Unlike Twins?! Comparing Democracies and Autocracies.

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Comparative Politics at the crossroads?


Coming from attempts to compare political systems as the “means by which societies consciously formulate and pursue collective goals in their domestic environments”[1] from a systems theory and functionalist perspective, aspiring general explanations of political life, the discipline experienced a quick differentiation and specialization of theoretical, methodological, thematic and regional approaches over the previous six decades. Today, Comparative Politics is engraved by theoretical and methodological pluralism and most of the contemporary theoretical approaches aim at medium range explanations. There is a (vastly peaceful) co-existence of different theoretical approaches. This includes the ontological dualism of positivism and constructivism. The growing body of empirical methods used in Comparative Politics reflects this plurality. Single case studies, more or less rigorous small-n comparative designs, medium and large-n studies come along with methods ranging from content analysis to process tracing, from anecdotal evidence to discourse analysis, from QCA to statistical clustering and regressions. Multi-level analyses and mixed-method approaches complete the broad variety of methods.

In other words, Comparative Politics nowadays answers specific rather than general questions. On the one hand, this specialization allows for in-depth analysis and potentially strong causal inference. On the other hand, it limits the scope of theoretical explanations. Even though theoretical and methodological pluralism foster creativity and innovation, Comparative Politics as a discipline buys a whole bunch of problems with it, like theoretical, thematic and geographic fragmentation, questions of conceptual stretching and concept travelling, and even parochialism.

This holds especially true, when looking at the heart of Comparative Politics: the identification, classification, and comparison of different political systems. In fact, the core categories democracy and autocracy themselves are still theoretically and empirically contested concepts. In addition, they both often have been treated like “unlike twins”. Systematic comparisons between these species have frequently been eschewed, and fundamental questions of what is comparable, how to compare best, and which specific challenges come with such comparisons, remain open. In the previous decades, a clear focus of the highly differentiated comparisons in the disciplines subfields lay on democracies rather than on autocracies. This is partly due to the “western” nature of comparative politics as a discipline, but there are also other reasons for this. It might be also because of the ability to generate more reliable and valid data on these more open societies. Another main reason can be found in the ontological bases of Comparative Politics: Following argumentations rooted in systems and modernization theory as well as normative preferences for democracies, autocracies often were seen as less differentiated, pre-modern political systems. Thus, many of the approaches to assess regime types and their transformation asked for conditions, mechanisms and reasons of and for democratization instead of investigating the logics of autocratic rule in its own right.

Yet, empirical findings though showed the need for more in-depth analysis of internal logics of autocracies, as some of them proved highly resilient during the four waves of democratization. It is only in recent years that comparative research on autocracies skyrocketed. A fast growing body of literature investigates in autocratic institutions, power, legitimation, policies and so on. As a result, comparative politics now can draw much more differentiated pictures of how authoritarian regimes function, succeed, and fail in terms of regime persistence.

Now, the question of how to compare rises again. Mainly driven by sub-fields and area-studies, more and more attempts to compare the “unlike twins” autocracy and democracy in a more systematic way have been pursued. However, as the above-mentioned fragmentation has led to highly specialized approaches, there now seems to be a lack of guiding frameworks for comprehensive research. And apart from macro quantitative and area-related comparisons there is hardly any systematic comparison between democracy and autocracy. This development brings comparative politics back to its roots in the “systems analysis of political life” (David Easton) and leads to the insight that a more comprehensive framework might be necessary for the new challenges of comparing autocracy and democracy. But is the orientation backwards a solution for analyzing and comparing the highly complex political systems in their environment? Don’t we buy all of the problems linked with general theory again – like a lack of explanative and prognostic power, too abstract analytical level – that  were supposed to be overcome by modern comparative politics?  What are new developments in theories, methods, and thematic challenges?

[1] Almond, Gabriel / Powell, G. Bingham (1966): Comparative Politics. A developmental approach. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, p.6

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