How do we study Comparative Politics



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  • Why the newly independent nation states from late 1940's and 1950's did have different political outcomes?
  • What factors were the outcomes dependent on?
  • How do the differences in political institutions, political culture, political history, modernization, economic development and religious conflict impact a country’s political outcomes with respect to maintaining a democracy over 50 years vis-a-vis becoming a military or authoritarian regime?
  • These generalizations allow us to develop political theories which are more broadly applicable.

Comparison of the Political Systems[edit]

Comparing any two political systems could result in a long list of similarities and differences. For example, the Netherlands and Israel both use forms of proportional representation when electing their parliaments. The Netherlands and Belgium both have open economies, and enjoy some historical, religious and linguistic connections, none of which are shared with Israel. Despite its similarities with the Netherlands, Belgium does not employ the same electoral systme of proportional representation. Israel and India both gained independence from Britain after World War II, but one is very large and populous, while the other is small.

When scholars compare political systems, they must first identify what variation they are trying to explain. Are they trying to explain why Israel and the Netherlands have the same electoral system, but not Belgium? Are they trying to explain why the Netherlands and Belgium have long had open economies? Are they trying to explain policy differences like immigration policies or different levels of income taxation? Or, are they trying to explain policy outcomes, like India's recent economic growth or the frequency of armed conflicts with neighboring countries engaged in by both India and Israel?

Once scholars decide what to study, there are two primary approaches.

  • Most similar system designs look at similar countries (or systems) and examines differences. Differences can be explained if the countries are similar, because scholars can look for explanations in whatever (or what little) differentiates the countries without worrying about the long list of similarities because similar factors cannot explain different outcomes. For example, Canada and the United States are very similar countries that enjoy similar cultures, extensive economic and cultural ties, and multi-cultural largely immigrant populations. So, to understand differences in health insurance between the governmental single-payer health insurance in Canada and the competing networks of private health insurance in the United States, Antonia Maioni [1] focused on differing patterns of political competition in those two countries between the 1930's and the 1960's.
  • Most different research designs look at different countries and examines similarities. Similarities between otherwise disparate countries allow scholars to focus on what the two countries have in common as a possible causal explanation.

Comparing different countries and focusing on differences does not enable scholars to do anything but describe these differences, as it is not possible to make any causal inferences since the differences could be the result of a seemingly infinite number of factors.

When investigating specific features of political systems, scholars must choose their cases based on the same logic of similarities and differences. For example, focusing on electoral systems, Paul Abramson and colleagues examined similar levels of strategic voting in countries that use different forms of electoral systems (proportional representation or first-past-the-post), suggesting that all voters consider possible electoral outcomes before casting their votes[2].

To maximize similarities across cases, research like Robert Putnam's work on Making Democracy Work, focus on variation within one country. In this book, Putnam examined Italy, where substantial differences in political performance exist even though there political institutions are identical. Since the institutions are identical, Putnam explained differences in political performance through variation in political culture.

Political Institutions[edit]

  • You can ask the question why India has maintained a democracy since 1947 (when it won independence from its colonizer) while most other nation states did not. One difference is that in India the bureaucracy was already established and run by natives at the time of independence. In addition the major political party, the Congress Party, had already had a strong history of producing leaders who kept the country solidified.
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Political Culture[edit]

  • India’s caste system and special privileges for the scheduled castes and other underpriveleged strata of society (similar to USA’s affirmative action and welfare system) has helped in redistribution of economic goods!
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Political history[edit]

  • Does the political history since independence determine the political outcome in each of these states?
  • For instance, in India education and establishment of English as the official language brought together all the states where people speak different languages in different parts of India

Political Parties[edit]

  • Congress Party as well as its leaders like Gandhi and Nehru turned INC (Indian National Congress) into a mass movement for attaining independence thus unifying the whole country and maintained that momentum going forward after independence. It is interesting to note that currently the head of the Congress party is a woman - Sonia Gandhi (an Italian-born widow of Rajiv Gandhi and daughter in law of the late Prime MInister Indira Gandhi)
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  • Whether the written Constitution recognises one official religion or the constitution aims for a secular state.
  • How are the tensions / violent events between the religious groups handled...
  • ...whether they are between Hindus/Muslims; Sikhs/Hindus; Sunis/Shias etc.

Political Development, modernization, industrialization, urbanization and mass participation[edit]

  • . A lot of the modernization that took place during the British rule (prior to independence) helped India to maintain her democratic rule since 1947.
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Discussion questions[edit]