, just to name the most common – this approach is suf? ciently ambiguous to appeal to a large number of them, even if in my opinion it is already subject to diminishing marginal returns, divisive speci?

Cations, and less and less capacity to deal with anomalies. The sharp right turn toward the simplicity of formal modeling should be (and already has been) very tempting, especially in the United States, for reasons I have discussed elsewhere. Comparativists may be especially seduced by its appeal since it provides a convenient justi? cation for eliminating what has, heretofore, been some of the most demanding requirements of the sub-discipline, namely, the need to learn a ‘foreign’ language, culture, and history and to carry out protracted ?

Eld research in a ‘foreign’ setting. Dedicated rational choicers already know what the dominant preferences are supposed to be,7 and have no need to observe directly or interview ‘exotic’ respondents. 8 Information requirements have been radically simpli? ed and, if they are not available in an on-line data banks, they can always be smoothed out by asserting ‘stylized facts’ or just by simulating their probable distribution. Most saliently, those comparativists who take this path may be convinced that they are likely to reap the same rewards from higher ‘scienti?

c’ status as have the neo-liberal, mathematized economists from whom they have lifted their intellectual baggage – ‘lock, stock and barrel’. 9 They can also be assured that their work 7 And if the actors do not con? rm the initial suspicion that their purpose is to acquire more wealth or material goods opportunistically by optimizing at the margin in each political exchange, the rational choicers will simply substitute another preference and, if necessary, yet another preference until the individual’s rationality has been proven.

I have yet to ? nd an article that manipulates the preference order until ‘other-regardingness’ becomes the dominant one, but this cannot be far away. What I doubt will ever be admitted is that the individuals in question acted simply ‘irrationally’ according to the terms set by the initial restricted assumptions. If you want to observe a ‘classic’ example of this ‘bait-switching’ by rational choice theorists, read what they have to say about ‘the voter paradox’, where it seems irrational for any individual to vote unless the anticipated margin is very very narrow.

Nevertheless, citizens do vote and even in elections whose outcome is a foregone conclusion. Just watch them hunt around ad hoc for a preference con? guration that makes this collective behavior seem rational. 8 This is a maxim they have inherited from the discipline of neo-liberal economics. As argued most prominently by Milton Friedman, the producers or consumers themselves have a ‘rational’ incentive not to admit to their ‘true’ preferences and, moreover, are likely to be biased into giving the interviewer more culturally or normatively respectable reasons for their choices.

It is, therefore, a waste of time (and a potential source of confusion) to ask them why they are doing something. To the prospective comparativist, this can relieve him or her of some very heavy research bu