Comparative politics in response to the changing socio political concerns over different historical periods


The comparative study of politics comes to us in the form of studies done by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle studied the constitutions of 150 states and classified them into a typology of regimes. His classification was presented in terms of both descriptive and normative categories.

On the basis of this comparison he divided regimes into good and bad – ideal and perverted. These Aristotelian categories were acknowledged and taken up by Romans such as Polybius and Cicero who considered them in formal and legalistic terms. Concern with comparative study of regime types reappeared in the 15th century with Machiavelli.

The Origins of Comparative Study of Politics:


In its earliest incarnation, the comparative study of politics comes to us in the form of studies done by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle studied the constitutions of 150 states and classified them into a typology of regimes classification was presented in terms of both descriptive and normative categories i.e., he not only described and classified regimes and political systems in terms ‘of their types e.g., democracy, aristocracy, monarchy etc., he also distinguished them on the basis of certain norms of good governance.

On the basis of this comparison he divided regimes into good and bad – ideal and perverted. These Aristotelian categories were acknowledged and taken up by Romans such as Polybius (201 – 120 B.C.) and Cicero (106-43 B.C.) who considered them in formal and legalistic terms. Concern with comparative study of regime types reappeared in the 15th century with Machiavelli (1469- 1527).

The Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century’s:

The preoccupation with philosophical and speculative questions concerning the ‘good order’ or the ‘ideal state’ and the use, in the process, of abstract and normative vocabulary, persisted in comparative studies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s.


The late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s signified the period when liberalism was the reigning ideology and European countries enjoyed dominance in world politics. The ‘rest of the world’ of Africa and Latin America were either European colonies or under their sphere of influence as ex-colonies. Comparative studies during this period.

Modern Democracies (1921), Herman Finer’s Theory and Practice of Modern Governments (1932) and Carl J. Friedrich’s Constitutional Government and Democracy (1 937), Roberto Michels, Political Parties (1 9 1 5) and M.Duverger, Political Parties (1950)) the distribution of power, and the relationship between the different layers of government.

These studies were Eurocentric i.e., confined to the study of institutions, governments and regime types in European countries like Britain, France and Germany. It may thus be said that these studies were in fact not genuinely a comparative in the sense that they excluded from their analysis a large number of countries. Any generalisation derived from a study confined to a few countries could not legitimately claim having validity for the rest of the world.

It may be emphasised here that exclusion of the rest of the world was symptomatic of the dominance of Europe in world politics a dominance which however, was on the wane, and shifting gradually to North America. All contemporary history had Europe at its centre, obliterating the rest of the world


(a) As ‘people without histories.

(b) Whose histories were bound with and destined to follow the trajectories already followed by the Nature. SC and Utility or advanced countries of the West. Thus the above mentioned works manifest their Comparative rootedness in the normative values of western liberal democracies which carried with it the baggage of racial and civilisational superiority, and assumed a prescriptive character for the colonies/former colonies.

The Second World War and After:

In the nineteen thirties the political and economic situation of the world changed. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, brought into world politics, Socialism, as an ideology of the oppressed and, as a critical alternative to western liberalism and capitalism.


With the end of the Second World War a number of significant developments had taken place, including the waning of European (British) hegemony, the emergence and entrenchment of United States of America as the new hegemony in world politics and economy, and the bifurcation of the world into two ideological camps viz. (western) capitalism and (eastern) socialism.

The majority of the ‘rest of the world’ had, by the time the Second World War ended, liberated itself from European imperialism. For a period after decolonization the notions of development, modernization, nation-building, state- building etc., evinced a degree of legitimacy and even popularity as ‘national slogans’ among the political elite of the ‘new nations’. Ideologically, however, these ‘new nations’, were no longer compelled to tow the western capitalist path of development.

While socialism had its share of sympathizers among the new ruling elite of the Asia, America and Latin America, quite a number of newly independent countries made a conscious decision to distance themselves from both the power blocs, remaining non-aligned to either.

A number of them evolved their own specific path of development akin to the socialist, as in the case of Ujjama in Tanzania, and the mixed-economy model in India which was a blend of both capitalism and socialism. It may be worth remembering that the comparative study of governments till the 1940 was predominantly the legal- constitutional principles regulating them, and the manner in which they functioned in western (European) liberal-democracies.


In the context of the above stated developments, a powerful critique of the institutional approach emerged in the middle of 1950s. The critique had its roots in behaviouralism which had emerged as a new movement in the discipline of politics aiming to provide scientific rigour to the discipline and develop a science of politics.

Harry Eckstein points out that the changes in the nature and scope of comparative politics in this period show sensitivity to the changing world politics urging the need to re-conceptualize the notion of politics and develop paradigms for large-scale comparisons. Rejecting the traditional and almost exclusive emphasis on the western world and the conceptual language.

Approaches which had been developed with such limited comparisons in mind, Gabriel Almond and his colleagues of the American Social Science Research Council’s Committee on Comparative Politics (founded in 1954) sought to develop a theory and a methodology which could encompass and compare political systems of all kinds primitive or advanced, democratic or non- democratic, western or non western.

The broadening of concerns in a geographic or territorial sense was also accompanied by a broadening of the sense of politics itself, and in particular, by a rejection of what was then the notion of politics was broadened by the emphasis on ‘realism’ or ‘politics ‘in ‘practice’ as distinguished from mere ‘legalism’.

This included in its scope the functioning of less formally structured agencies, behaviours and processes e.g. political parties, interest groups, elections, voting behavior, attitudes etc. With the deflection of attention from studies of formal institutions, there was simultaneously a decline in the centrality of the notion of the state itself.

We had mentioned earlier that the emergence of a large number of countries on the world scene necessitated the development of frameworks which would facilitate comparisons on a large scale. This led to the emergence of inclusive and abstract notions like the political system.

This notion of the ‘system’ replaced the notion of the state and enabled scholars to take into account the ‘extra-legal’, ‘social’ and ‘cultural’ institutions which were critical the understanding of non-western politics and had the added advantage of including in its scope ‘pre-state non-state’ societies as well as roles and offices which were not seen as overtly connected with the state.

Also, with the clanged of emphasis to actual practices and functions of institutions, the problems of research Game to be defined not in terms of what legal powers these institutions had, but what they actually did, how they were related to one another, and what roles they played in the making and execution of public policy. This led to the emergence of structural-functionalism, in’ which certain functions were described as being necessary to all societies, and the execution and performance of these functions were then compared across a variety of different formal and ill-formal structures.

While the universal frameworks of systems and structures-functions enabled western scholars to study a wide range of political systems, structures, and behaviours, within a single paradigm, the appearance of’new nations’ provided to western comparatives an opportunity to study what they perceived as economic and political change. Wiarda points out that it was in this period of the sixties that most contemporary scholars of comparative politics came of age. The ‘new nations became for most of these scholars living laboratories’ for the study of social and political change.

Wiarda describes those ‘exciting times’ which offered unique opportunities to study political change, and saw the development to Lieu methodologies and approaches to study them.

It was during this period that some of the most innovative and exciting theoretical and conceptual approaches were advanced in the field of comparative politics: study of political culture, politic socialization, developmentalism, dependency and interdependency, corporatism, bureaucratic-authoritarianism and later transitions to democracy etc.

This period saw the mushrooming of universalistic models like Easton’s political system, Deutsch’s social mobilization and Shill’s centre and periphery. The theories of modernisation by Pater, Rokkan, Eisenstaedt and Ward and the theory of political development by Almond, Coleman, Pye and Verbal also claimed universal relevance.

These theories were claimed to be applicable across cultural Nature, scope and Utility of and ideological boundaries and to explain political process everywhere. Development of comparative political analysis in this phase coincided with the international movement of the United States through military alliances and foreign aid. Most research in this period was not only funded by research foundations, it was also geared to the goals of US foreign policy.

The most symbolic of these were the Project Camelot in Latin America and the Himalayan Project in India. This period was heralded by the appearance of works like Apter’s study on Ghana Published in 1960, Politics of Developing Areas by Almond and Coleman, sharply defined the character of the new ‘Comparative Politics Movement’.

The publication of a new journal in the US entitled Comparative Politics in 1969 reflected the height of this trend ‘Developmentalism’ was perhaps the dominant conceptual paradigm of this time. To a considerable extent, the interest in developmentalism emanated from US foreign policy interests in developing countries, to counter the appeals of Marxism-Leninism and steer them towards a non-communist way to development.

The 1970s and Challenges to Developmentalism:

Towards the 1970s, developmentalism came to be criticised for favoring abstract models, which flattened out differences among specific political social cultural systems, in order to study them within a single universalistic framework. These criticisms emphasized the ethno centralism of these models and focused on the Third World in order to work out a theory of underdevelopment. They stressed the need to concentrate on solutions to the backwardness of developing countries.

Two main challenges to developmentalism which arose in the early 1970s and gained widespread attention were

(a) Dependency

(b) Corporatism dependency theory criticised the dominant model of developmentalism for ignoring

(a) Domestic class factors and (b) international market and power factors in development. It was particularly critical of US foreign policy and multinational corporations and suggested, contrary to what was held true in developmentalism that the development of the already-industrialized nations and that of the developing ones could not go together. Instead, dependency theory argued, that the development of the West had come on the shoulders and at the cost of the non- West.

The idea that the diffusion of capitalism pro- notes underdevelopment and not development in many parts of the world was embodied in Andre Gundre Frank’s Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America (1967), Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Aica (1972) and Malcolm Caldwell’s The Wealth of Some Nations (1979).

Marxist critics of the dependency theory, however, pointed out that the nature of exploitation through surplus extraction should not be seen simply on national lines but, as part of a more complex pattern of alliances between the metropolitan bourgeoisie of the coral centre and the indigenous bourgeoisie of the periphery satellite as they operated in a worldwide capitalist system.

The corporatist approach criticised developmetalism for its Euro -American ethnocentricism and indicated that there were alternative organic corporatist, often authoritarian ways to organize the state and state-society Relations.

The 1980s: The Return of the State:

During the later 1970s and into the 1980s, still reflecting the backlash against development number of theories and subject matters emerged into the field of comparative politics. These included bureaucratic-authoritarianism, indigenous concepts of change, transitions to democracy, the politics of structural adjustment neo-liberalism and privatization.

While some scholars saw these Approaches developments as undermining and breaking the unity of the field which was being dominated by developmentalism, others saw them as adding healthy diversity, providing alternative approaches and covering new subject areas.

Almond, who had argued in the late 1950s that the notion of the state should be replaced by the political system, which was adaptable to scientific inquiry, and Easton, who undertook to construct the parameters and concepts of a political system, continued to argue well into the 1980s on the importance of political system as the core of political study.

The state, however, received its share of attention in the 60s and 70s in the works of bureaucratic- authoritarianism in Latin America, especially in Argentina in the works of Guillermo O’Donnell e.g., Economic Modernization and Bureaucratic uthoritarianism (1973). Ralph Miliband’s. The State ‘in Capitalist Society (1969) had also kept the interest alive. With Nicos Poulantzas’s State, Power, Socialism (1978), and political sociologists Peter Evans, Theda Skocpol, and others bringing the State Back In (1985), focus was sought to be restored onto the state.

The Late twentieth century:

Globalization and Emerging Trends Possibilities

(a) Scaling down of systems: Much of the development of comparative political analysis in the period 1960s to 1980s can be seen as an ever widening range of countries being included as cases, with more variables being added to the models such as policy, ideology, governing experience, and so on. With the 1980s, however, there has been a move away from general theory to emplace on the relevance of context.

In part, this tendency reflects the renewed influence of historical inquiry in the social sciences, and especially the emergence of a ‘historical sociology’ which tries to understand phenomena in the very broad or ‘holistic’ context within which they occur.

There has been a shying away from models to a more in-depth understanding of particular countries and cases where more qualitative and contextualized data can be assessed and where account can be taken of specific institutional circumstances or particular political cultures.

Hence, we see a new emphasis on more culturally specific studies and national specific countries and even institutionally specific countries. While emphasis on ‘grand systems’ and model building diminished, the stress on specific contexts and cultures has meant that the scale of comparisons was brought down.

Comparisons at the level of smaller systems’ or regions, however, remained e.g., the Islamic world, Latin American countries, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia etc.

(b) Civil Society and Democratization Approach. End of History and the Last Man (1992), Francis Fukuynma argued that the history of ideas had ended with the recognition and triumph – of liberal democracy as the ‘final form of human government’.

The ‘end of history’, invoked to stress the predominance of western liberal democracy, is in a way reminiscent of the ‘end of ideology’ debate of the 1950s which emerged at the height of the cold war and in the context of the decline of communism in the West.

Western liberal scholars proposed that the economic advancement made in the industrialized societies of the west had resolved political problems, e.g., issues of freedom and state power, workers rights etc., which are assumed to accompany industrialization.

The U.S. sociologist, ‘Daniel Bell in particular, pointed in his work that in the light of this development there was an ideological consensus or the suspension of a need for ideological differences over issues of political practice. In the nineteen eighties, the idea of the ‘end of history’ was coupled with another late nineteen eighties phenomenon – globalization.

Globalisation refers to a set of conditions, scientific, technological, economic and political, which have linked together the world in a manner so that occurrences in one part of the world are bound to affect or be affected by what is happening in another part. It may be pointed out that in this global world the focal point or the centre around which events move worldwide is still western capitalism.

In the context of the so called triumph of capitalism, the approaches to the study of civil society and democratization that have gained currency give importance to civil society defined in terms of protection of individual rights to enter the modern capitalist world.

There is, however, another significant trend in the approach which seeks to place questions of civil society and democratization as its primary focus. If there are on one hand studies conforming to the contemporary interest of western capitalism seeking to develop market democracy, there are also a number of studies which take into account the resurgence of people’s movements seeking autonomy, right to indigenous culture, movements of tribal’s, dalits, lower castes, and the women’s movement and the environment movement.

These movements reveal a terrain of contestation where the interests of capital are in conflict with people’s rights and represent the language of change and liberation in an era of global capital. Thus, concerns with issues of identity, environment, ethnicity, gender, race, etc. have provided a new dimension to comparative political analysis.

(c) Information collection and diffusion: A significant aspect and determinant of globalisation has been the unprecedented developments in the field of information and communication technology viz., the Internet and World Wide Web.

This has made the production, collection and analysis of data easier and also assured their faster and wider diffusion, worldwide. These developments have not only enhanced the availability of data, but also made possible the emergence of new issues and themes which extend beyond the confines of the nation-state.

These new themes in turn form an important influential aspect of the political environment of the contemporary globalised world. The global network of social movement’s organisations, the global network of activists is one such significant aspect.

The diffusion of ideas of democratization is an important out corolla of such networking. The Zapatista rebellion in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas used the Internet and the global media to “communicate their struggle for rights, social justice and democracy.

The concern with issues regarding the promotion and protection of human rights which is dependent on the collection and dissemination of information has similarly become pertinent in the contemporary world.

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