Views on progress in comparative politics

Our best and the rest of us

How do political scientists view the extent of progress in their field? At a minimum, we would hope that the practitioners of political science see it as making progress. If they were pessimistic on this score, it would be hard to imagine that they would produce much progress. Mokyr, for example, argues that the industrial revolution was possible only because important figures were convinced that progress was possible.

For current political scientists the answer might be obvious. The fact that they self-selected into the field might be a good indication of their attitudes about progress. Who would choose a field that they regarded as moribund. Nevertheless, given controversies over the direction of political science, we might see some dissent on this score. To get a lay of the land, I took a look at views on progress first from some of the titans of the field and then from rank-and-file political scientists. In both cases, the view is relatively rosy with just a few thorns.

The view from the heights

Not long ago, Gerardo Munck and Richard Snyder published one of my favorite books, a compilation of interviews with some of the major figures in comparative politics in the second half of the twentieth century, people like Robert Dahl, Sam Huntington, and even Gabriel Almond and Barrington Moore. It is a very fun read.

(Sidenote: Probably the transcribed interview form should be used more in the US as it is in European journalism. I enjoy, for example, reading the transcripts of Conversations with Tyler and wish they existed for other podcasts.) 

One of the questions that Munck and Snyder asked most of their interviewees is whether comparative politics had learned anything over their career, whether it had accumulated knowledge. Given that these scholars are both widely-respected and at the end of long careers, we should probably take their opinions seriously.

Although a few were fairly grumpy and did not like where the field was heading today (i.e., in 2001-2002 when the interviews were conducted, but probably even more so today) and were particularly skeptical of rational choice, all of them acknowledged that the field had made a lot of progress. This was even true of those like James Scott who barely considers himself a political scientist today. Surprisingly, Robert Bates was one of the few not to give general praise.

Here are their most general statements:

  • Robert Dahl: “Over the past fifty years, there has been an enormous gain in the quality and quantity of knowledge in the field of comparative politics.”

  • Juan Linz: “There are several areas of research where we have quite a lot of learning and cumulative work.”

  • Samuel Huntington: “With all its shortcomings, the literature on political development that emerged in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was very broadening and constructive. Also, comparative politics has become more sophisticated in its methods of analysis, and I am in favor of sophistication and methodology when it is useful, and in many cases it is useful.”

  • Arend Lijphart: “I think a great deal of progress has been made.”

  • Guillermo O’Donnell: “I think we’ve learned an awful lot.”

  • Phillippe Schmitter: “The field has made important gains.”

  • James Scott: “Comparativists have learned some valuable things... None of this is cumulative in the strict scientific sense of covering laws, however, and much of this hard-won knowledge is carried, by its practitioners rather than its originators, as a naive religious faith or template that can be plunked down rather unimaginatively in any situation without much knowledge of the context.”

  • Adam Przeworski: “Some of the best research in comparative politics is done these days by economists, so I will include them in my answer… With that inclusion, yes, I think there has been a tremendous accumulation of knowledge.”

  • Robert Bates: “But if you are looking for a repertoire of findings, like they have in physics, we do not have very many in the social sciences.”

  • David Collier: “Thus, in many areas, we know much more than we did a few decades ago.”

  • David Laitin: “So, I see exciting findings across a range of areas. And I think we have good theories that explain why we have many of these findings.”

  • Theda Skocpol: “We have learned a tremendous amount.”

Many of the scholars also singled out particular areas where they thought that significant progress had been made or cumulation of knowledge had occurred. The table below provides a summary. The ones mentioned most often were formal political institutions (with five scholars singling out electoral systems and others referring to institutions in general or presidential/parliamentary regimes and cabinets and coalition formation), ethnic conflict (another five), and regime change (another five with three pointing to the relationship between democracy and development). Four others pointed to methods and several referred to the great gains that came from studying the developing world which was not standard when some of them were in graduate school.

Areas of progress according to scholars

  • Dahl: Non-European case, methods, political parties, constitutions, regime breakdowns & transitions, electoral systems

  • Linz: Consociational democracies, corporatism, democratic transitions, electoral laws, elections & voting behavior

  • Huntington: Developing countries, methods, data, economic development & democracy, impact of social and economic change on social and economic equality, ethnic conflict, democratic peace

  • Lijphart: Case study methods, democratic institutions (cabinets, electoral systems), voter turnout

  • O’Donnell: Diversity of political forms and history

  • Schmitter: More comparison, electoral systems do not produce party systems alone, 

  • Scott: Presidential versus parliamentary, functioning of autocracies, social movement formation, electoral laws, ethnic conflict

  • Przeworski: Electoral systems, coalition formation and cabinet formation, legislative processes, ethnic conflict, regime transitions

  • Bates: Elections, campaigning, migration, wealth & democracy, electoral systems

  • Collier: Political parties, party systems, electoral regimes, regime dynamics, path dependence, social policy, revolution, state building

  • Laitin: Causes of civil war & non-effect of culture, effect of wealth on democracy, presidential/parliamentary institutions & democracy, survival of social democracy

  • Skocpol: Regime transformations, roots and results of revolutions, origins and development of Western welfare states

Only a handful, however, pointed to clear propositions that had been established. Mostly the reference was to an amorphous body of knowledge. Among the clear propositions were the effect of development on democracy (though one mentioned that it was not so simple as Lipset had laid out), the democratic peace, the non-effect of cultural difference on ethnic conflict, and Duverger’s law (with one arguing that electoral systems alone do not produce party systems). Of course, the questioners did not push the interviewees to mention specific propositions or theories, though a few mentioned that political science had not established that sort of knowledge (Bates and Scott, who might be seen as polar opposites, shared this view).

A few also mentioned areas where they thought little progress had been achieved. These included leadership and the quality of elites, civil control of the military, the structure of dictatorships, how democracy was compatible with poverty and inequality. Political parties were cited by scholars as an area where both a lot and very little progress had been made. Linz interestingly noted that there was often considerable cumulation of knowledge until a political earthquake hit and then everything changed (he referred specifically to Italian politics in the 1990s).

The upshot is that our most distinguished scholars do believe that they have seen substantial progress in political science over the course of their long careers, though they were also somewhat critical of the current state of the field. This might seem like a low bar to pass, but it is something, and most could name specific fields (often their own) where progress was substantial. This provides something of a start.

The view from the trenches

Most political scientists would probably agree with them. In 2010, I conducted a poll of comparative political scientists (for more, see this post or the paper here). One of the statements they were asked to agree or disagree with was: “The field of comparative politics has made significant progress in understanding world politics over the last two decades.” Overall 77.5% agreed with the statement, 22% strongly. Another 13% neither agreed nor disagreed and only 10% disagreed, 1% strongly.

The consensus on significant progress extended across groups. There was little difference between older (PhDs before 1990) and younger (PhDs after 2000) political scientists or between men and women. 

As the previous post on this survey pointed out, however, it was harder to identify many specific theories on which we could agree. There was a consensus on some institutional theories like electoral laws and veto points, on the relationship between democracy and development, on civil society and democracy, on collective action problems, on varieties of capitalism, and on bureaucratic capture. And to some extent these areas of consensus overlap with the areas mentioned by the senior scholars, in particular, formal institutions and the effect of development on democracy. But there were not so many others that elicited widespread support.

Where there was more agreement among rank-and-file comparativists was on the goals of the field - making general causal statements about politics - and on the methods that we should to study politics. Of course, the agreement on methods was mostly an endorsement of a variety of methods, a kind of eclecticism. But there was a consensus on some principles like not selecting on the dependent variable and the importance of increasing the number of observations for better inference, two of the main points in King, Keohane, and Verba.

This might be seen as an indirect endorsement of progress - we agree on what we should be aiming for and to an extent how to achieve it. And if we agree on these things, then there is light at the end of the tunnel. But this consensus did coexist with a sense that the field is more divided than unified - a whopping 64% of respondents thought that there was more division versus only 14% who saw more unity. Progress is being made and the path is clear, but some other side (those pesky divisions) is standing in the way.