Approaches to the Study of Comparative Politics

1. Introduction

Three approaches have dominated the study of comparative politics: institutional, rational choice and political culture approaches. In this essay I will be addressing a series of question and topics within each literature—seminal works, assumptions, strengths and weaknesses, and applied areas of research.

2. Institutional Approach

The study of institutions has been central not only to the field of comparative politics, but to the political science field as a whole. Many authors have argued that institutions have shaped political behavior and social change. These authors have taken an “institutionalist” approach which treat institutions as independent variables. In the last twenty-five years the field of comparative politics has experienced the emergence of the “new institutionalism,” which developed in reaction to the behavioral perspectives that exercise a significant influence on the field during the 1960s and 1970s. The new institutionalism body can be divided into three analytical approaches: historical institutionalism, rational choice institutionalism, and sociological institutionalism. These three theoretical islands developed independently from each other. I will provide a review of the three analytical approaches.

Historical Institutionalism

This approach developed in response to group theories of politics and structural-functionalism (Hall and Taylor 1996). Historical institutionalists sought to expand both approaches by “borrowing” existent ideas and adding new assumptions to them. From group theory, historical institutionalists borrowed the assumption that conflict among rival groups for resources is at the heart of politics (Hall and Taylor 1996). From the structural-functionalists, historical institutionalists borrowed the assumption that the state is made up of interacting parts.

The big contributors to this approach are Steinmo and Thelen. Steinmo and Thelen see institutions as a constraint upon individuals and their choices (Koelble 1995). They argue that institutions are a determinant of choices and preferences. Steinmo and Thelen critique the rational choice approach for viewing institutions as a constraint upon individuals but not as determinants of choice.

Historical institutionalists define institutions as the “formal or informal procedures, routines, norms and conventions embedded in the organizational structure of the polity or political economy” (Hall andTaylor 1996). When it comes to the one of the big questions of institutional analysis, how institutions affect the behavior of individuals, historical institutionalists use two approaches – the calculus and the cultural approaches.

The calculus approach emphasizes the aspects of human behavior that are based on strategic calculation – individuals seek to maximize their goals given by their preference and they act strategically in the pursuit of those goals (Hall and Taylor 1996). It is important to note that preferences and goals are exogenously to the analysis. Institutions affect human behavior mainly by providing actors decreasing the level of uncertainty about the behavior of other actors by providing information, rules and norms.

The cultural approach argues that human behavior is not fully strategic; rather it is bounded by an individual’s worldview. This approach does not see individuals as utility maximizers, but as “satisficers” whose actions are dependent on context rather than strategic calculation (Hall and Taylor 1996). Also, institutions provide moral or cognitive templates for interpretation which in turn affect the identities, self-images, and preferences of individuals.

Historical institutionalists are attentive to the relationship between institutions and ideas. They emphasize the importance of institutions but they do not posit institutions as the only causal force in politics; other factors play a role such as socioeconomic development and diffusion of ideas. Some of the weaknesses of this approach is that it does not incorporate some aspects of individual decision making to its analysis. Some of the strengths of this approach include its emphasis on the effect of political struggle on institutional outcomes and how institutional outcomes then affect political struggles. This approach should be more useful to the analysis of institutional development and policymaking (Koelble 1995).

Rational Choice Institutionalism

The rational choice institutionalism was born out of the study of American congressional behavior (Hall and Taylor 1996). These scholars were trying to explain why congressional outcomes were considerably stable and they decided to look at institutions. They found that institutions of the Congress lowered transactions costs among legislators making the passage of legislation stable.

Some of the big names of this approach are North, Levi and Rothstein. North and Levi respond to the historical institutionalists and sociological institutionalist’s view that individuals act upon bounded rationality. They argue that if individuals do not realize their interest, it is because they do not have complete information and are subject to transaction costs (Koelble 1995).

Rational choice institutionalists assume that individuals have a fixed set of preferences and they behave in manner that maximizes the attainment of these preferences. One of the unique assumptions of rational choice institutionalists see politics as a series of collective action problems (Hall and Taylor 1996). Individuals are constraint to take actions in the absence of institutional arrangements that pose guarantees complementary behavior of other individuals.

Some of the weaknesses of the rational choice institutionalism include: (a)rational choice institutionalists are unable to provide an adequate predictive theory of action since it does not specifies how preferences come about and why they vary from individual to individual; (b) sociological institutionalists argue that the rational choice institutionalists view that individuals create institutions in order to further their goals is incorrect because individuals cannot choose among institutions and rules; (c) rational choice institutionalism ignores social structure. The rational choice institutionalist approach ought to be more useful for the analysis of interactions between organizations and individuals (Koelble 1995).

Sociological Institutionalism

This approach emerged from organizational theory. These scholars wanted to challenge the view that some parts of the world reflect a formal rationality while some others reflect culture. They argued that the “institutional forms and procedures used by modern organizations were not adopted simply because they were most efficient for the task at hand … instead… these forms and procedures should be seen as culturally specific practices” (Hall and Taylor 1996).

Sociological institutionalists define institutions more broadly than any other approach. Powell and DiMaggio define institutions not just as “rules, procedures, organizational standards, and governance structures, but also as conventions and customs” (Koelble 1995). They go further and make the assumption that institutions define “rational actors.” When it comes to the relationship between individuals and institutions, scholars use the cultural approach to explain outcomes. They argue that institutions affect behavior of individuals by socializing individuals into particular institutional roles and individuals consequently internalize norms related to these roles.

One of the weaknesses of this approach is that it does not explain how institutions originate. Another weakness is the operationalization of culture. Some of the strengths of this approach are: (a) it is able to explain how institutions affect individuals’ preferences or identities; (b) it provides an explanation how actors choose strategies from culturally-specific repertoires (Hall and Taylor 1995).

3. Rational Choice Approach

The rational choice approach derives from the neoclassical economic model and it has been applied to a variety of subfields of political science including interest groups and bureaucracy, formation of coalition in government, electoral politics and so forth.

Many scholars have contributed to the rational choice approach. Mancur Olson was one of these scholars. In his The Logic of Collective Action (1965), Olson emphasizes strategic interaction and the individual decision making process. Olson argues that “rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common of group interests” (1965:2). Olson explained that rational individuals will not ct to achieve a common goal because he knows that his efforts will not have an effect on the situation, and he will be able to enjoy any improvement brought about by the other actors whether or not he supports the organization. Members of a group have a common goal but they have no common interest in paying the costs of providing that collective good. These assumptions led scholars to investigate conditions under which individuals will come together in an effort to influence government or each other (Levi 1997). Olson also brought up to light the discussion of the fee rider problem which called into question the assumption that interests are automatically translated into organization.

Douglas North is another contributor to the rational choice approach. North emphasis on transaction cost theory, economic institutionalism, and the role of relative bargaining power have stimulated investigation of the variation in state action and state outcomes.

The model of rational choice conceives individuals as goal-oriented actors who act to pursue the best available outcome. This approach is methodologically individualist and purposeful action (Kim 1997) but it also focuses on the aggregation of individual choices. Thus all group choice ultimately is explained by individual choice.

One of the core assumptions of the rational choice theory is that individuals are rational actors. This assumption is the subject of much criticism. There is little agreement on what it means to be rational. Levi suggests that the most useful assumption of rationality for the field of comparative politics research is that “individuals act consistently in relation to their preferences” (1997:24). Another assumption is that individuals act strategically in order to attain their goals. Here an important evaluation or consideration of behavior of other relevant actors takes place before decision-making process. In order to make decisions, a strategic player should have expectations about other players. Another key assumption regards the forms of constraints on human behavior. Constraints come in two major forms. First is scarcity of resources. An individual that wants to spend his vacation time in Hawaii, cannot realize his objective if he does not have the capital to afford the trip. Another source of constraint is institutional or organizational. Institutions shape individual choices in order to produce equilibrium outcomes. On the other hand, some may also argue that institutions may facilitate action.

According to Margaret Levi, the strengths of the rational choice approach includes: (a) it has the capacity to produce testable theory; (b) its ability to make sense of a correlation or a set of events by providing a story that indentifies the causal mechanisms linking independent and dependent variables; (c) its universalism that allows us to make generalization that are applicable to cases beyond those cases of immediate investigation.

Among the weaknesses of this approach are: (a) the approach seems inadequately sensitive to the historical, political, and cultural contexts (Levi 1997). As a matter of fact, political culture scholars argue that the conceptual weakness of rational choice theory can be corrected through the use of political cultures; political culture when conceptually clear and empirically defined is able to specify the whole range of human objectives or goals (Lane 1992).

4. Political Cultural Approach

Political culture has been used a conceptual umbrella that wraps around values, perceptions and beliefs, dealing with every political phenomena. Political culture emerged out of the need, emphasized especially by Almond, to deepening and broadening the scope of political explanation. The goal of political culture was to explain the diversity among and continuity within states (Lane 1992). The origins of the modern political and cultural analysis can be related to the Political Culture and Political Development (Pye and Verba 1965). Political culture has also adopted a psychologist or individualist approach, an example is The Civic Culture by Almond and Verba (1963).

The political culture approach, like the other approaches, faces conceptual problems. Scholars within have not reached a compromise in defining “culture.” In Political Culture and Political Preferences, David Latin criticizes Wildvsky for his definition of culture. Wildavsky defines culture as “shared values legitimating social practices” (Latin 1988:499). Latin argues that by focusing only on shared values, Wildavsky misses the point that people with strongly opposed views can share a culture and people with strongly similar views may come from different cultures. Latin proposes that we should see culture as not as values that are upheld but rather as “point of concern” (idea presented initially by Thomas Metzger). Latin argues that to share a culture means to share a religion, language, or history. As one can assume, if the difficulties in reaching a common definition of culture are great, its operationalization is even greater.

Ronald Inglehart is one of the major contributors to the political culture approach. Inglehart tries to operationalize culture through levels of what he calls “civic culture.” Civic culture refers to a coherent syndrome of personal life satisfaction, political satisfaction, interpersonal trust, and support for existing social order. In his The Renaissance of Political Culture, Inglehart hypothesized that societies that ranked high on this syndrome are much likelier to be stable democracies than those that ranked low. He also argues that publics of different societies are characterized by durable cultural orientations that have major political and economic consequences which are closely linked to the viability of democracy (Inglehart 1988). He finds that “wealthier nations and those with highly developed tertiary sectors are most likely to be long-established democracies, and the publics of these societies tend to show ‘civic’ political culture, have less materialist values priorities” (1226).

In our unit we saw the political culture approach been applied to explain levels of democracy and postmaterialism attitudes. Edward Muller and Mitchell Seligson develop a model that allows them to make inferences about the possibility of unidirectional or reciprocal causation between civic culture attitudes and democracy. They find that most civic culture attitudes do not have any impact on changes in levels of democracy. Their findings contrast with the assumptions made by Almond and Verba (1963) and later Inglehart, as discussed earlier, that the viability of democratic institutions is affected by individual attitudes and beliefs. Raymond Duch and Michaell Taylor in their Postmaterialism and the Economic Condition test the notion that early economic experiences have a lasting effect on postmaterialism values as proposed by Inglehart. And their findings suggest that education and economic conditions at the time of the survey are much more relevant explanations for variations in the postmaterialist measure.
Some of the weaknesses of this approach are: (a) the conceptualization and operationalization, as discussed earlier; (b) the inability to draw a distinction between subcultures and the overall political culture; (c) the inability to bridge the inferences made on the individual level to the state or system level. In my opinion the greatest strength of this approach is its potential to correct the rational choice theory conceptual flaw of not being able to indentify the range of human goals. Marc Howard Ross is an advocate of the political culture approach and he points out to two features of culture relevant to comparative politics (Lichbach and Zuckerman 1997). First, people use culture to define meaning; second culture is the foundation of social and political identity which affects individual behavior.

5. Conclusion

These three discussed approaches have dominated the field of comparative politics. They all have the same aim, explain social phenomena – they just have different assumptions and use different methods.

I think that these three approaches are more useful if seen as complimentary rather than as antagonistic. As Zuckerman and Lichbach indicate, no approach displays rigid and uniform orthodoxy; and they share an ontological and epistemological symmetry. (1997). In order to improve theory in our field we should embrace creative confrontations and try to absord the best out of each school of thought.

Kim, HeeMin. 1997. “Rational Choice Theory and Third World Politics: The 1990 Party Merger in Korea.” Comparative Politics 30(1): 83-100.

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