What is Comparative Politics?

Middle Georgia State University

POLS 2301: Comparative Politics

🔊 Disable Narration

Comparative Politics and Political Science

Political science is the social science that is devoted to the study of politics and government.

Political science emerged as a distinct discipline in the 19th century from the study of economics, history, and philosophy.

Other modern social sciences include economics, geography, psychology, and sociology.

What is Comparative Politics?

Comparative politics is the area of political science that seeks to understand how politics and government work within particular countries.

The term comparative is used because we are making comparisons with how other countries' political systems work.

Other Fields

The most obviously similar field of political science is called international relations.

  • Comparative politics focuses mainly on politics and government within a particular country or nation-state.
  • International relations focuses on the interactions between countries and nation-states, including themes like war and conflict, international trade and economics, and human rights.
  • At MGA, our introductory course on international relations is called Global Issues, POLS 2401.

Other Fields

Comparative politics is also similar to the study of American politics.

  • American politics is the study of politics and government within the United States (and its political subdivisions).
  • To a non-American (and even some American political scientists), the study of American politics would be seen as part of the study of comparative politics.

The Nation-State

The building block of comparative politics is what political scientists call the nation-state (or modern state).

Nation states began to emerge in 17th Century Europe, as feudalism gave way to a more centralized system of government where most power rested with the king/queen and his or her advisors.

Some of these states were more absolutist than others: the power of British monarchs was reined in by aristocrats and wealthy commoners, while French monarchs ruled with an iron fist.

Nation-States in the 19th and 20th Centuries

The Napoleonic Wars led to the emergence of many more nation-states over the next century, as a sense of shared national identity led some empires to fall apart while small kingdoms and princedoms were consolidated.

Nation-States in the 19th and 20th Centuries

  • The emergence of Germany and Italy as unified states.
  • The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires.
  • The breakdown of Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule in the Americas.
  • British settler colonies like Canada and Australia develop a sense of national identity distinct from Britain.

Consolidating the Nation-State

Creating the shared identity of a single nation and maintaining it over the years can be challenging.

  • National identity sometimes forged through conquest or war.
  • Spread of a unifying national language, religion, or culture.

Some countries are still trying to forge a shared identity, while others failed to do so, like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia which collapsed in the 1990s.

What Do We Compare?

Various institutions form the basis of governing nation-states.

In most modern states, the basic institutions are laid out in a written constitution that establishes the scope and powers of government institutions.

In some modern states, the constitution is “unwritten” or not a single document, such as Britain and Israel.

Presidential Institutions

Modern democracies generally are classified by relationship between the executive and the legislature.

In a presidential system like the United States or Mexico, the executive (president) is elected separately from the legislature, and can only be removed under exceptional circumstances. The role of head of state and the role of head of government is vested in the president.

Parliamentary Institutions

In a parliamentary system like Britain or Germany, voters choose representatives in parliament (the legislature) who then choose a prime minister and cabinet who serve as the executive as long as they maintain the confidence of a majority of parliament.

The prime minister serves as the head of government but not the head of state.

Heads of State in Parliamentary Systems

Parliamentary systems without a monarch (like Germany's or Israel's) have a president who normally serves as a figurehead and tends to have little political power.

Other parliamentary systems, like in Britain and Sweden, assign this role to the monarch or his/her representative, who by law or tradition does not exercise political power.

Other Key Institutional Choices

  • Are there multiple legislative chambers?
  • How are the powers of the legislative chambers balanced? Does one chamber dominate?
  • How are members of the legislature elected?
  • How powerful are bureaucrats?
  • How centralized is power in the nation-state? Does it have a unitary system, a federal system, or something in between?


Many democracies have more than two major parties. Often this reflects the electoral system:

  • Proportional representation allows smaller parties to have a better chance of gaining seats and influence.
  • Plurality elections make it hard for small or geographically dispersed parties to succeed.

Multiparty Systems

Other reasons for multiparty systems:

  • Regionalism: some groups may not feel integrated into the nation-state and seek autonomy or independence through their own parties.
  • Divisions in society: old and new debates in society may shape political discourse, including economic and class divisions, urban-rural divisions, and secular-religious divisions (anti-clericalism).

Copyright and License

  • The text and narration of these slides are an original, creative work, Copyright © 2015–17 Christopher N. Lawrence. You may freely use, modify, and redistribute this slideshow under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA.

  • Other elements of these slides are either in the public domain (either originally or due to lapse in copyright), are U.S. government works not subject to copyright, or were licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license (or a less restrictive license, the Creative Commons Attribution license) by their original creator.

Works Consulted

The following sources were consulted or used in the production of one or more of these slideshows, in addition to various primary source materials generally cited in-place or otherwise obvious from context throughout; previous editions of these works may have also been used. Any errors or omissions remain the sole responsibility of the author.

  • Michael G. Roskin. 2013. Countries and Concepts: Politics, Geography, Culture, 12th ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson.
  • Various Wikimedia projects, including the Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia, and Wikisource.