Comparative Method

Comparative method is defined by Lijphart as “a method of discovering empirical relationship among variables.”(683). Scholars have been discussing the relations between comparative method and comparative politics, its strengths and weaknesses, and examples of study that used it as a method of inquiry. As far as the readings go, I see several points in which comparativists are still debating on.

What is the goal of comparative method? Lijphart regards comparative method as “one of the basic scientific methods, not the scientific method” (682). He also contrasted this notion with Lasswell and Almond who clearly view comparative as a science. If Lijphart is true, the goal of comparative method can be narrower than seeking for causal inference, the main goal of scientific method. If comparative method, given its main weakness (many variables, small number of cases) can only reach “systematic comparative illustration”(Jackman: 164), it will not be a problem.

To reach causal inference, comparative method can benefit from other basic scientific methods (experimental and statistical method). Therefore, we can agree with Lijphart when he insisted that case studies can be part of the works of comparativists which can still contribute to hypotheses testing and theory building. Jackman’s claim that comparative method should be concerned with the causal relationship among variables (1985: 166-167), is not always necessary. As has been discussed for more than two decades, however, main problems of “many variables, small N” should be fixed.

Generalization or deep analysis. In advocating cross national statistical research, Jackman (166) maintains that an attempt to develop generalization is crucial to comparative method. Comparativist, Jackman continues, should focus on as many similarities as possible and not spend too much time assessing the “exceptional performance” or deviant cases. It has been common in comparative method that when one or two cases in the study deviate from the general proposition, then the proposition will be invalidated. This will need a large number of cases, which will not be always possible especially in countries where aggregate data is hardly available. This also will require simplification which can be done at the expense of descriptive accuracy. Over-simplification can cause the lose of the richness of the data.

To reach generalization also requires “the valid application of concepts across diverse contexts” (Collier: 110) which will face the problem that Sartori calls “conceptual stretching.” The concept that can be applied is so general and therefore cannot grab the similarities and contrast of the variables involved in the comparative inquiry. Even after the general concept is formed, it should be treated very carefully to be applied to different set of cases. This leads us to the impression that having small number of cases will be more interesting.

Meanwhile focusing on deep analysis will make the study only involve the key variable. As noted by Lijphart, this kind of comparative method has been very well applied in anthropological research. This is very possible since anthropological study deals with mainly non-advanced (even primitive) societies where variables are still not as large as in advanced societies. The main problem here is how to resemble this kind of research in anthropology for political science where variables that need to be considered are so large. Phrased differently, how do we know that the key variables of our research are really what we chose and how do we make sure that other variables will be treated constant.

What to compare? “Can we compare apple and orange?” has been very well known phrase when dealing with comparative method. Can we compare apple and orange as the fruit not as apple and orange? The simple answer about what to compare is of course: variables. How we define variables and how do we interpret the relationship among/between variables are not clearly conclusive yet.

Sartori and Kalleberg (in Jackman: 167) states that “two items being compared must be of the same class—they must either have an attribute or not. If they have it and, only if they have it, may they be compared as to which has it more and which has it less.” Reacting to this definition, I would agree with Jackman that comparable does not always mean comparing similarities but also comparing similarities and differences. With regard to comparison of the same class is still problematic to me. Can I for instance compare the legislature of the United States with the Legislature of Indonesia while both countries are not from the same class (the former is advanced country while the latter is developing country)? If the answer is I cannot compare them, what if I study the US Congress and look at Indonesian legislature then I find that there are similarities and differences. Did I do a comparative method in that respect?

I would also agree with Lijphart’s saying that “comparable means: similar in a large number of important characteristic (variables) which one wants to treat as constant, but dissimilar as far as those variables are concerned which one wants to relate each other” (687). I would like to add however, that similarity and dissimilarity of the variables depends on the level of comparison we want to do. We can compare apple and orange as fruit (its shape, taste, texture, etc.).

What method must be used? Jackman’s study (1987) on “Political Institution and Voter Turn Out in the Industrial Democracies is an example of how historical comparative method is applied to a cross national study. He demonstrates that his study could challenge the idea that national differences in voter turnout reflect national differences of political culture. This is a proof that comparative method can be useful for finding alternative explanation on variables relationship and hypotheses testing.

What puzzles me is Putnam’s (et.al) work on institutional performance in Italy (1993) which shows the usage of different kind of methods and techniques in conducting comparative study. My question is what kind of method are they using? Is this example of multiple methods? In their work, Putnam and his colleagues combined observation, case study, statistical analysis, experiment, and quantitative techniques to reach to the conclusion on conditions for creating strong, responsive and effective representative institutions. Their works are massive, involving a lot of individual interviews and national surveys and in a relatively long time (a decade). Their cases however are still limited and most importantly, they are only in Italy. In the end I would say that this is still a case study. Geddes (1990) has been reminding the students of politics like us to be very careful using case studies since it is prone to selection bias.

Overall I would agree, again, with Lijphart that in comparative politics other methods can be employed and comparative method is not only of the comparative politics (690).

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