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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    There are of course further important arguments on electoral system choice (for example, Colomer, 2005; Calvo, 2009; Rodden, 2009; Ahmed, 2010, 2013). For the sake of simplicity, we focus in this analysis on four prominent recent contributions.

  2. 2.

    With the exception of Blais et al (2005), this is the way the choice between electoral systems has been presented in the articles discussed here. However, see Ahmed (2013) for a critical examination of the choice reformers encountered.

  3. 3.

    Aggregate behavior is not always subject to social choice problems (Kittel, 2006). Consider the difference between aggregate decision making in markets and political organizations. Two factors separate aggregate decision making in these two spheres. First, market consumers react to price changes independent of the reaction of other consumers (independence). In contrast, decision making by political organizations is characterized by strategic bargaining between different political factions. Second, market consumers are expected to react in an identical way to price changes (identity). The ‘law of large numbers’ then identifies the representative agent. In contrast, decision making by political organizations is characterized by competition between multiple factions with different interests and constituencies. For instance, representatives of rural interests are unlikely to react to political issues in the same way as representatives of urban interests within the same political organizations. Consequently, we are unable to identify a representative agent and the collective decision can no longer be anticipated.

  4. 4.

    Imagine playing a record with a scratch. The scratch may make it impossible to listen to the complete refrain of the song, but given the fact that the refrain is repeated multiple times and the scratch does not always disrupt the refrain at the same point, the listener is able to puzzle together the complete refrain. We thank Sven Steinmo for suggesting this example to us.

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Acknowledgements

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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Correspondence to Patrick Emmenegger.

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Emmenegger, P., Petersen, K. Taking history seriously in comparative research: The case of electoral system choice, 1890–1939. Comp Eur Polit 15, 897–918 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1057/cep.2015.2

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Keywords

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