Structural Functional Approach

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Retrieved from: http://www.cifas.us/smith/chapters.html Title: “A structural approach to comparative politics.” Author(s): M.G. Smith Source: In Varieties of Political Theory. David Easton, ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. p. 113-128. Reprinted in Corporations and Society. p. 91-105.

FIVE
M. G. SMITH
University of California, Los Angeles

A Structural Approach to Comparative Politics

Comparative politics seeks to discover regularities and variations of political organization by comparative analysis of historical and contemporary systems. Having isolated these regularities and variations, it seeks to determine the factors which underlie them, in order to discover the properties and conditions of polities of varying types. It then seeks to reduce these observations to a series of interconnected propositions applicable to all these systems in both static and changing conditions. Hopefully, one can then enquire how these governmental processes relate to the wider milieux of which they are part. It would seem that this comparative enquiry may be pursued i~. various ways that all share the same basic strategy, but differ in emphases arid sta~­ ing points. Their common strategy is to abstract one aspect of political reality and develop it as a frame of reference. With this variable held constant, enquiries can seek to determine the limits within which other dimensions vary; as the value of the primary variable is changed, the forms and values of the others, separately or together, can also be investigated. Ideally, we should seek to deduce relevant hypotheses from a general body of theory, and then to check and refine them by inductive analyses of historical and ethnographic data. ActuaJ procedures vary. 113

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A STRUCTURAL APPROACH TO COMPARATIVE POLITICS

Initially, we might expect anyone of four approaches to be useful in the comparative study of political systems. These four approaches use respectively the dimensions of process, content, function, and form as the bases for their conceptual frameworks. In fact, cOlIlparative studies based on process and content face insuperable obstacles due to the enormous variability of political systems. In centralized polities, the institutional processes of government are elaborately differentiated, discrete, and easy to identify. They are often the subject, as well as the source, of a more or less complex and precise body of rules which may require specialists to interpret them. In simpler societies, the corresponding processes are rarely differentiated and discrete. They normally occur within the context of institutional activities with multiple functions, and are often difficult to abstract and segregate for analysis as self-contained processual systems. Before this is possible, we need independent criteria to distinguish the governmental and nongovernmental dimensions of these institutional forms. The substantive approach rests on the category of content. By the con.. tent of a governmental system, I mean its specific substantive concerns and resources, whether material, human, or symbolic. As a rule, the more differentiated and complex the governmental processes are, the greater the range and complexity of content. This follows because the content and processes of government vary together. Since both these frameworks are interdependent and derivative, both presuppose independent criteria for identifying government. The functional approach avoids these limitations. It defines government functionally as all those activities which influence "the way in which authoritative decisions are formulated and executed for a society."l From this starting point, various refined conceptual schemes can be developed. As requisites or implications of these decisional processes, David Easton identifies five modes of action as necessary elements of all political systems: legislation, administration, adjudication, the development of demands, and the development of support...
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