Comparative Politics

Systems Theory and Structural Functionalism

Although structural functionalism finds its roots much earlier than systems does theory, as researchers use it today, it is based on systems theory. Structural functionalism traces its beginnings back to the ancient Greeks and the writings of Aristotle. Systems theory emerged much later. Although the discussion of systems began with biologists in the 19th century, systems theory was not fully articulated until the 1920s. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, who developed general systems theory, was a principal in establishing it as a field of study. Although systems theory originated later than functionalism, when researchers study functions within their structures, they do it within the scope of systems. The study of political systems came into its own with the adoption of a structural- functional approach. The systems approach of David Easton and Karl W. Deutsch grew out of sociological and communication theory and a “move toward the theory and data of politics” (Almond & Powell, 1966, p. 12). Easton and Deutsch followed a communication, or cybernetic, model to study politics. Gabriel A. Almond’s study of political systems grew out of a tradition of political theory and draws from sociological and communications theories. While Easton and Deutsch adopted a purely systems approach, Almond applied structural functionalism to systems theory. Both have value in the study of political systems. See Research Paper on Systems Theory and Structural Functionalism.

Political Development and Modernization

Political science has long been concerned with how to establish systems allowing us “to be free from hunger and repression.” Political development implies that some governments are better at accomplishing these goals than others are. Although we should be careful not to idealize democracy with all its imperfections— and indeed Samuel Huntington would remind us that political order matters more—many agree that democracy in some form is preferable to the wide array of nondemocratic systems of government. Modernization refers to economic development and the transformation from agricultural to industrial societies, along with corresponding social and cultural shifts (although the use of terms such as modern and primitive has been criticized as inappropriately stereotyping certain cultures from a Western perspective). The central question of how economic conditions are linked with the emergence of democracy or dictatorship has been a topic of interest from the time of ancient scholars through contemporary political science. See Research Paper on Political Development and Modernization.

Statism

Prior to World War II, scholarship in comparative politics focused mainly on the study of institutions in western European countries, and formal theories examined the workings of the state in detail. At that time, the state was viewed as an autonomous entity with a large degree of power on its own. Society and its impact on the state seemed somewhat unimportant. The behavioral revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, on the other hand, altered the focus of political inquiry completely. With the rise of the society centeredness approach, individual and group behavior assumed primacy of analysis, and political scientists retreated to a large extent from the study of the state. Indeed, scholarship of this time portrayed the state as a black box without having its own interests and being merely an arena where behavioral games of various groups and individuals were acted out. Possibly the biggest contribution of recent statist theories is the idea of “bringing the state back in” (as Skocpol, 1985, expressed it) to the attention of scientific inquiry. Theda Skocpol’s works began this movement, which was later extended by emphasizing the state’s security function and diversity of structure in the various forms of autocracies, such as corporatist, bureaucratic, neopatrimonial, and totalitarian regimes. A focus on weak states and the politician’s dilemma in developing countries completed the general scholarship on providing a balanced view between individual and group behavior, as well as the workings of the state. See Research Paper on Statism.

Dependency and Development

What explains the divergent development trajectories of different countries and societies? Why has the developing world failed to close the gap with the industrialized countries? This research paper reviews the literature by scholars in the Marxist tradition that addresses these and other questions of development, beginning with the writings of Karl Marx, continuing through the work of Vladimir Lenin, and ending with the more recent work of the dependency theorists. This literature is vast. And like the writings of Marx himself, there are often competing or even opposing theoretical arguments from scholars considered part of this tradition. Taken together, this literature forms an enduring theoretical counterpoint to the liberal economic theory that has informed generations of policymakers from both developed and developing countries. Marxist, neo-Marxist, and dependency explanations of development differ from traditional liberal economics in the importance of noneconomic factors for explaining development. Liberal economists emphasize that countries can best promote development by limiting social and political concerns from policy making and by integrating their national economies into the global market. See Research Paper on Dependency and Development.

Civil Wars

Since the end of World War II, there have been 5 times as many civil wars as interstate wars and at least 5 times as many deaths due to civil wars as due to interstate wars. For various reasons, the relative peace among the members of the state system did not seem to elicit a similar effect within the members of the state system during the six decades after World War II. It is perhaps not surprising then that scholarly literature on civil wars has grown substantially—and substantively—in the 21st century. Scholars ostensibly accept that civil wars are social phenomena distinct from interstate wars, which implies that civil wars likely have causes, correlates, and outcomes that are substantively different from the causes, correlates, and outcomes of interstate wars. This research paper discusses the major theoretical contributions and controversies related to the civil war research program. First, civil wars are defined conceptually, then operationally. Second, major theories focusing on the causes of civil wars are discussed, along with future directions and policy implications. The paper ends with a summary and a brief note on the current state of civil war research. While the discussions herein are by no means exhaustive, they tend to focus on the most notable civil war theories at this time. See Research Paper on Civil Wars.

Terrorism

Since September 11, 2001, considerable attention has been devoted to the study of terrorism, yet scholarly analysis of the subject has actually been active for several decades. With this increased focus, confusion has arisen as to the very meaning of terrorism. In addition, there are competing theories in regard to the causes and effects of terrorism, with contributions coming from economists, sociologists, psychologists, and political scientists. The study of terrorism is truly a multidisciplinary endeavor. This research paper provides a review of the debate regarding the definition of terrorism, presents historical examples of terrorism to provide context, and introduces the primary theoretical and empirical contributions of major scholars in the field. See Research Paper on Terrorism.

Political and Military Coups

In the study of comparative politics and international relations, few phenomena are quite as mysterious as the coup d’état. In many countries, coups are a regular and even frequent source of regime change. Coups can be observed nearly every year all around the world, and there is a large and diverse body of coups, successful and unsuccessful, for scholars to study. Yet fundamental questions about coups persist. In a revolution, we can observe mass social movements of people seeking change. In legal regime changes, whether hereditary or democratic, we can observe a process that is frequently clear and usually public that guides the transition of power from one government to the next. This clarity is absent in most coups d’état. This is problematic for both scholars and political leaders. Scholars want to understand coups in order to grasp the overall picture of regime change in international politics. Political leaders need to understand coups as they are likely to encounter this sudden and unpredictable change in government, possibly even their own. See Research Paper on Political and Military Coups.

Resource Scarcity and Political Conflict

The popular press is rife with economists, ecologists, and religious doomsayers seeking to explain, predict, and profit from the problem of resource scarcity and its twin, resource allocation. Closely following are an increasing number of scholarly forays in economics, anthropology, geography, and political science. The modern scholarship’s groundwork may be said to properly begin with Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). Therein, he in part argues that given finite resources, and an infinitely expanding population, political, social, and spiritual turmoil is inevitable. The flurry of activity the publication of that essay created has been ever present, so that subsequent generations of popular writers (e.g., Charles Dickens and others) were able to tap into the broader theme. Thus by the late 1800s, socialist theorists were able to exploit Malthusian ideas as a means of broadcasting the desirability (or, following Marx, the inevitability) of democratic equality. See Research Paper on Resource Scarcity and Political Conflict.

Ethnic Conflict

Ethnic conflict is one of the major threats to international peace and security. The conflicts in the Balkans, Rwanda, Chechnya, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Darfur are only among the best-known and deadliest examples. The destabilization of provinces, states, and in some cases even whole regions are common consequences of ethnic violence. Ethnic conflicts are often accompanied by gross human rights violations such as genocide and crimes against humanity, economic decline, state failure, environmental problems, and refugee flows. Violent ethnic conflict leads to tremendous human suffering. Despite the fact that the number of conflicts has declined over the past decades, ethnic turmoil remains one of the main sources of warfare and instability in major regions of the world. Between 1945 and 1990, nearly 100 ethnic groups were involved in violent conflicts. During the 1990s, about three quarters of conflicts were disputes between politically organized ethnic groups and governments. More than one third of the world’s states were directly affected by serious internal warfare at some time during the 1990s, and of these states, nearly two thirds experienced armed conflicts for 7 years or longer during the decade. See Research Paper on Ethnic Conflict.

Comparative Political Parties: Systems and Organizations

Political parties and party systems are of interest to the scholar of comparative politics because they are constantly in flux. A common understanding of the political party, according to Leon D. Epstein, is of a group that “seeks to elect governmental officeholders under a given label” (p. 9). Party systems are described by the number of parties within a given country during a given time, along with their “internal structures, their ideologies, their respective sizes, alliances, and types of opposition” (Duverger, 1972, p. 18). Party systems can have as few as one major political party, or may have many political parties. Elections are the venue in which competition for government office takes place. Elections bring changes in the policies advocated by parties, the seats held by political parties, and of course the composition of government. It is important to note that political parties do not make changes in a vacuum; change often comes in anticipation of, or in reaction to, changes that other political parties in the system make. This makes the party system a system of interaction between political parties. See Research Paper on Political Parties: Systems and Organizations.

Electoral Systems in Comparative Perspective

Elections are central to the functioning of democratic systems, and as such they have been the focus of extensive political science research for centuries. Scholars and practitioners seek to understand the variation in choices of different electoral systems cross-nationally. They also try to isolate the impact of those choices on a range of individual-, institutional-, and system-level outcomes. Those outcomes include the quality and breadth of representation; size and polarization of political party systems; citizen participation and voting behavior; and government, as well as system, stability. Much of the research conducted on electoral systems and elections has evolved from theoretical and empirical work on the United States and other established Western democracies (especially those in Europe), but considerable effort in recent decades has been devoted to understanding elections in transitioning and new democracies globally. Although elections do take place in nondemocratic polities, they usually fail to be free, fair, or competitive and therefore typically fall outside the domain of comparative research. What is clear is that the increasing sophistication of theoretical and statistical tools available to political scientists (along with an expanding universe of cases against which to test expectations) has resulted in important advances in our understanding electoral systems and elections. Because electoral processes and outcomes exert such profound effects on the real world of politics, such understanding is an example of the crucial connection between theory and practice in political science. See Research paper on Comparative Electoral Systems.

Comparative Federalism, Confederalism, Unitary Systems

One of the classic challenges of political organization is the territorial or spatial division of power. Just as constitutional engineers, politicians, and philosophers have struggled over the concentration or separation of horizontal (e.g., executive, legislative, and judicial) powers, so too have battles been fought over the distribution of vertical (e.g., central, regional, and local) authority. Although the late 20th and early 21st centuries have featured significant movement in favor of boundary broadening and the interdependence of outward-looking states, the salience of interactions among countries’ internal units remains high. Indeed, understanding the contemporary nation-state demands that political scientists make sense of the centrifugal pressures of decentralization that coexist alongside centralizing trends of integration and unification. Scholars have generally classified approaches to the geographic dispersion of governmental authority by grouping states into unitary, federal, and confederal types. Research on the different system types has evolved from early work on nation building and pacification of regional tensions to contemporary efforts to explain differences in the quality of representation, in the durability of alternative models, and in the adaptability of structural designs to the changing demands of global interdependence. See Research Paper on Federalism, Confederalism, and Unitary Systems.

Presidentialism vs. Parliamentarism

Whether a country employs a presidential or parliamentary regime is an incredibly meaningful distinction. Numerous studies have shown that presidential systems result in more open trade policies and greater particularistic spending (i.e., transportation funding, agricultural subsidies, etc.) and are better suited to represent the entire electorate (Cheibub, 2006; Evans, 2004; Keech & Pak, 1995; Shugart & Carey, 1992). In addition, and perhaps more important, researchers have argued that presidential regimes were prone to conflict and, in some cases, democratic collapse (Linz, 1990a, 1994). More recent work has gone even further to help us understand the nuances of regime type. Margit Tavits’s (2009) book considers whether directly elected presidents in parliamentary governments produce greater political divisiveness, pervasive apathy among the electorate, and more frequent intergovernmental conflict. Likewise, much has been written on the benefits of parliamentary governments because they are perceived to be fundamentally different from presidential systems. Specifically, parliamentary governments are thought to engender greater public goods spending (e.g., education, health care, and pensions) and be more efficient and more durable than alternative regime types are. Therefore, it is necessary to highlight the differences between these regimes by focusing on how the chief executive and legislature are elected, how these two branches interact with one another, and how government formation occurs. Once we can clearly distinguish among alternative government types, we can better identify the relevance for understanding topics such as policy making, representation, and democratic survival. See Research Paper on Presidentialism vs. Parliamentarism.

Comparative Judicial Politics

The study of courts in comparative perspective has a long history in the discipline of political science. C. Neal Tate notes that articles dealing with international judicial systems were published nearly 100 years ago in some of the first American political science journals. However, the study of comparative judicial politics faded from the forefront of the discipline of political science for several generations, until social scientists began to again analyze legal systems comparatively, starting in the 1960s. In the last several decades, there has been a virtual explosion of research dealing with judicial structures and processes in comparative perspective. This research paper provides an overview of some of the most significant recent research on comparative courts and also examines the trends and future directions for comparative judicial scholarship. Obviously, only the general trends in comparative courts scholarship can be discussed here due to space limitations; for a more detailed listing of work in the field, the reader is advised to consult Tate, which provides a comprehensive bibliography of books and articles in the subfield of comparative judicial systems. See Research Paper on Comparative Judicial Politics.

Civil Society

The interaction of groups and political actors in society is best conceived through the discussion of civil society, social networks, and social capital. In this research paper, each of these terms describes an aspect of a single idea that associations shape social and political life. Social networks are often informal organizations of individuals that span diverse segments of society. These networks can be small or large, but their ultimate purpose becomes promoting the common interest of the network. Within these networks, social capital can be accumulated. Social capital is “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition” (Bourdieu, 1985, p. 248). The accumulation of social capital encourages individuals to act together to achieve common goals. Without social capital, the achievement of those goals would be impossible. The ebb and flow of social capital accumulation, especially within the context of social networks, creates social associations that interact at various levels of society and government with varying degrees of formality. This broad condition has come to be understood as civil society. Social networks interact with other social networks within the purview of civil society. The actions of individuals within civil society promote increases and decreases in social capital that affect future interactions of individuals and social networks. While these terms are separate in what they specifically represent, the central theme remains consistent that relationships matter. See Research Paper on Civil Society.

Political Culture

The concept of political culture refers to the political attitudes and behavioral patterns of the population, and it is assumed that this culture largely determines the relation of citizens with the political system. Most studies on political culture claim that specific elements of that culture have an impact on the way political institutions function, although it has to be noted that the reverse causal logic (institutions determining the political culture) has been argued as well by authors adhering to an institutionalist perspective on politics. Political culture includes both the individual’s view of himself or herself as a competent political actor and the perception about his or her role within the political system. Strictly speaking, political culture refers only to the attitudes of citizens, but in practice it also includes behavioral patterns that are closely related to these attitudes. This research paper first reviews the development of studies on political culture, paying specific attention to the work of Gabriel Almond, Sidney Verba, and Robert Putnam. Subsequently it reviews the empirical research on specific elements of political culture before closing with a glance at future directions in this subfield of political science. See Research Paper on Political Culture.

Religion and Comparative Politics

The past two decades have seen a resurgence in the study of how religion affects politics in the United States and around the world. For generations, social scientists believed religion to be declining in influence to the point that it might eventually be marginalized. However, political scientists continue to observe, among other things, the importance of Christianity in the United States and the increasing influence of extremist Islam leading to events such as September 11, 2001. As political scientists have asked questions about these developments, the body of literature on the subject has grown to the point that the American Political Science Association recently initiated a journal titled Politics and Religion in order to give proper attention to this important area of research. See Research Paper on Religion and Comparative Politics.

Ethnic and Identity Politics

What is generally meant by such terms as ethnicity, ethnic group, and ethnic identity? The terms are derived from the Greek term ethnos, which has been generally translated to mean nation or a community of people who share a common language or culture. Although much of the early understanding of ethnic groups treated these communities as natural, the notable 19th and early 20th century German sociologist Max Weber argued that ethnic groups were artificial and socially constructed. Essentially they were based on a subjective belief in a shared community. This belief is what created the group, and the motivation for creating a group derived from the desire for political power. This was very much in contrast to an earlier belief in the 19th century that held that sociocultural and behavioral differences between peoples stemmed from inherited traits and tendencies derived from common descent, or race. Later Fredrik Barth (1969) went even further, arguing that ethnicity was forever changing and that the boundaries of membership in an ethnic group are often negotiated and renegotiated, depending on the political struggle between groups. See Research Paper on Ethnic and Identity Politics.

Social Movements

Social movements can be conceptualized as sustained and enduring challenges to political decision makers in order to achieve some form of social change. Although social movements most often are composed of one or various social movement organizations, various authors have emphasized that social movements should not be identified solely with those organizations. Individual actions, cultural manifestations, the activity of opinion leaders and other elements of cultural change, and consciousness-raising can also be labeled as elements of social movements. Although social movements are studied mostly within the field of sociology, they are also of crucial importance within political science. It can be argued that some of the most important political changes in the 19th and 20th centuries were brought about by the actions of social movements. Powerful examples are the civil rights movements in the United States, the green movement, and women’s organizations, but one could also think about organizations aimed at promoting gay rights or the protest against authoritarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Social movements therefore are usually identified with contentious politics: They try to bring about political change by challenging the political elite. As such, they give voice to those who have been excluded from the political system. See Research Paper on Social Movements.

Gender and Politics

In 1976, Peter Merkl observed that the field of comparative politics had been woefully deficient with respect to the study of women. Few comparative studies on gender existed, almost no presentations or panels appeared at professional meetings, and no academic journal specialized in the publication of research in the subfield. More than 40 years later, the study of women, and more broadly gender, in comparative politics has flourished, becoming an important area of research. A recent issue of Perspectives on Politics dedicated a whole section of the journal to a review of comparative politics of gender. Several aspects of the study of women in comparative politics are summarized in this research paper. The first section highlights how the comparative study of women and politics has evolved since the 1970s, noting an increase in the number of scholars in the field and the acceptance of this area of research into mainstream political science journals. The second section examines some of the key themes and theories, including women and representation and feminist comparative public policy. The growth of studies on gender regimes and the welfare state, state feminism, the formation and implementation of women-friendly policies, and the influence of women’s movements on policy debates are presented. Next, some practical implications of these studies are noted, followed by a discussion of future directions of research. See Research Paper on Gender and Politics.

Comparative Environmental Politics and Conflict

Since the last years of the cold war, the study of security and conflict has moved forward from traditional interstate wars to consider issues of human security. Ullman (1983) was one of the first to call for the field of security studies to include nontraditional forms of conflict, and other scholars (Kaplan, 1994; Matthews, 1989) soon followed, noting in particular the role that environmental issues could play in creating and exacerbating conflict between states. Connections between environmental scarcity and conflict date to the original work of Thomas Malthus (1798), who predicted that the difference in the rate of growth in population and food supply would eventually lead to Earth’s population overtaking the food supply. Choucri and North (1975) argue that rising population creates an increased demand on limited resources, which in turn causes “lateral pressure” that leads countries to seek resources outside their borders via conquest. However, the field of environment and conflict really took hold in 1991 with the publication of Thomas Homer-Dixon’s article titled “On the Threshold: Environmental Changes as Causes of Acute Conflict” in the journal International Security. This article laid the groundwork for new thinking about how environmental scarcity can lead to social changes that in turn create breeding grounds for intra- and interstate conflict. See Research Paper on Environmental Politics and Conflict.

Totalitarianism and Authoritarianism

In the 20th century, some of the darker consequences of the industrial and political revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries appeared: industrialized slaughter and mass terror organized by powerful states against their own societies. Events such as the Holocaust, Stalin’s terror, and China’s Cultural Revolution challenged political scientists to explain how and why states could govern in such ways. Although the century ended with a wave of democratization in many parts of the world, different types of nondemocratic regimes that had been pervasive outside Western Europe and North America persisted in smaller but still very significant numbers. In the 21st century, political science must continue to analyze nondemocratic regimes and to ask questions that have challenged the discipline for decades (at the very least since the rise of fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism in the period between the two World Wars). See Research Paper on Totalitarianism and Authoritarianism.

Semiauthoritarianism

Semiauthoritarianism denotes a form of government that is neither fully democratic nor fully authoritarian. It might be the result of an authoritarian regime’s having adopted some of the features of a democracy, or of a democracy having restricted political or civil liberties. The term is by no means uncontested. As will be seen below, many other terms exist to describe such regimes that fall into the gray zone between democracy and authoritarianism. However, this research paper is not concerned with terminology but rather with the conceptual issues surrounding the phenomenon of countries’ not fitting into the existing tripartite typology of democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian regimes. In this research paper, the notion of a gray zone will be employed to denote this phenomenon. It is suitable for the purposes of this paper because it does not make any assertions as to the quality of the regimes discussed (i.e., closer to democracy, closer to authoritarianism, stable, in transition). In addition, it provides a good base to discuss the conceptual challenges inherent in classifying regimes. After all, the size of the gray zone depends on the reach of the concepts employed by the researcher. It is not uncharted territory but territory simultaneously charted by two concepts that should not overlap. See Research Paper on Semiauthoritarianism.

Models of Democracy

Although the term democracy has often been used in the literature, there has not always been consensus as to its meaning. The literal meaning of democracy comes from a combination of two Greek words, demos (people) and kratos (rule; Robertson, 1985), and at its core, “Democracy is a form of government in which the people rule” (Sørensen, 1993, p. 3). The term originated in Athens and was a part of the standard classification of “regime forms that distinguished rule by one (monarchy), several (aristocracy), and the many (democracy)” (Miller, 1987, p. 114). However, beyond the literal meaning of democracy, there has been considerable debate over the criteria that distinguish democracies from nondemocracies. A relatively narrow definition of democracy has been offered by Joseph Schumpeter (1950), who viewed democracy as simply a method for choosing political leadership: “The democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” (p. 260). Another, more exclusive definition is offered by David Held, who argued that “democracy entails a political community in which there is some form of political equality among the people” (Held, 1996, p. 1). The existence of equal rights (and, accordingly, equal obligations) is the principal feature of political democracy. See Research Paper on Models of Democracy.

Processes of Democratization

Over the past two generations, few topics in comparative politics have generated as much research and debate as the twin subjects of democratization and democratic consolidation. Scholarship in recent decades can be seen as part of what has been a longer-standing comparative politics literature dating back to the early post–World War II period that examined subjects such as “requisites of democracy” (Lipset, 1959, p. 69) and preconditions of democratic governance. However, it was not until what would become known as the third wave of democratization started building with the overthrow of the Portuguese military government in 1973 that the debates about democracy became one of the preeminent topics in the field. Over the course of the past 35 years, there have been a multitude of spirited debates as scholars have sought to explain what leads to democratization and how, once democratic, governments can stay democratic. What follows is an attempt to synthesize this twin body of work by examining the key arguments that have been made in the most important works within the scholarly literature. See Research Paper on Processes of Democratization.

Comparative Methods

As a subdiscipline of political science, comparative politics aims to explain and understand the dynamics of political power as practiced throughout the world. In pursuit of this goal, comparativists have developed a range of methods to compare the large number of vastly different political systems they study. While philosophers, historians, and theologians have long crafted political theory in a systematic fashion, the establishment of modern political science departments and the rapid increase in their number during the 20th century inspired a fruitful debate about the appropriate means to carry out comparative political research. In the early 21st century, there is growing recognition of the necessity of multiple methods, and recent methodological debates have centered on the best ways to enhance dialogue between scholars from different methodological backgrounds who nevertheless share substantive concerns. See Research Paper on Comparative Methods in Political Science.

Case Studies

The case study method has always been an integral tool in the investigation of social science phenomena, being of particular value when the number of observations, or cases studied, is limited in number, restricting the utility of statistical approaches. However, for some time the individual case study approach had been supplanted by large-N, data-intensive quantitative methods as the preferred technique for empirical studies. More recently, the case study has seen a revival of interest by social scientists as part of a multimethod, holistic approach that includes formal, qualitative, and quantitative methods. Indeed, each major methodological approach plays an important role in the research cycle, with the qualitative application of the case study enlightening the inductive aspect of theory development through the identification of alternate causal explanations, new variables, or complex interactions of variables. Fundamentally, case studies allow one to go beyond often simplistic quantitative analysis and develop contextually rich and in-depth pictures of the phenomena being observed. See Research Paper on Case Studies in Political Science.

Return to the overview of Political Science Research Paper Topics.

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