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Structural and Interest Based Theories of Politics

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2131 words Published: 11th Sep 2017

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What are the main differences between structural and interest-based explanations in comparative politics? Compare and discuss their features using empirical examples.

At the heart of the field of comparative politics lie a variety of theoretical frameworks, each of which attempts to enhance our understanding of what is important in relation to explaining political phenomena. The aim of this essay is to examine and compare the features of the structural and interest-based approaches, through the use of empirical examples. As regards its structure, the essay will begin by providing a definition of the comparative method. Following on will be a brief discussion on its uses and a cost-benefit analysis of using such an approach. After all, it is the comparative method that will form the basis of the discussion to follow. The essay will subsequently identify the main differences between structural and interest-based explanations in comparative politics. Due to the lack of space, the ways in which they complement one another will be omitted. Finally, the essay will conclude by arguing that the main differences between structural and interest-based approaches revolve around their explanations on the causes of political developments, and their focuses on the individual.

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In order to fully appreciate the main differences between the structural and interest-based explanations in comparative politics, it is first important to develop an understanding of the comparative method in its own right. Although widely used in the field of political science, the comparative method is far from straightforward to define. It is an abstract term to which various definitions have been applied over the years. According to the political scientist Arend Lijphart, the comparative method can be defined as "the analysis of a small number of cases, entailing at least two observations, yet too few to permit the application of conventional statistical analysis." (Collier, 1993: 106) In practice, this refers to what is known as a "small N" analysis, within which there are two basic research designs: most similar systems design (MSSD), and most different systems design (MDSD). As a rule of thumb, the former, otherwise known as Mill's Method of Difference, involves the use of less than 20 cases (states) that are as similar as possible. The logic behind this methodology is that the more homogeneous the cases under investigation, the easier it ought to be to pinpoint the factors accountable for the differences between them. Faure (1994) argues that the most similar systems design is "the prevailing method (but not the only one) in comparative politics." (Faure, 1994: 310) By contrast, the latter, otherwise known as Mill's Method of Similarity, involves the use of less than 20 cases that are as different as possible, the purpose of which is to communicate the vigorous nature of the correlation between dependent and independent variables. Such a method assumes that by proving that the observed correlations hold true in different domestic settings, the line of reasoning should be better corroborated.

There are many uses of the comparative method. In addition to the case study approach, the experimental method, and the statistical method (Lijphart, 1971: 682), political scientists draw upon the comparative method to assist them in the devising of hypotheses (suggested explanations of something), the testing of hypotheses (which are proven or refuted), and "the uncovering of empirical regularities and the identification of 'outliers'" (Gherghina, 2017: 14).

The comparative method is by no means faultless; though an analysis of its merits is required in order to demonstrate why it has stood the test of time in the field of political science. One of the main proponents of the comparative method, the aforementioned Arend Lijphart, deduces that "given inevitable scarcity of time, energy, and financial resources, the intensive analysis of a few cases may be more promising than the superficial statistical analysis of many cases." (Collier, 1993: 107) His inference substantiates the argument that a detailed analysis of a small number of states is a more effective than a brief analysis of a large number of states as a result of various limitations already touched upon. However, that is not to say the comparative method is without its faults. Indeed, one of the inherent problems picked up on by academics is that of "many variables, few cases" (Lijphart, 1971: 685).

Now that we have developed an understanding of the comparative method, it is possible to observe the ways in which structural and interest-based explanations differ.

It can be argued that one of the main differences between structural and interest-based explanations in comparative politics is in relation to the causes of political developments. The crux of the former's argument revolves around the idea that macro factors - in other words, factors that are observable at the level of society - or variables - to put it more simply, factors that are liable to vary or change - are the ultimate causes of political events. The most prevalent macro factors or variables employed in the structural approach include a country's level of economic development, social inequality, educational inequality, life expectancy, degree of urbanisation, ethnic fractionalisation - that is, the quantity and size of ethnic groups within a society), and religious composition. (Gherghina, 2017: 10) To demonstrate the structural approach in practice, we can apply the example of the modernisation theory. Broadly speaking, the modernisation theory - associated with the work of the political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset - argues that democratisation is the result of modernisation. Modernisation incorporates many of the variables already touched upon, including urbanisation. In layman's terms, the more modern a society becomes, the more likely a society is to become democratic. This is the case because "these changes enable middle-class elites to mobilise the working class to press for political rights for all" (Gherghina, 2017: 11). From the 18th century onwards Lipset carried out an analysis of several countries, from which he was able to conclude that this does indeed hold true. Among the countries that followed the theory proposed by Lipset were the United Kingdom during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, and, more recently, Taiwan in the 20th century. This vividly illustrates the extent to which the structural approach can be useful with regards to explaining political developments and their causes, albeit it does not take into account its visible shortcomings. Nonetheless, by putting into practice the example, it is abundantly clear that the structural approach considers the causes of political developments to be disconnected from the dynamic of the political process.

That, in stark contrast, to the interest-based approach in which individual decisions "on the basis of seeking to maximise self-interest" (Hague et al, 2016: 76) are seen to account for political developments. It is worth stressing that interest-based explanations do not only refer to financial optimisation, but also to a plethora of valued entities, such as authority and the accomplishment of ideological objectives.

To illustrate the interest-based approach in practice, we can apply the example of political scientist William Riker's minimal winning coalition theory. It holds that in the aftermath of a general election in which no single party has been able to form a majority government, party leaders will seek to fulfil two criteria. First, they will seek to seek to form a coalition with parties that are ideologically similar to them on the political spectrum. Second, they will do so in such a way so as not to involve more politicians than is necessary to secure a parliamentary majority. This is evidenced by the 2010 UK general election. As Figure 1 vividly illustrates, the Conservatives, under the leadership of David Cameron, fell 19 seats short of a majority. As a result, they followed the aforementioned criteria to decide which party they wished to go into coalition with. Based on the first set of criteria, Cameron opted to go into coalition with Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats as opposed to Gordon Brown's Labour, in light of the fact that that the former's ideals were more closely aligned with those of their own than the latter's, as Figure 2 (YouGov, 2014) makes abundantly clear. In addition, based on the second set of criteria, the Conservatives chose the Liberal Democrats as their coalition partners by taking into account the fact that the latter won over 200 fewer seats than Labour (see Figure 1), thus making it less likely that disagreements - over the implementation of policies, for example - would ensue in government. Hence, at the core of interest-based explanations is the idea that individuals' perceived self-interest is the driving force behind political decisions and, on the whole, political developments are the result of such individual decisions.

Furthermore, the structural and interest-based explanations can be contrasted in terms of their focus. According to Mahoney, "at the core of structuralism is the concern with objective relationships between groups and societies." (Hague et al, 2016: 83) By contrast, the latter is "focused on people." (Hague et al, 2016: 84) Thus, the latter focuses on the individual, whereas the former pays attention to networks.

To summarise, this essay has examined the main differences between structural and interest-based explanations in comparative politics, through the use of empirical examples, and concluded that the grounds on which they differ are multitudinous. However, one of the main differences is in relation to how they explain the causes of political developments. Whereas structural explanations conclude that factors external to political life, such as life expectancy, are seen to account for political developments, interest-based explanations adopt the perspective that political developments are shaped by individual decisions, on the basis of what is best for them at a particular point in time. In that sense, another of the main differences between structural and interest-based approaches is that the former places a lot of emphasis on networks unlike the latter where the entirety of its focus lies with the individual.


BBC News Website (2010) 'Election 2010 Results' http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/election2010/results/default.stm [accessed 26th February 2017]

Collier, David (1993) 'The Comparative Method' in Finifter, Ada W.; and American Political Science Association Political Science; the state of the discipline II Washington DC: American Political Science Association

Faure, Andrew (1994) 'Some Methodological Problems in Comparative Politics' Journal of Theoretical Politics Vol. 6 No. 3 pp. 307-322

Gherghina, Sergiu (2017) 'The Comparative Method' in Introduction to Comparative Politics

Gherghina, Sergiu (2017) 'Theoretical Frameworks in Comparative Politics' in Introduction to Comparative Politics

Hague, Rod; Harrop, Martin; and McCormack, John (2016) 'Chapter 5: Theoretical Approaches' in Comparative Government and Politics: An Introduction 10th Edition, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Lijphart, Arend (1971) 'Comparative Politics and the Comparative Method' The American Political Science Review Vol. 65 No. 3 pp. 682-693

YouGov Website (2014) 'Britain's Changing Political Spectrum' https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/07/23/britains-changing-political-spectrum/ [accessed 26th February 2017]   




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