Comparative Politics

Comparative Politics is one of the oldest fields of political analysis, forming the basis for much of the writings of political philosophers throughout the ages. It was only in the nineteenth century, however, that the comparative method was first formally proposed as a means for elevating political thought to the level of a science. But like any field of intellectual endeavor, there is no consensus among those who study comparative politics concerning what the field is about. In particular, comparativists have found themselves pulled between two poles: that of the area-specialist and that of the social scientist. In some ways this tension is paralleled by two equally pervasive tensions: between those who are primarily inductive in their approach and those preferring a more deductive orientation; as well as a tension between those who are primarily oriented toward qualitative rather than quantitative methods. To be sure, some specialized knowledge is necessary to penetrate the politics of any society. That society-specific knowledge is all the more important when examining the politics of a foreign country. If one of the purposes of comparing politics is to escape ethnocentrisms, then area-specific knowledge is that body of knowledge which allows one to transcend the boundaries of one’s own culture. It is sometimes tempting in an American university setting to define comparative politics as the study of foreign (i.e., non-American) political systems. Indeed, many comparativists (particularly those subscribing wholly to an area-studies understanding of the field) view their roles as interpreters of the politics of foreign cultures. But interesting and significant work has been conducted studying American politics within a comparative perspective, and given the culture-transcending purposes of comparison, it seems proper to include American politics within the boundaries of the field as well. Moreover, the theoretical concerns of comparativists are in no way confined to the boundaries of any one culture, and even those who are inspired primarily by a desire to better understand other places and cultures often find that to do so most effectively they need to orient their primarily inductive empirical work along broadly comparative and deductive theoretical axes.