The 10 Things Every “Comparative Comparativist” Already Knows


There are 10 Things Every “Comparative Comparativist” Already Knows—or should know:

1.  Scholars of comparative politics research electoral behavior, political networks, political institutions, contentious politics, comparative political economies, welfare states, international-comparative linkages, and the state.[1] In general, scholars will research only one of the former specific topics. This is because political scientists are prolific animals, and no one would read the million words it would take her [or him] to profitably investigate all of the former topics in the same work. Additionally, all of the former topics are complex, moving, and changing. Today, for example, “robust problem-solving scholarship” may integrate institutional analysis, causality and history within the paradigm(s) of modern political experience (e.g., capitalism, civil society, the state, and the state system).[2]

2.  Causal patterns and mechanisms are useful for linking structure and action, yet strong links may break in the future. A careful review of research on political networks (say Huckfeldt) may share causal accounts with electoral behavior (say Anderson).[3] We might find out that the institutions (e.g., the rules of the game in each country’s Congress) are causal forces in the explanation of events between the actors and capitalism, civil society, the state, and the state system. Of course, this is precisely what the comparative comparativist probes, and the findings are published in order to explain political phenomena. But politics is like surfing. The oceanic researcher may describe and record the wave, but alas the wave crashes upon the shore and the useful information is likely an important concept in oceanography, but not likely a duplicable event (though many more waves appear to be similar). In politics, researchers also describe and record political phenomena, but alas the political event(s) crashes upon the political culture and structure. The political surfer thus waits for the perfect wave—the perfect research event—and takes it for all ‘tis worth. Radical.

3.  There are basic ideas about scientific research that political scientists usually agree on: (1) correlation is not causation.[4] Meaning, many things are correlated[5] (e.g., people wear winter jackets when it is cold outside) but not causal (e.g., a pharmacist is working indoors and two customers come in wearing winter jackets. Is it therefore cold outside? Nope. It’s 75 degrees F. These customers are addicts and need some serious detox—and that is what is causing their bodies to feel cold). So, academics will often give correlation the benefit of the doubt, but they will scrutinize causal claims all day—and over time they usually find anomalies. Why? (2) Politics is constructed by rational (and irritatingly irrational) actors, converging cultures, and shifting structures. Intersubjective or social facts, such as language rituals and laws, are not reducible to individuals;[6] however, people create the social order. Thus, politics is shifting because people are constantly creating and destroying aspects of capitalism, civil society, the state, and the state system. No wonder demonstrating causation for a political scientist is next to impossible.

4.  A comparative comparativist sees the RATIONALITY research paradigm via bargaining, collective action, credible commitment, and incomplete information.[7] The CULTURE research paradigm is generally articulated through identity, difference, membership, and boundaries.[8] The STRUCTURE research paradigm includes regime, capitalism, state, and society.[9] Like, when you talk about surfing–you describe different waves. So when you talk about political science; really big waves are like structure, the feel of the wave when you’re in the pipeline is like culture, and hangin’ ten is rationality.

5.  Discovery is the beginning of research—the defining of a problem—and includes big problems, thorny puzzles, and core difficulty.[10] Big problems may include who gets what, when, and where [conflict and contention], who gets nothing [stratification and domination], how people influence authority structures [competition and participation], the enforcement of efficiency or of equity [exploitation and justice], and legitimate ownership of coercion [power and order].[11] Thorny puzzles within RATIONALITY include prisoner’s dilemma, median voter, chaos theorems, credible commitment, moral hazard, and critical mass.[12] Core difficulty is the unmasking of the foundational reason(s) for a paradigm. For example, Weber articulated the core difficulty of “economic development and political democracy… Calvinism caused capitalism.”[13] Of particular salience, Universities (e.g., Stanford, Wayne State, Berlin) employ comparative researchers who specialize in one particular big problem, thorny puzzle, or core difficulty. Thus, graduate students may actively locate mentors and hope for discovery bifurcation. Of course, those academics must welcome bifurcation too.

6.  Explanation captures big concepts, mechanisms, institutions, and middle-range causal arguments. In the field of international relations, big concepts include liberalism, democracy, totalitarianism, citizenship, new world order, ethnicity, consociational democracy, globalization, national interest, post materialism, etc.[14]  These big concepts are articulated by many scholars, old and new—rich and poor, according to research findings. However, since politics is like surfing, academic studies may collide (e.g., civic culture vs. social capital),[15] or, new evidence may replace an old explanation (e.g., use Lipset’s Modernization Theory, or, Przeworski’s Modernization Theory analysis?). Mechanisms, in general, either come from within a theory, or, mechanisms are observed and thereafter form a theory.[16] Mechanisms may incorporate a historical analysis (e.g., Moore’s bivariate hypothesis “no bourgeoisie, no democracy” illuminates a historical structural analysis).[17] And mechanisms are “always contingent” [18] (e.g., mechanism M causes D and R  to collide when D’s BO is correlated with R’s MR or RP). Institutions are researchable through relationships among optimizing agents.[19] As an exaggerated example, republican [20] governmental regulations (e.g., enforcing non-domination) and liberal [21] public policy (e.g., enforcing private property and contracts) may generate massive middle-class prosperity and equitable efficiency. Institutions may be studied from a system point of view (exogenous to individuals, observable rules and unobservable norms, that create regularities of behavior),[22] from an individual point of view (norms, beliefs and rules motivate behavior; and, this self-enforcing mechanism produces endogenous equilibrium),[23] and from a transactional / relational point of view (emotions, attitudes, opinions, and information become a transaction from person A to person X).[24] Middle-range causal arguments are spatially and historically concrete.[25] Comparative comparativists are not philosophers; rather, social scientists.

7.  Evidence engages stylized facts, designs for establishing causality, and analytic narratives. Stylized facts are assembled and organized to locate “relevant knots of findings.”[26] One may examine mechanisms and processes, along with others mechanisms and processes, and then uncover regularities and patterns. Think of Durkheim’s (1951) work on suicide. “Knots of findings” may reveal statistical generalities or empirical regularities to guide future research.[27] Designs for establishing causality are the search for vera causa—the cause of things.[28] All things causal are correlated, while very few things correlated are causal. Causal claims mean determining causally relevant correlations AND causally relevant mechanisms.[29] Though causal chains are rare—they are worth your research time, for if anything else, the search for causal chains allows you to compile the correlations and understand their non-causal relationships. Analytic narratives tell a causal story by recounting a relevant succession(s) of events. They explain how, who and why truth and reason triumphed, or, chaos and anarchy devastated the characters. Examples of mechanism found within analytic narratives include forks, branches, critical junctures, time sequences, feedback loops, tipping points, asymmetric relations, and unstable variances.[30]

8.  Revolutionary thinkers create original ideas, invent new dimensions, new rules, and they shake up intellectual space [30.5]. They are not simply to be commended, but rewarded. Keep the incentives going!

9.  This quote says it all:

While nowadays just about everyone wants to be a comparative comparativist, comparing concepts and cases, pragmatic comparativists want to transcend a battle of the paradigms and creative comparativists want to use their battle to generate novel and imaginative research moves. [31]

10. And what is the best thing a comparative comparativist already knows? Easy. CULTURE is underrated, in its scholarly infancy, and there are thousands of explanations waiting to be written. Whereas “institutions” often describe the norms within a political structure; culture warriors (the researchers—not the demagogues) are beginning to articulate new approaches to culture, and, they have put to sleep many of the old ways—those exploratory children of political science during the 1950s and 1960s. For example, Ross derides scholars when they reduce “culture to the sum of individual attitudes” and argues that culture “is an emergent property rooted in social practices and shared understandings that cannot be uncovered by survey data alone.”[32] This every comparative comparativist must transcend.

For example, Political Science and Politics [33] recently showcased important CULTURAL research. The brief articles are worth reading in their entirety. My favorite insight surrounded the Wildavsky Heuristic Model. This model shows that cultural orientations have clear, strong and predicted effects on each policy issue, that those effects are substantially stronger than those obtained by ideological measures (e.g. liberal-conservative). The Wildavsky Heuristic Model reveals that culture’s impact diminishes only slightly at lower levels of political knowledge, unlike self-identification of ideology, which becomes nearly meaningless once voters display low political knowledge.[34]

Just like surfing, where every wave is unique (and sometimes gnarly)—this cultural concept must be questioned, thoroughly. A good answer would be published…

BLACK BARS = Cultural Orientations

WHITE BARS = Ideology

I got permission to reprint here. You may not copy or use without permission from PS authorities.

Thus, ideology findings will likely skew de facto our understanding of political phenomena, while culture will more likely predict with eagle eye accuracy.

[1] Book Review of Lichbach and Zuckerman, Comparative Politics, 2nd Edition (LZ2E), 2009 (note corresponds to page 1).

[2] (LZ2E),  2009, 3. Quote and ideas from Katznelson.

[3] (LZ2E), 2009, 10.

[4] (LZ2E), 2009, 22.

[5] (see Freakonomics movie trailer)

[6] (LZ2E),  2009, 24.

[7] (LZ2E),  2009, 24.

[8] (LZ2E),  2009, 24.

[9] (LZ2E),  2009, 24.

[10] (LZ2E),  2009, 26.

[11] (LZ2E),  2009, 29.

[12] (LZ2E),  2009, 32.

[13] (LZ2E),  2009, 34.

[14] (LZ2E),  2009, 36- 37.

[15] (LZ2E),  2009, 38.

[16] (LZ2E),  2009, 40.

[17] (LZ2E),  2009, 40.

[18] (LZ2E),  2009, 40.

[19] (LZ2E),  2009, 41.

[20] Small “r” republicanism—meaning, law as non-domination and law that eliminates arbitrary interference upon the people who are “born equal,” as Tocqueville said.

[21] Liberal in the Louis Hartz sense—the Lockian sense—private property rights and limited government.

[22] (LZ2E),  2009, 41.

[23] (LZ2E),  2009, 41.

[24] (LZ2E),  2009, 41.

[25] (LZ2E),  2009, 43.

[26] (LZ2E),  2009, 49.

[27] (LZ2E),  2009, 51.

[28] (LZ2E),  2009, 51.

[29] (LZ2E),  2009, 52.

[30] (LZ2E),  2009, 55.

[30.5] (LZ2E),  2009, 70.

[31] (LZ2E),  2009, 69.  Just to let you know, I’m not a comparative comparativist. Nope, I’m American.

[32] (LZ2E),  2009, 5. Marc Ross.

[33] American Political Science Association, October, 2011, Volume 44, Number 4. Article: The Cultural Orientation of Mass Political Opinion, by Gastil, Braman, Kahan, and Slovic. PS: Political Science & Politics. pp. 711-714.

Selection: Figure 1, p. 713, Gaps in Policy Support Levels between Liberal
versus Conservative Respondents (white bar) Compared to Opposing Cultural
Orientations (black bar) for Eight Different Policy Issues at Low and High
Political Knowledge Levels.

[34] Ibid. p. 711.


2 thoughts on “The 10 Things Every “Comparative Comparativist” Already Knows

  1. Pingback: Espousing and Scouting for Democracy’s Crowning! « Political Pipeline

  2. Pingback: Surfing via Political Pipeline | Political Pipeline

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