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The Travelling problem in comparative politics. Alistair Cole. Introduction and context . Text an excerpt from Comparative Politics: theory and Methods, by Guy Peters, one of the leading US political scientists

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introduction and context
Introduction and context
  • Text an excerpt from Comparative Politics: theory and Methods, by Guy Peters, one of the leading US political scientists
  • Interesting especially insofar as it deals with how to translate concepts – the real politics of translation in comparative politics.
general context and introduction
General context and introduction
  • Researchers engaged in comparative research practice face the challenge of establishing the equivalence of both the theoretical concepts applied across a range of cases and the indicators or variables identified that relate to these concepts.
  • There are various conventions... that some, like Sartori, would see as rules.
q levels of the travelling problem
Q. Levels of the travelling problem?
  • One is conceptual: does a specific measure mean the same things in different cultural contexts?
  • This is important in carrying out quantitative empirical analysis, e.g. On democracy or culture or symbols
  • Concepts mean different things in different contexts.
  • The example used by Peters is that of bureaucracy. The standard definition of bureaucracy is drawn from Max Weber.
  • But bureaucracy can be accepted as neutral is some contexts (Germany), but pejorative in others (UK)
defining democracy
Defining Democracy
  • Peters gives the example of Schmitter’s attempt to define a cross-national explanation of democracy.
  • This can be done either in terms of an ideal type (Weber: what features correspond to an ideal type of model); or by defining sub-types that each contain some element of the phenomenon, but differ in other respects.
  • Democracy? Schmitter and Mahon qualify the generic terms by the use of the adjective: Corporatist Democracy, Populist Democracy, Consociational Democracy, Electoralist democracy...
  • The concept of democracy is essentially contestable
varieties of
Varieties of....
  • Comparative politics addresses the idea of variation.
  • The theme mentioned here is that of varieties of democracy
  • But there is also a recent debate about varieties of capitalism: coordinated market, liberal market, or state market (Schmidt).
  • Another example – not in the text – that of institutionalism.
the ladder of abstraction sartori
The ladder of abstraction (Sartori)
  • Sartori’s (1970) ‘ladder of abstraction’ identified two complimentary strategies in tacking equivalence:
  • moving ‘down’ the ladder to generate further differentiation of concepts with more defined attributes applied to fewer cases
  • or alternatively moving ‘up’ the ladder to avoid ‘conceptual stretching’, whereby concepts have fewer defined attributes but can be applied to more cases.
  • Sartori’s analysis has provided a useful foundation for a range of contributions to the challenges of concept formation within the comparative context (see for example Collier & Mahon, 1993; Collier & Levitsky, 1997; Collier & Adcock, 1999).
the ladder of abstraction as continuum
The ladder of abstraction as continuum
  • The ladder of abstraction allows similar concepts to be applied to distinctive contexts.
  • Hence ‘corporate pluralism’ might make sense in Norway (bottom of the ladder)
  • but be more akin to Corporatism in Germany (i.e. iron triangle ) or to pluralism in the UK. (mid-way up the ladder)
  • In the higher level of abstraction, it might just refer to state-society relations. (top of the ladder)
  • However, comparing policy contexts across national boundaries continues to present conceptual challenges, with some responses to the development of conceptual equivalence critiqued for potentially generating too many concepts or sub-types, leading to confusion and stifling comparison (Collier & Levitsky, 1997)
the ladder of abstraction as continuum continued
The ladder of abstraction as continuum... continued
  • More general concepts allow wider comparison, but they lose their sharpness.
  • The more abstract concepts become…. the wider their coverage, but the more meaningless they can also be.
  • Contenders for this are: institutionalism, governance, Europeanisation…
  • Does a concept need an adjective? If so, is its weight lessened?
  • Can a concept logically be opposed with another concept? This is key to the idea of falsification (Parsons). If a theory can include all cases, then it can not be falsified, hence it is meaningless.
  • Sartori also uses the idea of intension. How many attributes are used in a concept?
  • The more detailed the concept, the less likely it is to be widely applicable.
  • Hence ‘corporate pluralism’: requires a system to contain both these elements, that is, competition between interests, and the influence of interests.
less positivist approaches
Less positivist approaches
  • The other approach is to adopt more interpretative frames; not literally to measure/falsify, but to understand and interpret.
  • Literally, the Sartori model is too limiting.
  • Collier and Mahon prefer the idea of sharing some attributes, or radial categories.
  • A case has either a family resemblance (sharing most categories of a concept), or shares one dominant characteristic (radial categories).
  • Hence, corporatism remains useful because it describes a dominant characteristic: though it might be defined in different ways in distinct countries, it refers to organised patterns of state-society relations
concept stretching and trade offs
Concept stretching and trade-offs
  • Prezeworski and Teune argues in favour of a systems-specific approach...allowing different measures to define the same category or concept.
  • The idea of functional equivalence goes in the same direction. Concepts need to be adapted and treated flexibly, if they are to be meaningful.
  • There are trade-offs in comparative research
a continuum
A continuum
  • The key point about the ladder of abstraction is this is a continuum, or a spectrum; there are ways of positioning oneself depending upon where one is situated along the spectrum.
  • A single case study will allow a high degree of ‘intension’ - which might be appropriate for a single or binary case study. But a quantitative mass survey needs ‘extension’ – a concept that can travel, hence is relatively simple, with few characteristics.
empirical travelling problems
Empirical travelling problems:
  • Peters gives the examples of the Welfare State and low voter participation: and how crude cross-country measurement will be likely to distort the reality in the setting of the US.
  • This means that contextual case studies, with all of their detail, can help to elaborate key concepts.
  • And that all cases are context specific... but this lies beyond the canon on measurement that preoccupies American political science.