Comparative Politics: Explaining Democratic Systems


Edited by: Judith Bara & Mark Pennington

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    ‘What is distinctive about this authoritative and comprehensive book on comparative politics is the way in which it is underpinned throughout by a theoretical analysis centred on a new institutionalist approach.’

    Professor Wyn Grant, University of Warwick

    Comparative Politics takes a fresh and original approach to the field … it examines the role of structures, rules and norms in regulating the individual and collective behaviour of political actors. Each chapter provides a critical bibliography and key questions which will be particularly useful for students approaching Comparative Politics for the first time. Altogether this is a comprehensive and useful read which I warmly recommend.’

    Ian Budge, Professor Emiritus Professor of Government, University of Essex

    ‘This is a most useful book. Teachers of comparative politics often scramble around, with out-of-date textbooks and photocopies of more or less compatible articles. Here is a new book that gives an up-to-date, comprehensive and systematic introduction to the major strands of institutional thought and applies these to the major institutions, processes and policy areas. It will be a great help for many of us, academics and students alike.’

    Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard, Professor of Comparative Politics, University of Copenhagen


    View Copyright Page


    The original proposal for this text evolved from the development of a new comparative politics course that the editors have convened in recent years at Queen Mary, University of London. Besides being designed to provide students with access to descriptive material with regard to political institutions and processes in a number of different countries, the course explicitly seeks to introduce three major theoretical paradigms that have sought to explain the operation of institutions in democratic states and to facilitate comparison across different political systems.

    While we were able to recommend appropriate texts that have provided good descriptive material about a variety of different countries and introduction to methodologies used in comparative analysis, none were able to offer adequate discussion of competing theoretical perspectives at an appropriate level. We felt strongly that since a strategic objective was to enable explanation of political institutions, actors or behaviour within a comparative framework, we required an appropriate text to support this. Furthermore, we were keen to expose students to different general explanatory models in order to develop analytic and critical skills.

    This book is thus primarily a text designed to introduce first-year undergraduate students to three major theoretical institutional frameworks and research paradigms in contemporary political science. As such, it is suitable both for first-year courses in comparative government and politics and introductory courses in concepts and methods of political science. Its core objectives are:

    • To provide a readable introduction to modern comparative political analysis on the basis of ‘new institutionalist’ theoretical frameworks. The emphasis will be on different approaches to the task of explaining the similarities and differences in institutions and their effects on political and governmental practices in modern representative democracies. Thus it can be used as a basis for the examination and explanation of political institutions in one state or in several.
    • To equip students with an appreciation of comparative research methods in political science.
    • To outline key institutional features (electoral systems, territorial and functional divisions, and so forth) of government and politics in a selection of modern states.
    • To examine the role of some of the major actors (voters, interest groups, leaders) in modern states.

    Several authors have undertaken the development of the book, the majority of whom teach in the Department of Politics at Queen Mary. Those based elsewhere have had varying connections with the Department or have developed their own teaching and research along similar lines.

    But this book is not simply based on cherry-picking appropriate elements of a particular course. It owes much to a number of other people who have provided invaluable input into the curriculum at different junctures, notably Adrian Blau, Pilar Domingo, John Meadowcroft and Wayne Parsons, whose contribution we appreciate. We are also grateful for the support of the Department and for the constructive suggestions and comments made by our seminar teachers and, of course, our students.

    Finally, we would like to thank our publishers, Lucy Robinson and David Mainwaring and their team at SAGE Publications for their encouragement, assistance and professionalism — and above all for their patience — in guiding this project to completion.

    JudithBara and MarkPenningtonLondon, June 2008


    Judith Bara is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Queen Mary, University of London and Research Fellow in Government at the University of Essex.

    David S. Bell is Professor of French Government and Politics and Head of Social Studies and Law at the University of Leeds.

    Jocelyn A.J. Evans is Professor of Politics at the University of Salford.

    Catherine Needham is Lecturer Politics at Queen Mary, University of London.

    Brendan O'Duffy is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Queen Mary, University of London.

    Mark Pennington is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Queen Mary, University of London.

    David Robertson is Professor of Politics, University of Oxford and Vice Principal, St Hugh's College, Oxford.

  • Afterword: Comparative Politics and the Three Approaches Revisited


    In summary, we revisit the three theoretically informed approaches to comparative government and politics introduced in Chapter 1 and, with the help of examples drawn from the contributions to the book, we assess whether or not these are useful to our understanding of ways in which modern political institutions and actors operate.

    Summary of Development of Comparative Politics

    As you will recall, comparative politics first became established in Greece around 350 BCE, and is mainly associated with Aristotle's classification system for types of regime – monarchies, tyrannies, aristocracies, monarchies, democracy and mob rule.

    How did he arrive at this system? He basically asked two questions:

    How many rule? One person? A few people? Many people?

    In whose interests? Their own? Or all citizens?

    Much of this type of knowledge became submerged until the Renaissance in the 15th century and especially the Enlightenment in the 18th century. Renewed interest was largely due to the advent of modern theoretical ideas about the state (Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu) and the growing importance of scientific method (Newton, Darwin).

    The fusion of these two schemes of thought occurred in the 19th century, mainly as a result of the influence of philosophy and social enquiry, pioneered by the first modern political sociologists (Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and the elite theorists, Mosca, Pareto and Michels). What was so different about these thinkers?

    • Systematic, scientific, logical approaches.
    • Explanation guided by theoretical perspectives.
    • Related to the ‘real world’ in that empirical evidence sought to ‘prove’ theories.

    Thus, classifications, reasons for political and social change, the nature of the state and power relations were studied both theoretically and empirically. For the first time, theorists began to look at the ‘big picture’ and compare and contrast examples across time and space. They also often suggested remedies to problems. However, these were often far from objective. Ideologically charged explanations were employed to legitimise or delegitimise actions by one or other of the protagonists in the Cold War. Indeed, the 20th century might be portrayed as a hundred years of dialogue with Marx.

    Even where explanation was not deliberately ideological in orientation, it has tended to be difficult to apply to reality because of the nature of the models used, as is the case with Aristotle's model.

    One issue concerns the fact that there is a lack of agreement about how to examine reality, what to examine and what data or information is the ‘proper’ province of comparative politics. Conversely, such diversity is perhaps what makes the subject really interesting. It is clear that explanatory frameworks based on theoretical-approaches are useful tools in aiding our understanding of the political universe and help us compare and contrast practice in different countries – even if these countries are all agreed to be representative democracies. To be effective such theoretically-based explanatory tools must be able to be used at different levels of activity and be meaningful across time and space. A fruitful place to start looking for such tools is within the tradition of the ‘new institutionalism.’

    The Three Theoretical Explanations Revisited

    Different groups of scholars have adopted specific positions on what they consider to be the ‘best’ theoretical explanation, thus establishing different schools of thought, or perhaps more realistically, different lenses through which the political world can be measured, understood and assessed. Among institutionalists, three of the most useful, as far as comparative analysis is concerned, are the cultural, structural and rational choice approaches. They do not necessarily always explain every single topic fully, and, as we have seen in several contributions to this volume, there are increasing attempts to try and draw on their particular strengths and synthesise these to provide more effective models.

    Our main intentions in writing this book were to:

    • enhance understanding as to how competing schools of thought see political activity;
    • increase appreciation of how these different ways of viewing the world give rise to different types of explanation;
    • provide a basis for the critical awareness of strengths and weaknesses of these different approaches.

    One of the ways in which we understand better the main similarities and differences between these powerful analytic tools is by looking at the essential properties of the three approaches identified, by, inter alia, Lichbach and Zuckerman (1997) as set out in Table A. 1.

    Table A.1 Properties of three explanatory approaches

    Rather than focusing on each approach separately, Table A.1 takes three standard elements associated with any theoretical model – ontology, methodology and epistemology – and examines how these differ, how comparisons are made and what shortcomings might be associated with each approach.


    Ontology relates to the ways in which theoretical perspectives perceive political reality and what basic concepts they use to interpret the world. Thus rational choice theorists would, predictably, use rationality as the basic guiding force for behaviour and focus on explaining why individuals or institutions behave as they do. Thus individuals, for example, would act in a rational manner to maximise their advantage in any given situation and would always behave in the same way when confronted by similar situations. Action is thus deliberate, and decisions whether or not to take action will be governed by perceptions of the utility of expected outcomes for the individual.

    Cultural theorists would regard rules or norms of behaviour as the key guiding principle for action. Because members of different groups would subscribe to a common culture, this would form the source for the basic principles guiding behaviour. Structural institutionalists see the world as a whole entity constructed on the basis of a series of relationships between groups or classes. The dominant group or class would have most influence on prescribing forms of action.


    Methodology is the way in which we go about investigating how political institutions operate across state borders and/or time periods. Rational theorists prefer to use comparative statics. They compare and contrast events or processes as they stand, rather than as series of dynamic developments. They are especially interested in path dependency, an approach developed from behavioural science, which examines consequences of action as a main focus, irrespective of whether or not these were the outcomes actually intended by the actors involved. Another methodology favoured is game theory or other counter-factual type methodology, whereby models are established to predict what might happen if certain input factors were changed. For example, what might have happened in terms of possible regime change in Iraq if the USA government had not invaded in 2003?

    Cultural institutionalists employ methodologies that emphasise the meaning and significance afforded to both action and outcome. They utilise concepts that are highly dependent on cultural norms and values – factors that underpin, as they see it, the identity of individuals, groups and institutions, and thus represent the main influences on both means and ends. Structural theorists take a fairly instrumental approach to methodology, favouring the establishment of social types and explanation of social reality as a process of change over time brought about by changing dynamics in the relationships between these types. Hence, they favour causal relationships between events, groups and institutions.


    Epistemology relates to how different forms of explanation conceive of the nature of knowledge and specifically how we acquire our knowledge. In a sense this relates to different approaches to a ‘science’ of knowledge. All three theoretical frameworks have different foci in respect of this, and since we are concerned with comparative analysis here, let us look especially at how these relate to comparison.

    Rational choice institutionalists base their approach to knowledge on positivist philosophy, focusing on providing general explanations of political behaviour and action. Cultural institutionalists favour interpretivist approaches, pioneered originally by social anthropologists, which seek to bring about understanding as opposed to explanation, often on the basis of case studies. Structural approaches argue by contrast that what we have in reality is a series of institutions that are the products of historical events. Hence, institutional forms and behaviour are the effects of historical causation.


    Throughout this volume we have shown that any one of these approaches in isolation may not always be the most appropriate for enhancing our understanding of political reality or explaining why institutions in any given setting work in the ways that they do. We have also seen that it would often be advantageous for the approaches to combine several of their more powerful features and produce hybrid frameworks based, say, on both cultural and rational elements. It is widely accepted that there have been genuine criticisms levied against each of these approaches and that all have recognizable shortcomings. Table A.1 summarises the most frequent. For example, rational choice approaches are seen as being overly instrumental, mechanical and weak in terms of explaining collective decisions and the outcome of collective action. Conversely, structural approaches are seen as poor in terms of being able to explain individual action, as well as being overly deterministic, so preoccupied as they are with cause and effect. Such approaches are generally criticised for their subjectivity, and hence they are often biased as well as being weak at explaining processes of change.


    Discussion of how we use the approaches and assess their value in explaining the nature of specific institutions and actors in the political arena of representative democracies has been the subject matter of this volume. In conclusion, let us revisit a few of these applications in summary form to act as an illustration of the general properties of the three frameworks.

    The Nation-State and Nationalism

    We have seen that there are a number of competing theories that seek to offer explanations of nationalism and the consequent emergence of the modern nation-state and most of them fit quite neatly within our three approaches.

    Cultural explanations, exemplified by the views of Anthony D. Smith, argue that states pre-date the modern era as they depend on ‘ethno-symbolism’ – re-inventions of myths, legends, language and so forth. These of course can also be linked to other cultural factors such as religion and language.

    Related ‘cultural’ arguments take a more hybrid approach (such as Adrian Hastings) and argue that the institutional role of religion underpins cultural attachment to a state, for example, Pakistan or Ireland.

    There are many structural approaches to nationalism and the nation-state, and we have looked at one of the main examples, that of Ernest Gellner, who argued that it was only after the establishment of a modern, industrial system that the nation-state could be realised, based on ‘cultural materialism’. Like Benedict Anderson, he supported the idea that it was largely due to the invention of the printing press and the growth of literacy that people could learn about the benefits accruing to them from developing a self-determined, territorial entity. People could see themselves as part of ‘imagined communities’, sharing values and so on with people they had never met. Even more rooted in the Marxist, structural tradition is Eric Hobsbawm's view that nationalism is part of the class dynamic, as it creates ‘invented traditions’ which can be harnessed by dominant bourgeois interests.

    Rational choice approaches, such as those of Michael Hechter, are probably the least well-supported. These suggest that the development of nationalism is based on the realisation that it provides individuals with ‘selective incentives’.

    More recently we have heard how, in addition to explaining the establishment of nation-states, these three theoretical models assist our understanding of both the break up of nation states, and also federalism.


    Cultural interpretations argue that federalism is more effective in terms of providing for stable political systems if the society concerned represents a single or dominant culture, and especially if they can create a myth of representing a ‘melting pot’, like the USA, where minority interests can be dispersed territorially.

    Structural interpretations focus on the idea that federations are efficient in that they can operate economies of scale and are more likely to be successful if they set up effective mechanisms to regulate disputes between different economic interests.

    Rational choice explanations argue that federations can act as efficient producers and distributors of public goods and can also, if operated properly, enhance individual initiative and preserve individual liberty. This of course is based on the assumption that there is a lack of internal constraint on individuals, especially in terms of freedom of internal movement and commerce.

    Voters and Non-voters

    This is an area of the discipline where there is a great deal of research, predicated on one or other of these explanatory paradigms, and which also encompass explanations of why people might turn out to vote or not. Let us revisit the topics of electoral turnout and voting behaviour.

    Cultural explanations argue that there may be elements of a group's culture which might mitigate against voting or, more likely, that they do not see any candidates/parties which represent their cultural interests, nor a party so inimical that they have to turn out to vote against it. Such cultural explanations suggest that people vote on the basis of pre-developed attitudes developed on the basis of their interpretation of cultural values and norms. Hence a practising Christian in the Netherlands would vote for the Christian Democrats, if religion superseded other interests like class. If the opposite were the case, they would vote for the Dutch Labour Party.

    Structural arguments, from a Marxist-inspired class perspective at least, argue that voting is simply a means of propping up the capitalist class's stranglehold on the state. Other forms of structural institutionalism might argue that the electoral system is inimical to the interests of some individuals, such as some minorities, and thus discourages turn out among those groups.

    Moving to those who do turn out, why do they choose the parties they do? Structural explanations argue that people vote according to attachment to a deep-seated structural factor such as class.

    Rational choice explanations argue that individuals will only vote if they feel that there is something in it for them which maximises their own interests, and if it does not involve extra ‘costs’. Theorists argue that individuals vote for parties purely on the basis of their own, often material interests, and if they can argue rationally that there is a party which represents these interests. This is often labelled ‘pocketbook’ voting as it is usually associated with voter perceptions of which party could maximise their financial interests if elected! This is over-simplistic.

    Political Executives

    Cultural approaches argue that the nature of the executive and its ‘rules’ of procedure are related to cultural variables such as social cleavage or tradition.

    Structural explanations also examine the role of institutions but in terms of the role they play in terms of influencing/undermining freedom of executive action, such as assemblies, bureaucracies, parties. They too tend to concentrate on rules and procedures as foci of attention.

    Rational choice theories concentrate on institutional factors – especially negotiating systems in the process of determining policy. How is the role of the executive maximised? Are policy decisions always rational however?

    Judicial Power

    It was argued earlier (Chapter 7) that in considering theoretical frameworks appropriate to the explanation of judicial power, we might commence by positioning the various approaches favoured by political scientists along a spectrum. One end of the spectrum would be occupied by an approach that is purely legal in outlook and views court decisions as based entirely on legal argument. Such an approach would deny the validity of sociological or even institutional argument. Hence it could be seen as a purely legal model. At the other end we would find an extra legal model, which emphasises the idea that courts are simply one set of political institutions among many and thus behave in exactly the same way as a bureaucracy or executive, in terms of making choices which will enhance or maximise their position. Such ‘extra legal’ models incorporate criteria such as judicial values and socio-political factors in seeking explanations of reality. In reality what we find is a series of interpretations which draw on both these approaches.

    Thus, a rational plus cultural hybrid approach is arguably the strategy most favoured and adopted by political scientists studying judicial power, although it will be identified under a variety of labels, most commonly the attitudinal model. Such frameworks see judges as independent political actors who use their courts to turn their own political preferences into policy. Hence, it is necessary to study judges’ strategy and their methods, for example how they seek to build coalitions to make their views succeed. This type of approach thus combines cultural with rational choice approaches.

    In studying the role of judges and courts comparatively we need to recognise that they are quite different from other political actors since they rely on highly constrained and technical legal argument for their power and influence. Hence it is imperative that due attention is given to the actual legal opinions uttered by courts in any study of the courts. Studies that do not recognise this will fail even to explain what a court has done, let alone why it has done it. As Robertson demonstrates (1998), the political impact of a single decision depends on how the judges really intended it to work, how broadly they intend or expect future courts and administrators to interpret the result, and this can only be known by looking at the reasons they gave for such a decision.

    And Finally

    From these summary examples drawn from among our more detailed arguments in the book we can see clearly how the three theoretically informed explanatory approaches to comparative politics upon which we have focused:

    • are based on clear and contrasting visions of political reality;
    • offer different perspectives on the nature and development of political institutions and behaviour;
    • reflect different views of methods and knowledge;
    • may have shortcomings and cannot always provide answers in all circumstances.

    They are not the only models in comparative politics and are not necessarily appropriate to the study of every single aspect of the discipline, as we have seen, for example, in the case of political leadership. Their strength rests in their ability to provide a series of tools to assist us in our quest for explanation, understanding and meaning in the complex world of 21st-century political reality. They equip us with the ability to investigate this world and understand and explain similarities and differences in both the operation of political institutions and the behaviour of political actors across the increasing number of representative democracies that populate our political universe.


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