Topic 1: Introduction, Theory and Method


Dr. Last


We understand by comparison. If you know that something is on sale for a price, you don’t know much about the value until you compare it. If you know how tall you are, how old you are, how wealthy you are, how fit you are, or how much you have read, all these measures are more meaningful if they are compared to similar measures for other other people. Comparison gives meaning. Comparative politics is both a field of study, in which we compare aspects of the political world to improve our understanding, and a set of methods and tools that allow us to infer or deduce the relationships between phenomena: correlations and causes. This is important in the social sciences, because experimentation is usually denied to us, for practical and ethical reasons. Practically, researchers can’t usually manipulate significant political conditions, and it would be ethically questionably if they could.

The major fields of political science are: political theory and philosophy, often concerned with normative questions of public and private good; international relations, concerned with relations between states and in the international system; and comparative political science, which includes national studies (e.g. Canadian politics) and specific aspects of government (e.g. public administration). The traditions within comparative political science include focus on a single country (Canadian politics), comparative methods (designing ways to answer questions, often about causality), analysis of cases (often linked to deductive reasoning), and generalization from cases (following inductive logic).

The contents of the Oxford Handbook of Comparative Politics provides an overview of the big issues in comparative politics: methods and theory; states, state formation, and consent; regimes and regime change (especially the problem of democratic and authoritarian transitions, because they are of normative concern); instability and political conflict (of particular professional interest to us); mass mobilization; the processing of political demands; and governance (or how the state is steered or directed).

Comparative politics has evolved from a traditional descriptive mode through a more quantitative behaviorist turn in the late 20th Century, towards a more nuanced methodological pluralism (Skocpol, 2003) today. Harre (1998) argues that the social sciences never really adopted behaviorism fully, but were pushed towards positivism and an experimental approach, including a focus on determining causality.

Comparative politics (CP) overlaps with international relations (IR) as a discipline in several important subjects of study. IR is concerned with international (and increasingly domestic) conflict, foreign policy, international organizations and the behaviour of organizations and individuals transcending state boundaries. The last, as well as the study of revolutions, interstate and civil wars, political economy, and the environment, are heavily represented as subjects of comparative political analysis. CP is more focused on the internal dynamics of states, elections, interests, the mechanisms of government (executive, legislative, administrative, and judicial functions), and governance. Each of these, however, also has implications for studies of international relations.

Learning objectives

The overall learning objectives for the course are specified mainly in terms of skills, and these are dispersed throughout the course. Each week, there are learning objectives for specific content: institutions (ways of organizing social behaviour), processes (ways in which action is taken), outcomes (results of actions), and analytical tools, concepts, and methods for understanding all of the foregoing. Today, the learning objectives are:

  • Situate the study of comparative politics
  • Describe the application of theory to practical problems

Discussion questions

  • What is politics?
  • What are the major fields of political science?
  • What is comparative politics?
  • How do we study comparative politics?
  • What are inductive and deductive reasoning?
  • What is Sartori’s ladder of abstraction? How does it relate to levels of analysis?
  • What are general and specific theories?
  • What are levels of analysis?


Caramani, Introduction to Comparative Politics (Moodle)
Caramani, 01 Evolution of Comparative Politics (Moodle)
Skocpol, T. “Doubly Engaged Social Science: The Promise of Comparative Historical Analysis,” in Mahoney, J., & Rueschemeyer, D., Eds (2003). Comparative historical analysis in the social sciences. Cambridge University Press (Moodle)

Activities before class

  • Review the course outline, resources, and ensure that you have access to the Course Moodle site.
  • Contact your team-mate and check the weeks and tasks for which you are responsible.
  • Look at the whole course in general, and think about what you might want to write your paper about.

Evaluate your knowledge of key concepts using the SurveyMonkey link here or in the email provided.

Activities during class

  • Discuss and confirm learning objectives
  • Perform a T-Test
  • Perform a Pearson correlation using an excel spread sheet
  • Determine the effective number political parties in Canada based on seat distribution in the current parliament
  • Determine the effective number of political parties in Ontario based on current polling data
  • Discuss levels of theory in the context of your essay assignments
  • Organization by Exam coordinators

Activities after class

  • Add comments, questions to Moodle
  • Submit notes, questions or terms for exam review
  • Link this week’s materials to next week
  • Schedule next week

Additional Resources

Definition of politics (Oxford English Dictionary)
Caramani – Introduction to Comparative Politics (Moodle)
Caramani – Evolution of Comparative Politics (Moodle)
Box-Steffensmeier, J. Brady, H. and Collier, D. Eds (2008) Oxford Handbook of Political Methodology. OUP.
Harre, Rom. Behaviourism in the social sciences, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-R002-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis.