Comparative European Politics

, Volume 15, Issue 6, pp 897–918 | Cite as

Taking history seriously in comparative research: The case of electoral system choice, 1890–1939

  • Patrick Emmenegger
  • Klaus Petersen
Original Article


Methodological approaches that rely exclusively on medium- to large-N cross-sectional correlations among variables as the source of causal inference are generally not suitable for analyzing comparative research questions in which the main acting agents are collective actors, such as political parties, social movements or governments. Qualitative research has repeatedly documented that important political decisions are rarely taken in isolation and that collective actors are typically characterized by internal factions, personal and ideological rivalry, and charismatic leaders. Hence, the political behavior of such collectivities actors is highly context-dependent, volatile and subject to strategic considerations. As a result, methodological approaches that treat these collective actors as unitary actors are prone to create non-robust and assumptions-dependent findings. As the debate on electoral system choice in the period before 1939 shows, these methodological approaches are inadequate for the causal analysis of institutional change without complementary analyses of within-case variation.


methodology comparative analysis historical social science collective actors electoral systems proportional representation 



Earlier versions of this article have been presented at workshops and conferences in Odense, Barcelona, Reykjavik and St Gallen. We thank all participants, in particular John Gerring, Gary Goertz, Robert Klemmensen, Markus Kreuzer, Jon Kvist, Sven Steinmo and Ingrid van Biezen, as well as the three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Patrick Emmenegger
    • 1
  • Klaus Petersen
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Political Science, University of St GallenSt GallenSwitzerland
  2. 2.Centre for Welfare State Research, University of Southern DenmarkOdenseDenmark

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