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Is comparative method the way to study politics?

Updated on March 3, 2010

There are different methods of studying politics other than comparative: experimental, statistical and case study. All of them have their own advantages and disadvantages but here we shall concentrate on exploring comparative method.

Arend Lijphart argues that “the term “comparative politics” indicates the “how” but does not specify the “what” of the analysis”. Comparativists usually compare and contrast different component parts of countries’ political systems and try to find differences and certain tendencies. Comparison consists of the following basic operations: compiling a list of things to compare, sorting and classifying them and, eventually, carrying out a basic act of comparison and making relevant conclusions. Comparative method can be used to compare political systems of different countries and also it can be used to compare political systems over time. There are different “schools” of the subject in the study of comparative politics as well – institutionalism and functionalism. Institutionalism refers to the practice of comparing political institutions such as governments, political parties etc.

Functionalism is opposed to institutionalism in the way that however different political systems are, they all have the same functions. In functionalism, these are functions that matter, not institutions.

The main advantage of comparative method is that it makes the study of politics more structured and conclusions derived with this method are more precise. For example, we shall compare electoral systems in the UK and Germany. In Britain the electoral system is referred as single member plurality system. This is when the candidate with the largest number of votes in each constituency wins the seat in parliament. This system allows some parties to secure the majority of seats because even a small surge of support will significantly increase the number of seats for winning party comparing to the parties coming after. One of the strongest advantages of single member plurality system is that it produces clear-cut electoral decisions with single-party governments able to exercise leadership. But the disadvantage of this system is when the party achieves the second place in the majority of seats, it will suffer from under-representation in the parliament, which means that many votes are just wasted. This leads for more citizens to act in informal and unorthodox forms of political participation.

For comparison, Germany adopted the additional member system, which can be described as a hybrid of single member plurality system and proportional representation. Voters vote within this electoral system: for their party and also for their local representative. So half of the seats in the Bundestag are allocated in the same way as in Britain and the other half of the seats are allocated according to the proportion of votes received by each party in each region. This allows fairly proportional allocating seats in the parliament and also allows smaller parties to have representatives even if they are not successful in any individual constituency. But it should be mentioned that still the result is not strictly proportional as there is a threshold of support which is five percent. This is done to deny access to parliament for minor radical parties.

Of course, there are certain difficulties and disadvantages in comparative method as well. Common problem of social sciences is that there are usually too many variables and too few cases. There are more than 200 countries in the world, but unfortunately for us, they are all quite different. It is impossible to compare radically different or completely identical countries, so in order to take the advantage of comparative method, only similar countries with minor differences should be compared and in some cases it may prove to be complicated to find such.

The other problem with the comparative method is that research might be not objective and the researcher deliberately chooses countries to show negative or positive moments to proof his/her point of view. For example, let’s consider a hypothesis, that countries with weak trade unions are more economically successful than countries with strong trade unions. Here, trade unionists and, on opposite side, managing directors have a political point to make, so more than likely their conclusions might completely differ. So we should be aware that conclusions are not driven by someone’s motivations and values.

Comparative method is definitely the best choice to study and analyze contemporary politics, but we should be aware of the difficulties associated with this method. Comparative method simplifies a complex political reality and makes it more manageable. Comparative politics brings us into contact with political worlds other than our own and expands our political and cultural horizons. Comparative approach to studying of politics also enables us to move beyond mere description, toward explanation and within this method we can talk about comparative politics as a science. But on the other side, we shouldn’t forget that any research of comparative method is vulnerable to personal interests and motivations. Therefore we need to make sure that such research should only consist of facts, conclusions derived from these facts and be free of any assumptions.


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