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Basic Theories and Concepts in Comparative Politics

This seminar is a graduate-level introduction to the literature in comparative politics.  It can serve as a survey or review for advanced students as well.  Because the key theories and concepts are also key political science concepts and theories, it is not exclusively intended for those majoring or minoring in comparative politics; all are welcome.  It is not a course in methods or methodologies of research.  The focus will be on research questions, concept formation, theoretical approaches, theory formulation, and competing theories on substantive questions, not on theory testing or verification.

Civil War: Causes and Dynamics

Civil war is a subject of scholarly study as old as the field of political science itself.  The topic has taken on a new prominence, however, in the post-cold war international environment, and academic research has exploded in the past 25 years. Although the topic is by definition in the field of comparative politics – civil wars are wars that are internal to a particular country and its sovereign borders – this definition does not reflect the reality of contemporary civil wars, including structural causes located in globalization, their regional and transnational dynamics, and the new normative consensus internationally on both the right and the responsibility to intervene to stop the violence.  Moreover, as war, students of international relations are also deeply engaged in its study, including current interest in the changing character of war.


So, in fact, the literature on civil wars does cross back and forth between comparative politics and international relations, and in its course, reveals their very different theoretical and research approaches to a subject and exposes both the fuzziness of the boundary between the two subfields and the immense differences of mind-set and difficulty of doing genuinely interdisciplinary work.  This course will be largely oriented in the comparative politics theoretical literature, but students in the seminar are free to choose which literatures of political science are most of interest to their study and research.


This seminar is simultaneously one in international relations and in comparative politics.  As an IR course, peacebuilding is primarily about intervention in the domestic affairs of countries, both in general and by specific international actors such as the UN, regional security organizations such as the African Union and NATO, and both bilateral and multilateral development donors and banks.  Addressing the primary contemporary form of armed conflict (intrastate rather than interstate), the literature on mediation, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding is now quite extensive, both in academic and policy spheres.  Because peacebuilding is about ending this violence, building peace (currently called “sustainable peace”), and either restoring or creating states within countries, the seminar is simultaneously a topic of comparative politics, especially its very long tradition on the relation between war and state formation and, more recently, on the causes and termination of civil wars.  Critical to the entire literature is a focus on the state.  The seminar will read into both sets of literatures, IR and comparative.


As a specialization, this seminar fits into the field called “peace studies,” which began immediately after World War I in response to what Peter Wallensteen calls historical traumas that challenged prevailing assumptions about violence and led to new research questions, new research, and new proposals for improving the conditions and prospects for peace.  The current focus, reacting to the end of the Cold War but, in fact, the almost 50-year decline in interstate war and end to war among major powers, is on intrastate conflict and international intervention to end the violence and build peace.  This entails negotiating ceasefires and peace agreements, helping to implement those agreements, and engaging in a range of activities aimed at creating a sustainable peace (peacemaking, peacekeeping, peace enforcement, peacebuilding, statebuilding, post-conflict reconstruction, stabilization operations, and so on).


I propose that this is a particularly interesting moment for us, as political scientists, to analyze peacebuilding and to make a contribution.  First, the practice of peacebuilding is in turmoil, both at the UN and with Northern development donors, because of a decade and more of disappointing outcomes.  The UN is in the process of defining a significant reform of peacekeeping and peacebuilding while donors such as the British aid agency, DFID, say they need a new “paradigm” for their work in these countries and would welcome our suggestions.  Second, a consensus has emerged in the policy world (policymakers and practitioners) to explain these poor outcomes that they have not taken into account the fact that peacebuilding is profoundly political.  This is not a new idea, but it appears to have gained legitimacy and heightened awareness recently.  As political scientists, we have a special opportunity to contribute to this discussion, by bringing analyses of domestic politics, power, and related literatures in comparative politics to analyses of peacebuilding interventions.  Third, the concepts of strategic interaction, in comparative politics, and of two-level games, in international relations, both give us leverage on an essential aspect of this world that is little studied -- the interaction between international and domestic actors, such as in the domestication or not of international norms (e.g., human rights, transitional justice, responsibility to protect), the role of third parties in mediating and then implementing peace agreements, and local resistance against external imposition.

International Intervention

“We live in a great age of statebuilding” (Thomas Ertman).  The primary mode currently is through international intervention, either direct (war, occupation, peacebuilding) or indirect (e.g., democracy promotion, IFI-required reforms for loans, international NGOs delivering humanitarian or development aid).  Regime transitions, too, cannot be separated from intervention (regional, transnational, international).  New journals to study this phenomenon are sprouting at remarkable speed, and one school of international relations now calls for recognizing intervention (its history, norms, and social practices) as a distinct field of study.  While scholars of democratization (e.g., Dahl, Rustow, Schmitter and Karl) explicitly exclude such cases as non-democratic by definition (non-autonomous), those who study the “glocal,” transnationalized, and globalized nature of contemporary politics focus precisely on the political interaction between external and local actors and the effect of shifting balances of power and forms of resistance (on both sides) on outcomes.

Comparative Political Orders

The empirically dominant and normatively preferred form of contemporary political order is based on the historical model of west European state formation and theorists, above all Max Weber, of the modern state. The primary reason for this, however, is international order: sovereignty as defined and consolidated after 1945 and the requirements of participating in the current international system.  Once we look to domestic political order, we not only see a historically rich literature on alternatives that tends to be ignored to our detriment, but also a vast variety of domestic political orders, the challenges and tasks they address politically, and ways of analyzing contemporary political orders that are not driven by comparison with this dominant model.  In addition, to the extent that historical legacies matter for political order, understanding the way empires (e.g., the Ottomans, colonial powers) organized political life also informs current countries that succeeded them.


 The seminar will be organized around a set of theoretical questions to escape that “western state” straightjacket and a literature on alternatives.  It also, however, aims to provide an opportunity to students to pose their own question for the group and for thinking creatively through their research project and paper.  The focus of all the readings and discussion will be comparative, primarily but not entirely outside Europe.  The topics should be clear from the syllabus below.


Comparative Political Institutions

Many consider political institutions and institutional analysis to be the essence of comparative politics; after all, for example, states and regimes are particular complexes of institutions, and much of the variation in political outcomes across countries is best explained by variation in their institutions.  This course has two objectives: (1) an introduction to the concept of institutions, to institutional analysis, and to key debates and studies in the literature on political institutions, all aimed at preparing students for the first exam in comparative politics or for their individual research projects, including the dissertation, and (2) an exploration of some key questions of the day that an institutional focus addresses – e.g., the causes of and solutions to civil war, stability or instability in ethnically heterogeneous countries, the bases of stability of authoritarian vs. democratic regimes (including variation within these types, such as military regimes, one-party systems, parliamentary vs. presidential democracies), ongoing academic and policy debates on the role of institutions in economic growth and development, including the consequences of the neoliberal attack on the state, and constitutional engineering in countries undergoing political transition.

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