Comparative Politics

We know that countries across the globe have unique features which make up their political systems and structures. But as countries are such massive, complex structures, how can we compare them fairly? 

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Comparative Politics

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We know that countries across the globe have unique features which make up their political systems and structures. But as countries are such massive, complex structures, how can we compare them fairly?

In this article, we will look at what comparative politics is. We will also equip you with the necessary tools to successfully make comparisons between countries such as the UK and US by learning the principles of comparative politics and applying comparative theories and approaches to the two political systems.

Comparative politics: meaning

Comparative politics aims to understand the similarities and differences between political systems within and between countries. This will help us achieve a broader outlook on the politics of the world.

Comparative politics

A field of political science that explores political systems within and between countries.

Principles of comparative politics

The comparisons between countries usually focus on one issue at a time and focus on just a period in time. Because of this, we think of comparative politics as being "static": it does not compare systems and structures from different periods in time.

Comparative politics can focus on levels of democratisation, state-society relations or the effects of globalisation.

To compare countries, political scientists use scientific methodologies.

The methods used to compare countries include experiments, case studies, surveys and historical comparisons.

The comparisons can focus on very different countries with one thing in common or very similar countries with one major difference. Isolating one factor can help work out what are the variables that contribute to the differences.

These research methods are called Most Different Systems Design and Most Similar Systems Design.

Variable: in scientific research, a variable is an element or a factor that might change.

By looking at different countries to understand what they have in common, and how they differ, comparative politics contributes to the study of international relations and conflict resolution to such an extent that some thinkers suggest that the two fields should merge. How a country works shapes how countries relate to one another. By the same token, how countries relate to one another has an impact on the internal workings of individual countries.

Theories of comparative politics

There are 4 main theories within comparative politics:

Modernisation theory

Modernisation was the main comparative theory during the 1950s and 1960s. It assumes that modernisation is a linear, inevitable process and compares countries in the Global South to countries in the Global North based on their level of modernisation. Modernisation Theory is criticised for being western-centric: it assumes the level of modernisation of countries in the Global North to be the universal ideal. It also minimises or excludes the impacts of history, culture and religion on the different levels of development between countries.

The Global North and the Global South are terms to differentiate between countries (mostly) in the northern hemisphere characterised by richer economies, such as the USA, western Europe, Japan and Australia; and countries (mostly) in the southern hemisphere, with poorer economies, most of which were former colonies.

Comparative Politics Map of countries in the Global North and Global South StudySmarter

Fig. 1 Map of countries in the Global North (blue) and Global South (red)

Dependency theory

Dependency theory emerged in the 1960s in response to the failings of modernisation theory. It holds that countries in the Global South are poorer as they are exploited for their resources by the countries in the Global North. Dependency theory rejects the idea of a common trajectory of development and states that countries in the Global South are not just underdeveloped versions of countries in the Global North. They are countries in their own right with their structures and features.

World Systems Theory

World System Theory emerged in the 1970s and it compares capitalist world systems rather than countries.

A world system is an interdependent system of regions of the world based on their economic dynamics. Countries are categorised as "core" if their economies are based on high-skilled work. They are categorised as semi-periphery and periphery if their economies are characterised by low-skilled work and the extraction of raw material to be exported to core countries.

Capitalist: based on the principles of capitalism where the main aim is maximising profit.

A modern world system includes the United States as a core country, interacting with semi-periphery countries such as Brazil, and periphery countries such as Kenya.

Social power theories

Social power theories consider where power sits in society. The main two theories are pluralist theory and elite theory.

Pluralist theory holds that power is dispersed among different groups in society that influence the main decision-making body of a country: the government. Although these groups may vary in size and level of influence, their very existence leads to a certain level of democratic balance.

The elite theory stands in direct opposition to pluralist theory. It describes a set of dynamics within a society where the power is held by a small minority elite and the general population is merely subjected to it. A form of elite theory dates back to ancient Greece, where it was thought that those in charge were there due to their superior wisdom. Today's elites are mainly based on wealth and class. The conflict within elite theory stems from the question of whether the elite rules with or without the consent and interests of the people.

Approaches to the study of comparative politics

Let's now take a look at some different approaches to comparative politics. Approaches apply a specific focus to an area of politics and are valuable in understanding large political structures or systems. There are three comparative approaches that we can use in comparative politics.

  1. Rational approach

  2. Cultural approach

  3. Structural approach

Let's have a closer look at them and use them to compare the UK and the US.

The rational approach emphasises the role of individuals in a political system. It is used to highlight that individuals will act rationally and in their self-interest.

Let's consider how different presidents take on their responsibilities and duties. President Trump used executive arguments and agreements to bypass Congress and rarely called cabinet meetings. Presidents do this in their self-interest, as it maximises their power and increases their overall influence in the US political system.

In the UK, we can identify prime ministers such as Tony Blair, who would also rarely call cabinet meetings due to the Labour party's significant majority in Parliament between 1997 and 2007, which meant Blair enjoyed a strong position in the UK legislature.

Cultural approach

The cultural approach emphasises the historical and sociological context when comparing political systems. It focuses on groups, for instance, political parties or pressure groups, suggesting that the actions of individuals are informed by shared ideas or values.

The cultural approach can account for the role of shared ideas and cultures within the UK and US and how their government and politics can be affected. In the US the general culture leads to the president receiving more respect than their UK counterpart. This can be because the president is more directly elected by the citizens of America.

In the UK, instead, prime ministers are not directly elected: they are the leaders of their respective parties, and the members of the party choose them. In addition, the Prime Minister has collective cabinet responsibility, so if they exceed their role when they should be 'first among equals' they can be criticised.

Structural approach to comparative politics

The structural approach focuses on the institutions of the state. This can include how the institutions affect the political system of the country and how a political system is affected when these institutions change.

The structural approach can account for how the constitutional structures in the UK and US directly shape the political systems of each country. In the US, a codified Constitution means that all the key principles of the US political system are held in a single document and are difficult to alter. This ensures the rights of US citizens are entrenched.

In the UK, the Constitution is uncodified. This structural characteristic of the UK political system accounts for the evolutionary nature of the UK Constitution, which can be more easily altered and has evolved over its history.

Entrenched: a law that cannot be easily changed and needs a large majority to overturn

Comparative politics: the US and the UK

The United Kingdom and the United States are prominent players in world politics, they share the same language and their history is heavily intertwined.

However, they differ in the structure of their political system and how power is distributed.

Let's use the structural approach focused on where power sits to compare them.

Executive System

The Executive is often known as the government. It creates a political agenda during the term but in the UK and the US, it has different responsibilities. It usually consists of the head of government and/or state and their Cabinet.

Both the Prime Minister and the President are heads of government, they can both propose legislation and can appoint their cabinets. However, In the UK, the Prime Minister may appoint members of their cabinet from MPs with elected seats in Parliament or those with seats in the House of Lords but, as they are not the head of state, they must abide by the conventions of royal prerogative.

The US President is the head of state and the head of the government and can therefore also appoint and dismiss members of the Executive cabinet.

For more detail on cabinets see The UK Cabinet and US Cabinet.

A royal prerogative is a set of historical conventions, privileges and immunities attached to the monarch. In practical terms, the Prime minister governs on behalf of the monarch who however maintains the right to overrule the prime minister.

Legislative system

The legislature is the branch in both the UK and the US that proposes and votes on bills.

The UK and US legislative branches are both bicameral: they have the role to legislate as well as the role to scrutinise the Executive. However, in the UK the executive can initiate legislation but in the US, the executive does not sit in the legislature nor can they initiate legislation.

Judiciary system

The judicial system includes protecting civil rights and ensuring laws are obeyed and coincide with the constitution. The judicial branch in both the UK and US are independent.

The UK and US Supreme Courts were created to create a branch independent of the executive and legislative. The judges that serve all have an in-depth background in law.

However, the US President nominates the US Supreme Court judges. As opposed to the UK where Supreme Court judges are selected independently by Judicial Appointment Systems.

Comparative Politics US Supreme Court StudySmarterFig. 2 US Supreme Court

Democracy and participation

As well as through regular, fair elections, political participation can be defined by the presence of pressure groups.

Pressure groups are present in both the UK and the US. However, while in the UK there are strict regulations that limit the activities of pressure groups, in the US, first amendment rights prevent restrictions.

Pressure groups: groups that represent a particular interest.

The National Rifle Association (NRA): This interest group was established in 1871 and advocates for the protection of gun rights and is an important gun rights lobbying organisation. They donate to the campaigns of Democrats and Republicans.

Comparative Politics - Key takeaways

  • Comparative theories provide useful approaches when comparing countries such as the UK and US governments and politics.

  • Comparative politics is static, it focuses on one issue at a time and it complements the study of international relations.

  • The main theories used in comparative politics are modernisation, dependency, world systems and social power.

  • There are three key comparative politics approaches; the rational approach, the cultural approach and the structural approach.

  • There are several key aspects of the UK and US political systems which you may wish to compare and contrast using the theories and approaches we studied.

Frequently Asked Questions about Comparative Politics

In this particular article and for A Levels purposes, is a branch of political science that helps us compare countries and political systems.

The purpose of comparative politics is to provide a wider understanding of world politics by looking at how different countries can be similar and different.

When we explore pressure groups in the UK and US, we can see that these groups help encourage participation in both countries, they both have insider and outsider groups, and are known to be influential in politics. However, the regulations in the UK allow there to be more restrictions and limitations for these groups compared to the US where they have more power.

Comparative politics is the comparison between the government and politics in different countries.

Comparative politics is a way that we can study different countries, governments, and systems using comparison.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Are constitutional amendments possible in the US?

What are the four main theories used in comparative politics?


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