“Those who only know one country know no country.” – Seymour Martin Lipset.
The scholar Guy Swanson once said, “Thinking without comparison is unthinkable. And, in the absence of comparison, so is all scientific thought and scientific research.” (cited in Ragin, 1992). As such, comparison is necessary for the development of political science. The ‘art of comparing’ can be seen as what experimentation is to most sciences – the principal and most effective way to test theory. (Peters, 1998) This essay seeks to describe the different aspects of the ‘art of comparing’ and also to detail the reasons why the comparative method is a necessary tool in the belt of any political scientist.Order now
Comparative politics is one of three main subfields in political science, alongside political theory and international relations. While political theory deals with theoretical issues about democracy, justice et cetera, comparative politics deals with more empirical questions. To use an example cited by Daniele Caramani in ‘Comparative Politics’ (2011), comparative politics is not interested in whether or not participation is good for democracy. It is instead concerned with the way people participate, and why they participate in certain ways. As such, comparative politics can be viewed as empirical and ‘value-free.’ On the other hand, international relations – as the name suggests – looks at interactions between political systems, whereas comparative politics prefers to study interactions within political systems. Again according to Caramani (2011), comparative politics does not ignore external influences on internal structures, but its ultimate concern is power configurations within sovereign systems.
The ‘art of comparison’ is a necessary tool in any political scientist’s belt. According to Peter Hall (2001) ‘o respectable department of political science would be without scholars of comparative politics.’ The reasons why all political scientists should use the comparative method can be divided into four strands. The first strand can be summed up in this Rudyard Kipling quote: “What should they know of England, that only England know?” The art of comparison is necessary because it allows exploration, which is the starting point of all political analysis. To find out about others is to find out about oneself. Comparison allows political scientists to recognise difference, which is essential to understanding these differences. One good example of this comparative exploration is MacAuley’s 1967 ‘Sandino Affair’ (cited in Landman, 2000). This is an account of Sandino’s guerrilla attempt to oust US marines from Nicaragua after a presidential succession crisis, and while it accounts in great detail the events that happened, it is an example of ‘evidence without inference’ (Almond 1996, cited in Landman, 2000) – the author tells the story, but makes no attempt to make sweeping generalisations about the results of US imperialism.
The second strand is classification.
The art of comparing allows political scientists to group cases into distinct categories with shared, identifiable characteristics, allowing us to identify patterns that will help to understand interactions both between and within political systems. This classification goes back to the work of Aristotle in 350 BC, when the famous philosopher grouped regime types along lines of their form of rule and the people who ruled them. This simple classification is still used in modern politics today, because comparative politics grouped them in a simple, easy to understand way. A more recent example of classification can be found in ‘The History of Government’ (Finer, 1997), in which it is claimed that since 3200 BC, all governments have taken one of four forms: the palace polity, the church polity, the nobility polity or the forum polity. While Aristotle’s classification was imagined using deductive reasoning and then matched to states, and Finer’s theory was decided based on empirical observation and inductive reasoning, both scholars seek to describe and simplify a more complex reality by identifying key characteristics. (Landham, 2000).
The third strand is built upon the foundation that the earlier two strands have laid. Political scientists can use the art of comparison to build upon the knowledge that has been obtained through exploration and classification to create and test a hypothesis. The ‘art of comparing’ has been increasingly used since the 1950s to build theories of political science, with comparison of countries allowing political scientists to disprove opposing theories and test and create new hypothesis about interactions between and within political systems. Indeed, hypothesis testing has been described as the raison d’être of new comparative politics (Meyer 1989, cited in Landham 2000). The vast array of books and studies that could be cited as examples at this point in the essay only serve to illustrate the point that hypothesis testing is indeed the most fruitful aspect of comparative politics – it is indeed ‘new’ comparative politics’ raison d’être. However, this essay will cite the example given by Powell in ‘Contemporary Democracies’ (1982). In this study, G. Bingham Powell measured voter participation in twenty nine democracies, arguing that turnout should be higher in countries that are more economically developed (have higher capita GDP), a representational constitution, electoral laws that facilitate voter participation, and a party system with strong alignment to societal groups. His statistical analysis of the data he obtained from these countries revealed the positive correlation between these variables and voter participation.
The fourth and final strand of comparative politics is also arguably the most difficult of the four. Making predictions comes as a natural extension of hypothesis testing, and it involves predicting an outcome based on generalisations taken from the original comparison. In comparative politics, predictions tend to be made with an emphasis on probability, i.e. “countries that are more economically developed and have a representative constitution are more likely to have higher levels of voter participation.” Comparative politics can also be used to make a prediction about how the electorate will vote and therefore which candidate for election is most likely to win. Although there is less of an emphasis placed on making predictions within comparative politics as there once was, there have been many studies in which comparativists and political scientists alike have used the comparative method to make predictions.
To summarise the above points, the comparative method is extremely useful for political scientists. It allows us to learn more about other political systems, to simplify and classify these other models to better understand both them and our own political systems, to create hypothesis and prove or disprove them, and crucially, to make predictions based on these hypothesis. These hypothesis and predictions are of absolute importance to political scientists because they make for a better understanding different political systems around the globe. However, it is always foolish to overlook the difficulties and dangers that come with any method of studying politics, and the ‘art of comparing’ is no exception.
One disadvantage of ‘the art of comparing’ is the risk of selection bias. Picking the wrong cases to compare can lead to disastrous, unrepresentative results. One common problem in comparative politics is the number of variables that exist. There are over 200 countries on the planet, and there is no point in comparing two radically different systems, because the result will be a useless hypothesis and a wrong prediction. As such, only similar countries that have minor differences should be compared. Another problem with bias in the ‘art of comparing’ is objective research. If a researcher wants to show a certain result, the countries that he or she chooses to compare will inevitably show a result that is perhaps not entirely objective. For this reason, it is important to take the results of comparative studies with a ‘pinch of salt, for want of a better term.
Globalisation can also be viewed as a disadvantage of the comparative method. In today’s interconnected world, countries and their political systems are increasingly connected, due to the rise of technology and social media. As such, it can be argued that countries are becoming more and more linked together, making it more difficult to create comparisons between them as they are no longer self contained units of analysis.
The ‘art of comparing’ is a necessary part of the toolkit of comparativists and political scientists alike. Comparative method simplifies a complex political landscape and makes it more manageable for those who study political science. A comparative approach to political science brings us into contact with political systems other than our own and expands our political and cultural horizons. The ‘art of comparison’ when used to study of politics also enables us to move beyond mere description of political systems, and allows us to explain identified patterns and make predictions about our world based on the knowledge we have gathered. But on the contrary, no political scientist should forget that any research is vulnerable to personal interests and motivations, including the comparative method. As such, it is necessary to make sure that all research should consist of solely facts, and any conclusions be derived from these facts and be free of any assumptions. When all these conditions are satisfied, the art of comparison becomes a tool that should be utilised by any individual interested in the study of comparative politics.
1. Charles C. Ragin, 1992. The Comparative Method: Moving Beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies. Edition. University of California Press.
2. Daniele Caramani, 2011. Comparative Politics. 2 Edition. Oxford University Press, USA.
3. G. Bingham Powell Jr., 1984. Contemporary Democracies: Participation, Stability, and Violence (Menil Foundation). Edition. Harvard University Press.
4. Guy B. Peters, 1998. Comparative Politics: Theory and Methods (Comparative Government and Politics). Edition. Palgrave Macmillan.
5. Peter Hall 2004 ‘Beyond the Comparative Method’ ASPA- Comparative Politics Newsletter, 15(2): 1-4
6. S.E. Finer, 1997. The History of Government from the Earliest Times: The Intermediate Ages v.2 (Vol 2). Edition. Oxford University Press.
7. Seymour Martin Lipset, 1996. American Exceptionalism : A Double-Edged Sword (AMERICAN HISTORY, POLITICAL THEORY). Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, Incorporated.
8. Todd Landman, 2000. Issues and Methods in Comparative Politics: An Introduction. 0 Edition. Routledge.