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1.1: What is Comparative Politics?

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    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Define key concepts within the discipline of comparative politics.
    • Understand the scope of comparative politics and its place within the discipline of political science.


    Have you ever read the news and wondered,

    • “Why is this country at war with another country?” or
    • “Why did that world leader say or do that?” or
    • “Why doesn’t this country trade with that country?” or maybe, very simply,
    • “Why can’t all these countries just get along?”

    If you have, you’ve already begun asking a few of the many questions scholars within the field of comparative politics ask when practicing their craft. Many of the questions and concerns within the realm of comparative politics are centered on a wide spectrum of social, political, cultural and economic circumstances and outcomes, which provide students and scholars alike with robust and diverse opportunities for inquiry and discussion. The field of comparative politics is broad enough to enable provocative conversations about the nature of violence, the future of democracy, why some democracies fail, and why vast disparities in wealth are able to persist both globally and within certain countries. Whether a student watches or reads the news, or expresses any outward concern for global and current events, many of the problems and issues within comparative politics inevitably affect every single person on the planet.

    So, what exactly is comparative politics? What differentiates comparative politics from other subfields within political science? What can be gained from studying comparative politics? The following sections introduce the field, outlook, and topics within comparative politics that will be further explored in this book.


    When defining and describing the scope of comparative politics, it is useful to back up and recall the purpose of political science from a broad perspective. Political science is a field of social and scientific inquiry which seeks to advance knowledge of political institutions, behavior, activities, and outcomes using systematic and logical research methods in order to test and refine theories about how the political world operates. Since the field of political science is so broad, it has a number of subfields within it that enable students and scholars to focus on various phenomena from different analytical lenses and perspectives. Although there are many topics that can be addressed within political science, there are eight subfields that tend to garner the most attention; these include: (1) Comparative Politics, (2) American Politics, (3) International Relations (sometimes referred to as World Politics, International affairs, or International Studies), (4) Political Philosophy, (5) Research Methods and Models, (6) Political Economy, (7) Public Policy, and (8) Political Psychology. All of these subfields, to varying degrees, are able to leverage findings and approaches from a diversity of disciplines, including sociology, history, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, economics, and law. Given the vast scope of political science, and in order to understand where comparative politics fits within the discipline, it is useful to briefly consider these subfields side-by-side.

    Comparative Politics

    This subfield of study within political science seeks to advance understanding of political structures from around the world in an organized, methodological, and clear way. Scholars can, for instance, analyze countries, in part or in whole, in order to consider similarities and differences between and among countries. While the name of the field itself suggests a methodology of comparing and contrasting, there is ample room for debate over the best way to analyze political units side-by-side. In this chapter, we show different ways to prepare a comparison, whether one focuses on area studies, cross-national studies, or subnational studies. Comparative politics involves looking first within countries and then across designated countries (this contrasts with International Relations, which is described below, but entails looking primarily across countries, with less attention given to within country analysis). Further on, we discuss many of the themes for analysis, whether the scholar is focusing on “the state” or statehood, political institutions, democracy and democratization, or backsliding democracies, and so forth. After briefly considering the other subfields within political science, we will revisit the question of the ultimate definition and scope of comparative politics today.

    White House South Facade
    Tokyo, Japan, Seimon Ishibashi Bridge
    Royal Palace of Madrid, Spain
    10 Downing Street, London UK
    Reykjavík, Iceland, Bessastaðir, Wohnsitz der isl. Präsidenten
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Comparativists have a number of interesting areas they research and will look within countries and then across designated countries to compare and contrast. One theme may be considering the different types of leadership in countries along with associated regime types. Who are the heads of state and where do they conduct their official government work? (Sources: From Left to Right, White House by Matt Wade is licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0; Tokyo, Japan, Seimon Ishibashi Bridge by Kakidai is licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0; Madrid, Spain, Royal Palace of Madrid by Bernard Gagnon is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; London, Britain, Number 10 Downing Street by Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC is licensed under Open Government License version 1.0; Reykjavík, Iceland, Bessastaðir, Wohnsitz der isl. Präsidenten by Balou46 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

    American Politics

    This subfield of political science focuses on political institutions and behaviors within the United States. Those interested in American politics will focus on questions like: What is the role of elections in American democracy? How do interest groups affect legislation in the U.S.? What is the role of public opinion and the media in the U.S., and what are the implications for democracy? What is the future of the two-party system? Do political parties delay important political action? Those who decide to specialize in American politics could find themselves a variety of career opportunities, spanning from teaching, journalism, working for government think-tanks, working for federal, state or local governmental institutions, or even running for office.

    Official elephant logo of the Republican Party
    Official donkey logo of the Democratic Party
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Image of Republican and Democrat Political Party Logos. Political Scientists studying American Politics can have a variety of research interests, but one area of inquiry is the study of political parties and partisanship in the United States. Political parties began forming almost immediately upon the United States’ Declaration of Independence, though a number of founders, including George Washington, warned early on about the influence and possible dangers of political parties on the state of democracy. The two main political parties in the United States are the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. (Sources: Top image, Republican Elephant by Republican Party (United States) is licensed under CC01 - Universal Public Domain, Bottom Image, Democratic Donkey by Steven Braeger is licensed under Public Domain CC0 1.0 Universal)

    International Relations

    Sometimes called world politics, international affairs or international studies, international relations is a subfield of political science which focuses on how countries and/or international organizations or bodies interact with each other. Those interested in international relations consider questions like: What causes war between states? How does international trade affect relationships between states? How do international bodies, like non-governmental organizations, work with various states? What is globalization and how does it affect peace and conflict? What is the best balance of power for the global system? Individuals interested in this field of political science may be looking for careers with teaching, non-governmental organizations, the United Nations, and governmental think-tanks focused on U.S. foreign policy.

    The United Nations, an intergovernmental organization tasked with the management and prevention of international conflict.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The United Nations. Academics involved in the study of international studies are often interested in themes of international conflict and interstate warfare. To this end, some studies will involve looking at members of the United Nations. The United Nations is an intergovernmental organization formed in 1945 with the goal of promoting peace and preventing international and inter-state conflicts. (Source: The United Nations by Tom Page is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Political Philosophy

    Sometimes called political theory, political philosophy is a subfield of political science which reflects on the philosophical origins of politics, the state, government, fairness, equality, equity, authority and legitimacy. This field can consider themes in broad or narrow terms, considering the origins of political principles, as well as implications for these principles as they relate to issues of political identity, culture, the environment, ethics, distribution of wealth, as well as other societal phenomena. Those interested in political philosophy may ask questions like: Where did the concept of “the state” arise? What were the different ancient beliefs regarding the formation of states and cooperation within societies? How is power derived within systems, and what are the best theories to explain power dynamics? Individuals who are interested in political philosophy may find careers in teaching, research, journalism as well as consulting.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Political philosophers are interested in a large scope of issues relating to the nature and basis for political power, legitimacy, authority as well as concepts of freedom, ethics, justice, rights and laws. The above pictured political philosophers considered these many themes. (Sources: From left to right: Confucious by Kanō Sansetsu is licensed under CC BY 4.0 ; Socrates, by Eric Gaba is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5; Al Farabi, by Unknown Author is CC01 - Universal Public Domain; Thomas Hobbes, Line engraving by W. Humphrys is licensed under CC BY 4.0; John Locke, by Godfrey Kneller is licensed under CC01 - Universal Public Domain; Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de La Tour is licensed under CC01 - Universal Public Domain).

    Research Methods and Models

    Research methods and models can sometimes be considered a subfield of political science in itself, as it seeks to consider the best practices for analyzing themes within political science through discussion, testing and critical analysis of how research is constructed and implemented. This subfield is concerned with finding techniques for testing theories and hypotheses related to political science. An ongoing and heated debate often arises out of the proper or applicable usage of quantitative versus qualitative research designs, though each inevitably can be appropriate for various research scenarios.

    Quantitative research centers on testing a theory or hypothesis, usually through mathematical and statistical means, using data from a large sample size. Quantitative research can be beneficial in situations where a scholar or student is looking to test the validity of a theory, or general statement, while looking at a large sample size of data that is diverse and representative of the subjects being studied. International Relations, American Politics, Public Policy and Comparative politics can, depending on the subject they are considering, find practical applicable for quantitative research methods. Someone interested in International Relations may want to test, for instance, the influence of global trade on conflict between states. For this, the sample size of the study may be 172 states engaged in international trade over a period of 10, 20, or even 50 years. Perhaps the theory being tested would be this: trade improves relations between states, making conflict unlikely. The person testing this would need to find ways to quantify conflict over time, to measure alongside, perhaps, trade volume between states. Overall, some of the methods for quantitative research may involve conducting surveys, conducting bi- or multivariate regression analysis (time-series, cross-sectional), or carrying out observations to test a hypothesis.

    Qualitative research centers on exploring ideas and phenomena, potentially with the goal of consolidating information or developing evidence to form a theory or hypothesis to test. Qualitative research involves categorizing, summarizing and analyzing cases more thoroughly, and possibly individually, to gain greater understanding. Often, given the need for more description, qualitative research will have a small sample size, perhaps only comparing a couple states at a time, or even a state individually based on the theme of interest. Some of the methods for qualitative research involve conducting interviews, constructing literature reviews, or preparing an ethnography. Regardless of a quantitative or qualitative approach, topics of interest within the subfield of Research Methods and Models focuses on advancing discussions of best practices in research design and methodology, understanding causal relationships between events or outcomes, identifying best practices in quantitative and qualitative research methods, consideration of how to measure social, economic, cultural and political trends (focusing on validity and reliability), and reducing errors or poor output due to selection bias, omitted variable bias, and other factors related to poor research design. In many ways, this subfield is critical to almost all others within political science, and this book will spend a chapter looking closer at appropriate research methods and models to provide students with a greater understanding in order to test or develop theories within political science. For those interested in pursuing Research Methods and Models as a subfield, there are a number of careers open not only for its relevance to political science, but also to fields within mathematics, the nature of inquiry, statistics and so forth.

    Political Economy

    This subfield of political science considers various economic theories (like capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism), practices and outcomes either within a state, or among and between states in the global system. Those interested in political economy will become versed with the theories brought forth by Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and Max Weber to gain greater understanding into economic systems and their outputs and affect on society. Political economy can be studied from the standpoints of a few other subfields in political science, for instance, comparative politics may consider political economy when comparing and contrasting states. International relations could consider International Political Economy, wherein scholars attempt to understand international economics in the context of different state systems. International Political Economy will consider questions relating to global inequalities, relationships between poor and wealthy countries, the role and effect of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or multinational corporations (MNCs) on international trade and finance. Those who are interested in political economy find careers as economists, or analysts for the stock market, as well as in teaching and research.

    Public Policy

    This subfield of political science explores political policies and outcomes, and focuses on the strength, legitimacy and effectiveness of political institutions within a state or society. Relevant areas of inquiry in this field include: How is the agenda for public policies set? Which public policies issues get the most attention, and why? How do we evaluate the effectiveness of a public policy? To what extent can public policy hurt or help democracy? Individuals interested in public policy can seek careers relating to almost any item of the U.S. political agenda (the healthcare system, social security, military affairs, welfare, education, etc.), go into teaching and research, or serve as public policy consultants for federal, state or local governmental organizations.

    Political Psychology

    This relatively new subfield within political science weds together principles, themes and research from both political science and psychology, in order to understand the potential psychological roots for political behavior. Is there a psychological reason some world leaders behave in a certain way? Is a leader’s behavior strategic and, consciously or not, rooted in some psychological basis? Can theories of cognitive and social processes explain various political outcomes in states and societies? Those interested in the psychological origins of political behavior could find interesting careers in teaching, research, and consulting.

    Kim Jong-un
    Xi Jinping
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Political psychologists are interested in the psychological roots of political behavior. To this end, they may conduct research and analysis on various personality types and potential psychological determinants for political behavior. Pictured above, political psychologists have considered the personality characteristics of Kim Jung-Un, North Korea; Vladimir Putin, Russia; and Xi Jinping, China, in hopes of understanding political motivations and behavior. (Sources: From left to right: Kim Jung-Un, by Alexei Nikolsky is licensed under CC-BY 4.0; Vladimir Putin, by The Presidential Press and Information Office is licensed under CC-BY 4.0; Xi Jiping, by Palácio do Planalto is licensed under CC-BY-SA)

    All of these subfields within political science can utilize each other to develop greater understanding of political institutions and activities to advance the field. Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\) provides a graphical representation of the subfields within political science, though it is important to point out that fields are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For instance, there are, at times, overlap between fields. Public policy can be analyzed through the lens of American Politics, but it can also be the key point of consideration for comparative politics or international relations. Similarly, political economy can refer simply to domestic affairs, or be applied across a few or many countries or states. Political psychology can likewise be applied for single state analysis or comparative or global studies. Most all of these fields will need some level of specialization in research methods or models to enable the systematic analysis of their subjects of interest. Without a research method and model, these subfields would not be able to advance knowledge in the field in a substantive way.

    A graphical representation of the subfields of political science.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): The graph shows the subfields of political science in relation to each other, under the greater field of political science. The subfields pictured include American Politics, International Relations, Comparative Politics, Political Philosophy, Research Methods and Models, Political Economy, Public Policy and Political Psychology. (Source: Author Creation.)

    Given the overall spectrum of subfields available within the field of political science, let’s take a closer look at comparative politics, its origin, expanded definition, its uniqueness among the subfields, and the terminology frequently used by comparativists.

    A Brief History and Expanded Definition

    In considering the other subfields within political science, it may not seem like a complicated process to define comparative politics. Comparative politics, further explained, seems to be a field of study wherein scholars compare and contrast various political systems, institutions, characteristics and outcomes on one, a few, or a group of countries. In actuality, there has been ample debate over the ideal definition and scope of comparative politics. To consider comparative politics more thoroughly, it is helpful to consider its historical origins.

    Most often, comparative politics is considered to have ancient origins, going back to at least Aristotle. Aristotle has sometimes been credited with being the “father” of political science, and attributed with being one of the first to use comparative methodologies for analyzing competing Greek city-states. The word politics derives from the Greek word, politikos, meaning “of, or relating to, the polis,” with polis being translated as city-state. Aristotle envisioned the study of politics to be one of the three major forms of science individuals could engage in. The first form of science, according to Aristotle, was contemplative science, and in modern terms, this refers closest to the studies of both physics and metaphysics, which he considered to be concerned with truth, and the pursuit of truth and knowledge for intrinsic purposes. The second form of science that Aristotle identified was practical science, which was the study of what is ideal for individuals and society. Aristotle felt the practical sciences were the areas of philosophy, mathematics and science. The final area of science Aristotle identified was productive science, which he envisioned as the making of important or beautiful objects. To Aristotle, political science fell within the realm of practical sciences, and was of critical concern (he identified political science as “the most authoritative science”) when discussing what is best for society. To Aristotle, political science must concern itself with what is “good” or “right” or “just” for society, as the lives of citizens are at stake given political structures and institutions.

    It is not difficult to appreciate why Aristotle found political science, and comparative politics, so important given his overall beliefs on the function of politics within a society. In Aristotle’s time, the units-of-analysis were the city-states in Greece, which, if stable, enabled people to live productive and possibly happy lives; if unstable, it could not produce any positive externalities. For Aristotle, it was critical to find ways to compare and contrast the various city-states, how they operated, and what their outcomes for the people were. To this end, Aristotle looked at the constitutions for various city-states, to understand which had the ideal configurations for both the people and political outputs. A city-state could have one ruler, who, depending on how the government is run, is either a rightful king, or a tyrant running an authoritarian regime. Or, a city-state may have a few rulers, which, at best, could be an aristocracy, or at worst, an oligarchy where only the elite are included in decision-making and rewards. Finally, a city-state could have multiple rulers, balanced by a “middle” class which attempts to rule on behalf of the people’s interests. The “middle” group is not tremendously wealthy, nor woefully poor, but being in the “middle” they can understand the needs of society at large. While Aristotle considered democracy to have the possibility of being “deviant,” he also entertained the possibility that having more people involved in government may be a way to edge out corruption. In some ways, perhaps Aristotle was hoping for “cooler heads to prevail,” or that there would be a “wisdom” of the majority which would limit corruption. In any/either case, Aristotle spent a lot of time comparing and contrasting the virtuous and deviant political regime types in order to determine what is best for society.

    The work of Aristotle influenced a number of thinkers to continue the scientific tradition of scientifically approaching problems in political science and comparative politics. If considering political science broadly, Aristotle influenced Niccolo Machiavelli (author of The Prince), Charles Montesquieu, (author of The Spirit of the Laws), Max Weber (sociologist and author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1905), to name a few.

    If we consider the work of Gerardo Munck, we are currently in a period following the Second Scientific Revolution of 1989-2005. The current status of comparative politics is one where there is a greater reliance on methodology rather than theory, per se. In looking at Table \(\PageIndex{1}\), it can be observed that there are still variations in how significant scholars in the field define comparative politics, with some of these definitions leading to potentially different implications for research and inquiry.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): No, really… What is Comparative Politics?
    Notable Comparativists Their Definition of Comparative Politics
    (Lane, 1997, pg. 2) note his publications / contributions “What is comparative politics? It is two things, first a world, second, a discipline.” As a ‘world,’ comparative politics encompasses political behavior and institutions in all parts of the earth… The ‘discipline’ of comparative politics is a field of study that desperately tries to keep up with, to encompass, to understand, to explain, and perhaps to influence the fascinating and often riotous world of comparative politics.”
    (O’Neill, Fields and Share, 2021) “Comparative Politics is the study and comparison of politics across countries.”.
    (O’Neill, 2004 - pg 3) note his publications / contributions “Politics is . . . the struggle in any group for power that will give a person or people the ability to make decisions for the larger groups. . . . comparative politics is a subfield that compares this struggle across countries.”
    (Wiarda, 2000, pg. 7) note his publications / contributions “Comparative politics involves the systematic study and comparison of the world’s political systems, It seeks to explain differences between as well as similarities among countries. In contrast to journalistic reporting on a single country, comparative politics is particularly interested in exploring patterns, processes, and regularities among political systems.”

    Debate on the definition of comparative politics can arise in a few ways. One way would be this: Zahariadis (1997) argued that comparative politics needs to be a study of foreign countries. If this is true, does that mean someone who lives in a country, cannot study their own country and still call it comparative politics? If this is true, then was Aristotle’s study of city-states methodologically flawed since he occasionally lived in different city-states? Another area where comparativists disagree, which will be considered more in Chapter 2, is: what is the appropriate sample size for inquiry? Does the definition of comparative politics need to mandate a certain number of countries be studied at a time? When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, 1835, was this study flawed because it was only considered the political lives of Americans? If we take Zahariadis’ definition, de Tocqueville did focus on a foreign country, but since it is only one country, does that mean it does not fall into the realm of comparative politics? Already, the two issues of whether one can originate or reside in a country that is being compared, as well as the appropriate sample size, is already in question. As will be described in Chapter 2, this textbook provides a necessary overview of the scope of methods and models for the comparative politics field for the purpose of greater understanding, focusing less on arguing about a definitive answer to questions still argued within the field of comparative politics.