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The Comparative Method

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The Comparative Method

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  1. The Comparative Method Lecture 2 Why and how to compare countries; description – classification – hypothesis-testing – prediction problems of comparisons

  2. Objectives to know and understand the basics of the comparative method; its applications; its scope and limitations

  3. Research traditions in comparative politics Early example of CP: • Aristotle’s Politics (350 BC): compared constitutions of Greek city states • Growth in the Discipline Post WW2: • Doubling of Independent states • south-east Asia, Middle East, north Africa and Africa south of the Sahara • WE since 1990: more than a dozen new cases for comparing liberal-democracy

  4. SUBJECT and METHOD • Comparative Politics as a Subject • Examines domestic politics and government within numerous countries, whereas international politics looks at relations between different countries. • Comparative Politics as a Method • Comparative political analysis • Various ways of analysis

  5. Trends in the Comparative Discipline Jean Blondel Comparative Government Three main phases in the study of CP: • Constitutionalist phase (Aristotle – 1900s) • Behaviouralist phase (1940s-1960s) • Institutionalist phase (1970s-)

  6. Why compare? What does a comparative approach bring to the study of politics? • Knowledge • Classification • Formulate and test hypotheses • Generalisations and predictions Hague and Harrop 2001; Landman 2003

  7. 1. Knowledge • the simplest and the best reason • In 1925, Munro described the purpose as aiding’ the comprehension of daily news from abroad’. • Background information about foreign governments not only helps to interpret new developments, it also enables us to view our own country in a fresh light.

  8. 2. Classifications • The classification of executives into presidential and parliamentary types, allows to look at the origins and effects of each. • Comparative method allows to observe variations of a concept or model • Without a classification of governments, we have nothing to explain

  9. 3. Formulate and test hypotheses • We can develop and scrutinize questions as: • Do plurality electoral systems always produce a two-party system? • Do revolutions only occur after a country has suffered defeat in war? • Without comparison we would lack general knowledge of politics and therefore the ability to explain particular observations. • ‘You cannot be scientific if you are not comparing’. The American political scientist James Coleman

  10. 4. Generalisations can generate predictions • Example: • If we find that the plurality method of election always produces a two-party system, we can predict that countries which switch to this formula will probably witness a fall in the number of parties represented in their parliaments. • Studying one case leads to studying several cases, upon which a theory can be built • A theory allows to explain singular cases again

  11. Additional benefits • To help us address the counterfactuals – ‘what if…?’ • to avoid ethnocentrism Mackie and Marsh, 1995; Dogan and Pelasy, 1990

  12. The difficulties of comparison a) Conceptual stretching b) interdependence c) too many variables too few cases d) selection bias

  13. Cases, units of observation, variables, and observations • Cases: The countries that we study (France, Nicaragua, Egypt) • Units of observation: The `things’ that we study (trade unions) • Variables: The features of the `things’ that can vary (legal status, membership figures) • Observations: The data points (CGT in France 1982)

  14. a) Conceptual stretching • Countries must be compared against a common concept but the meaning of that concept may itself vary: • The connotation of ‘national pride’ differs considerably between, say, Germany and, Greece • Analyzing political behavior across countries depends on the conventions of the country concerned • E.g. an EP voting against his/her own government • Use more abstract concepts

  15. b) Interdependence • Countries do not develop separately from each other • They copy, compete with, influence and (sometimes) invade each other in a constant process of interaction • The spread of Napoleon’s Code Civil • The impact of industrialization • The impact of the European Union (Europeanization) • Galton’s problem: the difficulty of testing whether similarities between nations are caused by diffusion across countries or alternatively by parallel but independent development

  16. c) Too many variables, too few countries a major problem for scholars: • The small-N problem (not enough cases at hand) • Only a handful of cases in WE politics • How can we isolate one factor to test our hypothesis? • E.g. Why do we find the strongest communist parties in France and Italy? • Possible answers: strong catholic church OR late inclusion of working class into political process OR Both • For more valid explanations more cases would be necessary, but are simply not there

  17. c) Too many variables, too few countries Often a problem even if the number of cases exceeds the number of variables: • Variables must indeed vary over countries • Does PR lead to multi-party systems? • Cannot be tested if all countries have PR and a MPS, no matter how many countries are compared

  18. d) Selection bias • when the choice of what to study, or even how to study it, produces unrepresentative results • when generalizations cover only a small number of countries • often an unintended consequence of a process of case selection that is arbitrary but not truly random: • E.g. choosing countries which speak the same language, or which we have personal relations/experiences with, • The result is that findings of comparative politics are often weighted • toward consolidated developed democracies (actually a rare form of polity in the expanse of human history) • Large, powerful countries. • Only covering a large number of countries reduces the selection bias risk. • If the study covers all countries, selection bias disappears

  19. Further Pitfalls of Comparing Pitfalls: • Description is not Comparison (Macridis, 1955) • The persistence of ‘Cultural Idiosyncrasies’ (Mayer, 1972; Ragin, 1987) • Trade-off between number of cases and level of detail • Ecological and individual fallacies

  20. Ecological Fallacy • Support for the Extreme Right in the German General Election of 1990 concentrated in areas with high proportion of foreigners • Conclusion: Foreigners supported the Extreme Right – WRONG • Lesson: Do not use macro level data for inferences about micro level behaviour

  21. Individual Fallacy • Do not use micro data to make statements about the macro level • Unless macro features are analytical, i.e. simply aggregate measures • Does a prevalence of individual authoritarian attitudes render a society authoritarian? • Yes if `society’ is defined as distribution of individual features (cf. Almond/Verba) • No if `society’ includes institutions, works of art etc.

  22. Case study: Causes of a Revolution Hypothesis: "Revolution is caused by the combination of three factors: 1. High income inequality, 2. conflict within the governing group, 3. defeat in war." Whenever and wherever "1", "2", and "3" are present revolution will occur – a comparative (general) statement.

  23. Method of Agreement Case 1 a b c Revolution d e f Case 2 a b c g h i Revolution

  24. Method of Difference Case 1 a b c Revolution d e f g Case 2 - - - No Revolution d e f g

  25. Strategies for Comparison • For large number of cases, use regression or other statistical techniques • For small number of cases • Method of differences leads to Most Similar Systems Design (MSSD, popular in area studies) • Method of agreement leads to Most Different Systems Design (MDSD) • Both methods focus on one key explanatory variable, others constant or varied • Useful, but cannot overcome the basic problem of small n (third variables)

  26. MSSD vs. MDSD

  27. Compare how? Case studies: • Representative cases –the study of a typical, standard example of a wider category. • Prototypical cases – a topic is chosen not because it is representative but because it is expected to become so • Deviant case –to cast light on the exceptional and the untypical; can provide the variation without which well-founded explanation is impossible • Crucial case – seeks initial support for a theory by testing it in favorable conditions.

  28. Conclusion • The comparative method is both a subject and a method • It allows the researcher to gain knowledge on other countries/systems, to provide classifications, to test hypotheses and to make predictions • The advantage of the method is surplus knowledge compared to single case studies