Why Do Comparativists Compare? The Comparative Method in Practice


Why do Comparativists compare? Why is case selection critical to comparative research despite criticisms for the tendency to select on the dependent variable? In your answer, explain what you mean by a “case” and problems of selection bias. Compare the strengths and weaknesses of one comparative method with another method (single-case study, experimental or large-N study). Also suggests an example in which the use of the comparative method might be most useful.

Why Do Comparativists Compare? The Comparative Method in Practice

Ever since the emergence of comparative politics as a separate field within the broader discipline of political science, there has been conflicting positions and debates about the distinct identity and methodological relevance of comparative politics (Almond, 1956). Amidst the controversies, ‘comparison’ remains as one of fundamental pillars of empirical social science theory and practice because the process of comparison enables the comparativists to build statements about empirical regularities and interpret the cases on the basis of the substantive and theoretical frameworks (Ragin, 1989).

Apart from that, comparativists are attracted to consider different macro-social units in order to explore and identify the similarities and differences between these units. According to the comparativists, the interpretation emerging out of the cross-societal comparisons substantially help to understand their historical outcomes and subsequent impact on the existing institutional frameworks (Halperin & Heath, 2016). Comparative researchers compare different systems to check the problems of false uniqueness and false universalism as suggested by Rose (Halperin & Heath, 2016).

Although scholars like Smelser considered the comparative method as inferior to statistical method, it is far from reality (Smelser, 2013). For example, the statistical methods can not address the questions that involve diverse combinations of conditions and their outcomes. In statistical method, this can be explored only through variable based studies with larger statistical interactions that tend to get complex and rigid coupled with lack of freedom. However, such cases can be easily conducted using small number of relevant cases. Hence, it is widely used by the comparativists (Mahoney, 2007).

Another factor that highlights the significance of comparative methodology is the detailed explanation that it provides for every phenomenon including the variations and irregularities involved in it (Ragin, 1989). This elaborated explanation enables one to interpret each case and addresses the historical specificity. On the basis of this interpretation, new theory can be constructed or new insights can be added with the existing theories. Hence, this is still preferred by scholars in spite of the limitations it reflect. Since the detailed and close analysis of comparative cases avoids the error of measurement, it is considered by many scholars as the basic building blocks of any approach to measurement (Mahoney, 2007). In their well-known study on the famines in India and China, Sen and Dreze challenged the findings of the quantitative GNP per capita studies that highlight China’s faster growth compared to India. Using economic as well as non-economic variables, they highlighted the critical role of social indicators in determining economic development (Mahoney, 2007).

Apart from that, as rightly argued by Walton, as far as comparative politics is concerned, researchers are free to select sample societies and they are not restricted with arbitrarily defined boundaries. In this context, one can also agree with the views of Stretton who argued that comparative method expands the horizon of experience that the investigator has and widens the possibilities and social capacities in front of him. It strengthens imagination, explores the possibilities of alternatives and rational models (Lijphart, 1975).

Case study is one of the core forms of research in comparative politics. Comparative Case study is broadly defined as an intensive study of a single unit with an aim to generalize across a larger set of units (Gerring, 2004).  Broadly speaking case study is a qualitative method involving ethnographic and participant observation method characterized by process- tracing. In comparative politics, the term single unit implies study of a nation-state, political party, election or a person. The distinctive feature of the case study method is its dependence on ‘co-variation’ which is verified by a single unit on one hand and  its effort to  shed light on the characteristics  of a wider set of units on the other (Gerring, 2004).

Although case study has a prominent role in social research it has often been criticized due to high chances of selection bias and the resultant error in findings (Geddes, 1990). Bias is a systematic error that can occur in any stage of a given research. Here, error implies the difference between the actual value of a variable and the estimated value derived by the researcher. This often occurs at the stage of selection of cases or variables as cases are selected in accordance with the value of the theory’s dependent variable (Geddes, 1990).  The selection of case on the basis of dependent variable often results in ignoring the possible impact of independent variable. Due to this over dependence on dependent variables, many scholars, including Geddes, considered case study method as a strategy that leads to wrong answers. Such criticisms are especially valid in the case of comparative small n-studies that are based on intuitive regression analysis (Geddes, 1990). If smaller cases are selected wrongly and the researcher makes sweeping generalizations about the findings, there are high chances of overestimating the relationship among variables. In comparative politics, selection bias often occurs when values of the dependent variable influences the values of explanatory variable at an earlier point of time (Geddes, 1990). For example, Przeworkski and Limongi in their study on the consequences of democracy and authoritative governments in economic growth, argue that both lower as well as higher economic growth may result in countries to chose different categories of regimes and therefore, economic growth can be a cause as well as result of a particular regime type. This will ultimately leads to biased result of the impact of the types of regimes on economic growth. Geddes articulated that in many research studies on revolution, economic growth and inflation, selection on the dependent variable indeed posed serious methodological error (Geddes, 1990).

Another problem with regard to selection bias is the heterogeneity of the population. In case study, researchers select smaller population having similar features that allow meaningful comparison. They try to ensure that the population of cases reflects causal and conceptual homogeneity. But in many cases, this homogeneity may be affected and changed across temporal and spatial situations leading to heterogeneity and wrong estimates of causal effects (Lijphart, 1975).

However, in spite of the bias in selection, case study still occupies a prominent place in comparative politics. If case selection is done objectively, many of the limitations can be addressed. It is interesting to note that the discipline of comparative politics has produced some landmark studies and accurate findings although they have violated the norm of selection bias in while selecting cases and units of comparison (Mahoney, 2007). Many scholars are of the opinion that the so called selection bias in case study method is indeed the result of the wrong adaptation and application of quantitative techniques and regression analysis in qualitative method rather the problem of the qualitative research per se (Mahoney, 2007).   Through the identification of cases that avoid variable bias, wrongly specified relationship between independent variables and avoiding unstable measurements across the selected units, most of the celebrated criticisms can be addressed. Here, the fundamental requirement is deep knowledge and understanding of the case under study so that measurement instability can be checked at various stages and informed decisions can be made about the nature of the population and its homogeneity (Bennett & Elman, 2006).  Without much historical knowledge about the causal relationship, Skocpol has been able to establish the role of international pressure, upper class patronage politics and agricultural backwardness as the key issues that led to the fall of states in China, France and Russia. There are many such path-breaking comparative case studies that accurately theorized about the social and political context without selection bias and error in results (Skocpol & Somers, 1980).

There are different types of case studies including small- N comparative case studies, large-N comparative case studies, single case studies etc. In this section, the large-N comparative case study is compared with Small-N case studies.  Small- N comparative study implies the comparative study of two or more cases. Although there is no upper limit for the selection of cases, it often comes within a dozen cases (Halperin & Heath, 2016). One of the classic examples of small-N case study is the Four nation study of economic voting in Britain, France, Germany and Italy conducted by Michael Lewis- Becks.  Another example is the study on the social requisites of democracy in Europe and South America conducted by Lipset. Almond and Verba has conducted an interesting comparative research on civic culture in the UK, United States, Germany, Italy and Mexico. There are many advantages of these small N comparative researches (Halperin & Heath, 2016).

First of all, it allows scope for detailed and deep analysis of the selected units and without affecting the scope for contextualization.  Hence both the particular as well as general aspects are studied. Thus, it enables to get new ideas, insights and new theories about unknown features. However, careful selection of cases is extremely critical in small N studies. There are two common approaches that researchers use while selecting cases in small N studies. These are the Most Similar System Design(MSSD) and Most Different System Design( MDSD). As the name itself indicates, MSSD selects units that share many common features except one crucial aspect. The shared features act as control where as the different aspect is considered as the dependent variable. In MDSD, the countries are selected on the basis of many different aspects and only one common aspect. In such studies, the crucial similarity will be tested (Halperin & Heath, 2016).

Critics argue that there is high chances of selection bias in such comparison and may thus lead to wrong results. The issue of case selection in small N comparative studies was a burning issue among scholars who argued that if the selection is done without keeping attention to independent variables, many significant factors will be excluded from the research. In such circumstances, the causal relationship between two variables can be wrong as against our convictions. We must understand that even the most influential study by Skocpol on the causes of revolutions was strongly criticized by scholar like Geddes who argued that the results are influenced by spurious inferences (Geddes, 1990).

On the contrary, large N comparative research uses quantitative methods to explore the diverse aspects of society and politics. Unlike the small N qualitative studies, the large N studies use statistical data to compare and contrast situations and countries. The main advantage of the method is the precision and accuracy it allows while comparing diverse aspects. This method allows us to test the hypothesis using the data collected from the field and create inferences about the relationship between variables (Halperin & Heath, 2016). This can overcome the selection bias of small N studies and reject spurious relationships. Through the systematic examination of different variables and their relationships, we can easily find out how diverse factors interact with each other and creates different outcomes in different contexts. Therefore, this method is regarded as one of the best approach for testing generalizations. Since there are clear and objective procedures for selecting cases and analyzing data, the chances of selection bias and resultant error is very less (Halperin & Heath, 2016).


On the whole, comparative method enjoys critical space in contemporary political analysis. There are many examples that make comparative analysis extremely relevant and useful. In the case of the South Asian countries, it is evident that although most of the countries including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan share common features including the post-colonial past, low level of industrial development, ethnic diversity, dependence of agrarian economy, high rate of population and increasing unemployment, democracy as a model of governance remained successful only in one country: India. All the other countries fell into authoritarian regimes several times. Why democracy survived in India amidst ethnic diversity, conflicts and lower economic development? This is a classic case that can be analyzed within the framework of comparative method.

To sum up, it is evident that in spite of the limitations, comparative method using case studies indeed play a significant role in contemporary political theory and research.

Question 2

“The adoption of democratic regimes is a result of the efforts of passionate actors, and has nothing to do with levels of socio-economic development, class structure or cultural factors in particular countries.” Discuss. Refer to least two empirical cases in addition to the relevant democratization literature.

The emergence, survival and fall of democracy often led to many theories, arguments and perspectives in comparative political science. While there are scholars who argue that democracy thrives in socially and economically developed countries with homogeneity of culture and lack of class conflicts, the emergence of democratic regimes in post-colonial countries that have a history of civil wars, poverty and stage fragility reflect the futility of such arguments to some extent (Huntington, 1993). Hence, with the third wave of democracy and the fall of authoritative regimes in many Asian- African and Latin American political systems, people tend to believe that democracy can thrive in any social and cultural contexts as a result of the efforts of passionate actors. In this essay, a modest attempt is made to answer the question.

There is wide disagreement among scholars about the factors that contribute to the success and fall of democracy across the world.  While the third wave of democratization and the emergence of democratic governments in the erstwhile authoritarian regimes have created euphoria about the success of democracy as a viable system even in the paradoxical social and economic contexts, it is not absolutely correct (Brownlee, 2002). It is wrong to perceive these regimes as purely democratic because it lacks many of the fundamental features of democracy including freedom of speech and expression, periodic and free election, accountable institutions, equality of opportunities and civil liberties. Instead many of these newly emerged democracies tend to be fragile, flawed and weak in terms of protecting the basic tenants of democracy (Schedler, 2002). Therefore, critics considered these new democracies as semi-authoritarianism, competitive authoritarianism and liberalized autocracy rather than institutional democracies. As Boggards rightly remarked, even after four decades of the rise of democracy in these countries, these political systems still reflect transition stage with features of democracy and authoritarianism. Besides, unlike the liberal western democracies, there are lack of common parameters, definitions, attributes and unit of measurements that make meaningful comparison very difficult (Bogaards, 2009).

What is democracy? Democracy, according to Schumpeter, is ‘the institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote’. Simply put, democracy stands for a system of political governance in which power and authority derives from the people (Bogaards, 2009). Robert Dahl gives, seven basic features to democracy:

  • Control over governmental decisions about policy constitutionally vested in elected officials
  • Relatively frequent, fair and free elections
  • Universal adult suffrage
  • The right to run for public office
  • Freedom of expression
  • Access to alternative sources of information that are not monopolized by either the government or any other single group
  • Freedom of association (i.e. the right to form and join autonomous associations such as political parties, interest groups, etc).

While we look at the definitions of democracy within the context of the core question of this essay, one can easily understand that the so called democratic regimes that emerged in the recent era can only be called as ‘electoral authoritarianism’ rather than true democracies. These countries conduct periodic elections and tolerate limited extent of pluralism, although the control of resources, power and authority are still exercised by a group of elites (Bunce, 2000). These electoral authoritarianisms neither follow true democracy nor practice ruthless repression. But they control mass media, political parties and provide limited freedom of expression to people. Hence, it is too early to conclude that the third wave of democracy has indeed led to democratic revival without economic development and cultural homogeneity (Bunce, 2000).

For example, in the case of newly emerged democracies like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Nigeria etc. one can see that democratic elections do not result in empowerment of the lower level administrative structure, inclusion of people in decision making process, decentralization of political and economic power, provision for equal opportunities etc. Instead there is nexus between powerful political elites and the bureaucracy that deconstruct the very idea of democracy. Thus, elections alone cannot guarantee democracy. It requires strong institutional mechanism and democratic political culture for survival. Since many newly emerged democracies suffer from the cultural deficit, they either slipped to complete authoritarian rule or still continue with democracy in the minimal form of election. This electoral authoritarianism is far from liberal democracy as it is defined by rule of law, horizontal accountability, protection of freedom and inclusion of all citizens in political process (Schedler, 2002).

Does economic development alone can foster democracy? While the cases of USA and Canada reflect the hypothesis that democracy is closely related to economic development, one cannot make a universal application of this perception. For example, in spite of economic development and uniform class structure and cultural homogeneity, the Middle East countries still follow authoritarian regimes (Brownlee, 2002). The huge income from oil economy and the resultant development in social and infrastructural sectors didn’t foster democracy in Saudi Arabia or UAE. Hence, as Przeworski clearly argued in his empirical research, economic development doesn’t cause democratization per se. It doesn’t mean that economic development has nothing to do with democracy. In the same research, he proves that development can indeed check the breakdown of democracy and save the country from falling into the hands of authoritarian regime (Bunce, 2000). Apart from that, there is considerable body of literature that argues that although democracy can sustain in both poor and rich countries, its rate of success and survival is relatively high in economically developed countries. However, it must be noted that higher economic development promotes equal opportunities, better performance of government, accountability of institutions and better public service delivery that indeed results in better institutional performance. Hence, one must conclude that rather than economic development as an independent actor, it is the multiple conditions that are created as a result of economic development that fosters democracy (Geddes, 1999).

If this is to be believed, how did democracy sustained in East European countries?  When these economies became independent from the USSR, all these countries inherited collapsed economies. But, within a short span of time democracy thrived in these blocs and the main reasons cited by empirical research are economic liberalization and the growth of private sector (Geddes, 1999). The rulers believed that economic revival of these countries needs private capital and massive economic reforms that can support the growth of capital. Hence, democracy was considered as an essential institutional framework that can support the privatization drive. However, recent empirical evidence shows that privatization and liberalization alone cannot sustain democratic culture. While the richer countries among the Post- Socialist bloc still continue with democratic form of government, the poorer countries including Albania and Kyrgyzstan have already slipped away from democracy (Brownlee, 2002). Even the higher income countries like Croatia and Slovakia also exhibit the deficit of democracy. In the case of Mongolia, a backward and economically poor country in Asia, democracy is a reality amidst all the paradoxes (Huntington, 1993). This analysis about the contradictory nature of democracy and its relationship with economic development clearly show that economic development alone cannot promote democracy, although it indeed create a positive and favorable pre-condition for democratic survival.

Similarly in another study on democracy conducted by Fish, he argued that the countries with larger Muslim population may tend to follow authoritarian institutions rather than following democracy. As we can see majority of the Muslim countries still support authoritarianism and are reluctant to extend basic freedom to the citizens (Linz, 1996).

In the empirical study conducted by Boix and Rogowsky it is argued that education and culture promote democracy. In the empirical study conducted within the context of Europe, the authors stated that educated individuals take part actively in the democratic process and enhances better participation and transparency (Geddes, 1990). Thus, more educated citizens demand democracy and acts as a watch dog of democratic institutions and traditions. However, this hypothesis was proved only within the context of Western Europe. This doesn’t explain how democracy sustained in India without high literacy rate and education among citizens. Another empirical research conducted by Gasiorowski argues that international pressure and inspirations from democratic neighbors contributed to revival of democracy in many countries. In the case of countries like Pakistan and Myanmar, it was international pressure, need for economic assistance from stronger democracies like the USA and membership in regional organizations that necessitated the path towards procedural democracy. Economic sanctions play a vital in pressurizing countries to reinvent democracy (Geddes, 1990).

What are the inherent preconditions for a successful democracy? As we have seen above, economic development, universal suffrage and uniform culture alone cannot guarantee democracy. For a democracy to be consolidated in a country, it requires behavioral, attitudinal and constitutional parameters of democratic regime (Linz, 1996). Behaviorally, no institutional/political/ economic actors should attempt to create a non-democratic regime. Attitudinally, amidst all the inherent problems and deep dissatisfaction with governance, majority of the people must adhere to the rule of law, democratic procedures and believe in the democratic institutions. They should not resort to undemocratic and violent collective life. Constitutionally, all the political parties and other actors must resolve conflicts through established laws, procedures and institutions (Linz, 1996).

In this form of consolidated democracy, single factor like economic development or culture or passionate actors cannot maintain and balance democratic forces. Rather, it requires interplay of many actors including the above. The first basic condition is free and lively civil society. Second important attribute is autonomous political society. Third important element is the overarching power of the rule of law that protects individual freedoms.  Fourthly, as efficient and impartial bureaucracy that is controlled by democratically elected state. Finally it needs a free economic society that promotes competition and equality. In the case of Latin America and East Europe when movement for democracy was strengthened it raised the question of state versus free civil society.  Recently, in the failed attempt to revive democracy in Egypt, the struggle was between oppressive state and emancipated civil society. In many countries, civil society played a vital role in institutional transition and democratic revival (Linz, 1996).

Thus, to sum up, empirical evidences show that passionate actors alone cannot revive democracy. It requires multiple actors and circumstances. Democracy is not a regime. Rather, it is an interacting system involving various institutions and principles. A single factor cannot build, collapse or revive democracy. Each factor reinforces and augments the multiple aspects of democracy. Similarly, each factor has its impact on the other.  Hence, economic development can enhance opportunities for the poor and increase their participation in the civil society. Similarly, passionate actors can fight against the elements that repress political and civic rights of the citizens. Rule of law and institutional stability will certainly foster transparent institutions and economic freedoms that inter alia contribute to survival of democratic framework.



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Lijphart, A. (1975). “The Comparable-Cases Strategy in Comparative Research.”. Comparative Political Studies , 8 (2), 158-177.

Linz, J. J. (1996). “Toward Consolidated Democracies.”. Journal of Democracy , 2 (1), 14–33.

Mahoney, J. (2007). Qualitative Methodology and Comparative Politics. Comparative Political Studies , 40 (122), 122-144.

Ragin, C. (1989). The Distinctiveness of Comparative Social Science. In C. Ragin, The Comparative Method (pp. 1-18). Berkely: University of California.

Schedler, A. (2002). “Elections Without Democracy: The Menu of Manipulation.”. Journal of Democracy , 13 (2), 36-50.

Skocpol, T., & Somers, M. (1980). “The Uses of Comparative History in Macro social enquiry. Comparative Studies in Society and History , 22 (2), 174– 197.

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