European Political Science Review (2009), 1:1, 33–61 & Cambridge University Press, 2009 doi:10.1017/S1755773909000010
The nature and future of comparative politics
PHILIPPE C. SCHMITTER
Emeritus Professor, European University Institute, Florence, Italy 2 Recurring Visiting Professor, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary
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 ‘simpliﬁcation’ 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 ﬁnd 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 classiﬁcation, 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 naıve 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 sufﬁce. 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’
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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...
References: Almond, G. (1990), A Discipline Divided. Schools and Sects in Political Science, Newbury Park: Sage. Almond, G. et al. (1973), Crisis, Choice and Change: Historical Stories of Political Development, Boston: Little Brown.
26 Charles C. Ragin, Fuzzy-Set Social Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). For two empirical examples of the application of this technique plus a two-stage design, see the work of Carsten Schneider and Claudius Wagemann.
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Ragin, C.C. (1987), The Comparative Method, Berkeley: University of California Press. —— (1994), Constructing Social Research, Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press. Sartori, G. (1970), ‘Concept misinformation in comparative politics’, American Political Science Review, LXIV(4): 1033–1053. Schmitter, P.C. (1996), ‘Imagining the future of the Euro-Polity with the help of new concepts’, in G. Marks, F. Scharpf, P.C. Schmitter and W. Streeck (eds), Governance in the European Union, London: Sage Publications, pp. 121–150. Tilly, C. (1984), Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
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