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What is the Comparative Approach to Politics?

What are the advantages and disadvantages in using a comparative approach to politics?

Contemporary politics is being shaped and transformed right before our eyes. The way citizens interact with the state, its very definition, the source of its power and scope of its authority is being constantly challenged (Gieben, Lewis, 2005, p. 65). The growing influence of the media, changing social values, unbelievable technological advancements and far-reaching impacts of globalisation are but a few factors political writers cite as the driving force behind this transformation. But different countries react to change differently. Not in the least because no two are ruled in exactly the same way. Comparative politics seeks to understand the origins of the changes and compare the range of political responses in order to begin to offer explanations for why certain developments took place and to make a prediction of the future development trajectory. In this essay I will assess the merits and problems of the comparative study of politics to help me illustrate my argument that comparative approach can be a very helpful tool as long as it used to address the right question and the writer realises its limitations and potential pitfalls.

When studying politics it is not possible to physically introduce or take away certain elements to or from a selected social group to able to unequivocally prove the effect such action causes. For example, one cannot introduce communism in, say, Dorset, in order to prove that societies with direct access to sea are able to flourish under such a regime. Instead, one of the very few ways in which scientific political studies can be carried out is by observing and recording different political situations, analysing their differences and similarities compared to other known cases and trying to make reliable predictions based on that analysis. This explanation of the comparative method already outlines several of the advantages of using it.

First of all, the act of collecting and explaining information about different countries, events, actors and structures brings one in contact with other political worlds. Andrew Dobson points out that this particular characteristic, which allows us to be exposed to the knowledge of others, might be the most crucial one in finding our way around, and managing, a globalising world (A.Dobson, 2005, p. 143).
Let’s look at the nature of citizenship in Britain, France and Nordic countries as an example. Based on the fact that these are all modern democracies with stable borders within EU territory, one might be forgiven for expecting a similar degree of convergence among the citizenship practices in these countries (J. Squires, 2005, p.116). By adopting comparative approach however, it soon becomes apparent that despite the sense of shared agendas there is a very diverse range of policies employed to negotiate multi-dimensional identities. Following “equality and diversity” principle, British citizenship practices seek to unite the multi-cultural base of its citizenry under the banner of shared rights and freedoms, whilst also seeking to promote, and celebrate (albeit to a debatable degree of success) their religious, ethnical, racial and sexual differences. This is illustrated by positive gender strategies, which exist alongside the general “equality of rights for all” approach, whilst also encouraging a more balanced gender mix within parliament. (J.Squires, 2005, p.120)
By contrast, France’s approach is based on assimilatory practices, which forces its citizens to abandon their religious and other beliefs and values in favour of those representing the formal homogenous republic. Religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves and burqas are banned or partially banned from public spaces. Political writers also highlight the failure to integrate women into politics, with France being ranked 65th in the league table for women representation in parliament. (J. Squires, 2005, p.123)
And finally, Nordic countries’ approach can be characterised as based on universalist social policies, which are applicable to all citizens. Rooted in the spirit of the free constitution of 1849, state’s strategies in this region have long been focused on organic but determined integration of women into political life.

Clearly, examples cited above are merely summaries of thousands of pages of facts and numbers, which would have been acquired by political scholars working in that field. This data would also most likely have to come from a wide variety of sources: official statements as well as data acquired though travel, personal experience, access to primary sources and reading of history. And there lies another advantage of comparative method: based on the factual and statistical data gathered, it allows us to construct summaries or models, which could be used to explain series of events as well as to predict future developments. For example, in Britain historical circumstances, unique sense of national identity, specific decisions made by the state and citizen’s reaction to them allowed the current integrational approach to citizenship to form, which can be summarised as the liberal model. Similarly, the same factors have developed in a different way in France and the Nordic countries and could be summarised as Republican and Participatory models respectively. Hence, not only does this method help us make sense of the information gathered by benchmarking it against other countries’ experience, but further comparison of countries falling under the same model will allow for new facts and nuances to be discovered. This in turn will help make more informed and precise predictions about events that will take place next.

Perhaps paradoxically, our ability to interpret gathered information and to summarise it into a model, which I described as a benefit in the previous paragraph, could also be viewed as a disadvantage. Let’s consider an example of welfare provision in different countries. As Gieben and Lewis point out in their article, the emergence of welfare state in industrialised democratic countries effectively signified the change from modern to contemporary state through its expansion into the public and private spheres. (B. Gieben, P. Lewis, 2005, p.58) However, the provision of government funding of medical services is not the same in all of them. The fact that health insurance and service provision in the United States are mostly private is a well known and widely debated fact. But why is this the case? The way this question is answered might depend on values and beliefs held by the person answering it. Someone, who regarded institutions as the most powerful agent in influencing political decisions, might argue that the structure of political institutions in the US is the reason why any new health care legislation might be blocked relatively easily. On the other hand, someone, who believed that the functions of political institutions can be carried out by other groups, could conclude that insurance companies could be responsible, due to their opposition to government’s interference in this process. (A. Dobson, 2005, p.155) It follows then, that because one can never be completely sure whether the conclusion presented is completely untainted by the personal preferences, values or intentions of its writer, comparative analysis should be accepted with a degree of healthy scepticism.

Earlier in this essay, I have stated that conclusions reached by employing method of comparative analysis can be applied to other similar cases in order to predict how events will unfold in the future. But even the process of selecting these similar countries or cases can be open to misjudgement.
The very essence of politics has always been regarded as “something that is never fixed” And today, the role and scope of the state, its interactions with citizens, and ways of political participation are being challenged and redefined more intensely than ever The application of theories to predict outcomes in these circumstances can be very difficult, as in the words of Paul Lewis “nothing is quite like anything else” . Even if we assume, for instance, that conclusions reached by comparative analysis could be applied to all democracies. How do we define democracy? There were 144 free or partly free states in the world according to the Karatnycky each of them displaying differing degrees of extension of political rights and liberties, political recourse and participation. Democracy in the Western world works and feels very differently from democracy in former communist countries with their lack of secure base in an active civil society and only a fragile basis for state structures to operate from . And what about China, where markets are allowed to determine economic life, at what point can those conclusions be applied to it as well?
This application limitation of comparative analysis is echoed by Mark Smith and Julian Agyeman in their political dissent discussions. The form dissent can take varies so widely not only per country but even within the same country, that it makes it very difficult to find equivalences .Consider the examples of peaceful Reclaim The Streets tea party action in America and the recent riotous student protests in the UK. Even though both examples are essentially actions of dissent, but the motivations, desired outcomes and the form of protest are so different that any effort to find enough similarities between them in order to apply theories would be extremely difficult.

In this essay I have discussed advantages and disadvantages of using comparative method in politics. Its capacity to give order and structure to study of politics is a clear benefit. As is the ability it gives us to uncover crucial details. On the other hand, shortage of equivalencies and the possibility of selection/interpretation bias can be seen as distinct disadvantages. I can also see how compared to experimental method, it can seem rather imperfect. But equally, I don’t think there can be an absolutely infallible method of describing and explaining the world as complex and ever evolving as ours. What’s important then is to be aware of its potential limitations and to use it to answer the right questions.