from Comparative Politics Made Simple
by Dr. Jean-Germain Gros

University of Missouri - St. Louis

In Chapter 4, "Know Comparative Theory," I describe three types of theories used by comparative political scientists (pp. 25-29):
  • structural theories that focus on "the people, institutions, and processes by which policy decisions are made and implemented" and that often use a systems approach to comparisons
  • behavioral or rational choice theories that focus on individual choices and behaviors within specific political contexts and
  • cultural theories that try to take structures, choices, limitations on choices, histories, values, and beliefs into account when making comparisons.

    Dr. Jean-Germain Gros, who teaches at the University of Missouri - St. Louis offers another perspective on types of theories in an essay he wrote for the Advanced Placement Comparative Government and Politics web site. (You must be a registered AP teacher to have access to that site.)

    The three types of theories he describes are "political economy, modernization theory, and dependency theory."

    Political economy, Dr. Gros wrote, emphasizes the interaction and connections between the economy and politics. How do politics affect the economy? How does the economy affect politics? Thus comparative studies using these theories would study economic policies as independent variables and economic performance as dependent variables. Or economic performance as an independent variable and political stability or state power, for example, as dependent variables. The goals of theses studies would be to explain why some nation-states were stable or successful and others were not. These studies might be done by examining several countries or one country at different times.

    Modernization theory focuses on change. As the title implies, studies using these theoretical ideas define some characteristics or policies as modern and others as "backward" or old fashioned. Comparisons using these ideas would examine the interaction between forces promoting change and those deterring change. The emphasis would be on elements of culture, including, but not limited to, the economy. The goals of these studies would be to explain how some nation-states successfully modernized and others did not or modernized more slowly. Because these studies begin by identifying desirable (modern) characteristics, they are often criticized for diminishing the values, beliefs, and customs of "backward" societies and nations.

    Dependency theories are often seen as responses to the approaches of modernization theories. In dependency theories, global interactions are the focus of attention. Studies based on these theories examine the structural relationships (economic, political, and cultural) between nation-states or groups of nation-states and try to explain things like why some nation-states of poor and other rich; why some nation-states are powerful and others weak. As the name dependency implies, poverty and weakness, for example, are the result of unequal relationships in a global system.

    What this little addition to the consideration of theory in comparative politics is meant to do is not to define good or better theory. It's meant to illustrate the variety of theoretical approaches to the comparative process.

    Remember the ultimate goal of comparative government and politics is to make valid generalizations about similarities and differences between political and governance systems.

    Theoretical approaches tell us what "things" to study, what questions to ask about those "things," how to ask those questions, and how to evaluate the answers we come up with.

    Comparing the results of studies based on dependency theory with results based on political economy with results based on rational choice theories is a step beyond the comparison of political systems. And it might well lead to the development of new theoretical approaches.

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