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Concept Misformation in Comparative Politics*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2014

Giovanni Sartori*
University of Florence


“To have mastered ‘theory’ and ‘method’ is to have become a conscious thinker, a man at work and aware of the assumptions and implications of whatever he is about. To be mastered by ‘method’ or ‘theory’ is simply to be kept from working.” The sentence applies nicely to the present plight of political science. The profession as a whole oscillates between two unsound extremes. At the one end a large majority of political scientists qualify as pure and simple unconscious thinkers. At the other end a sophisticated minority qualify as overconscious thinkers, in the sense that their standards of method and theory are drawn from the physical, “paradigmatic” sciences.

The wide gap between the unconscious and the overconscious thinker is concealed by the growing sophistication of statistical and research techniques. Most of the literature introduced by the title “Methods” (in the social, behavioral or political sciences) actually deals with survey techniques and social statistics, and has little if anything to share with the crucial concern of “methodology,” which is a concern with the logical structure and procedure of scientific enquiry. In a very crucial sense there is no methodology without logos, without thinking about thinking. And if a firm distinction is drawn—as it should be—between methodology and technique, the latter is no substitute for the former. One may be a wonderful researcher and manipulator of data, and yet remain an unconscious thinker.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 1970

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An earlier draft, “Theory and Method in Comparative Politics,” was submitted as a working paper to the IPSA Torino Round Table of September, 1969. I wish to thank, in this connection, the Agnelli Foundation which provided the grant for the Torino panel. I am particularly indebted to David Apter, Harry Eckstein, Carl J. Friedrich, Joseph LaPalombara, Felix Oppenheim and Fred W. Riggs for their critical comments. I am also very much obliged to the Concilium on International and Area Studies at Yale University, of which I was a fellow in 1966–67. This article is part of the work done under the auspices of the Concilium.


1 Mills, C. Wright, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship,” in Gross, Llewellyn (ed.), Symposium on Sociological Theory (New York: Harper & Row, 1959) p. 27 (My emphasis)Google Scholar.

2 This is by no means a criticism of a comparative item by item analysis, and even less of the “institutional-functional” approach. On the latter see the judicious remarks of Braibanti, Ralph, “Comparative Political Analytics Reconsidered,” The Journal of Politics, 30 (02 1968), 4449 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 For the various phases of the comparative approach see Eckstein's, perceptive “Introduction,” in Eckstein, H. and Apter, D. E. (eds.), Comparative Politics (Glencoe: Free Press, 1963)Google Scholar.

4 Comparative Politics and the Study of Government: The Search for Focus,” Comparative Politics, (10 1968), p. 81 Google Scholar.

5 On the “fallacy of inputism” see again the remarks of Roy C. Macridis, loc. cit., pp. 84–87. In his words, “The state of the discipline can be summed up in one phrase: the gradual disappearance of the political.” (p. 86). A cogent statement of the issue is Paige, Glenn D., “The Rediscovery of Politics,” in Montgomery, J. D. and Siffin, W. I. (eds.), Approaches to Development (New York: McGraw Hill, 1966), p. 49 ff.Google Scholar My essay From the Sociology of Politics to Political Sociology,” in Lipset, S. M. (ed.), Politics and the Social Sciences (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 65100 Google Scholar, is also largely concerned with the fallacy of inputism viewed as a sociological reduction of politics.

6 “Comparative Political Analytics Reconsidered,” loc. cit., pp. 36–37.

7 The works of Fred W. Riggs are perhaps the best instance of such bold attempts. For a recent presentation see The Comparison of Whole Political Systems,” in Holt, R. T. and Turner, J. B. (eds.), The Methodology of Comparative Research (New York: Free Press, 1970), esp. pp. 95115 Google Scholar. While Riggs' innovative strategy has undeniable practical drawbacks, the criticism of Landau, Martin (“A General Commentary,” in Braibanti, Ralph (ed.), Political and Administrative Development (Durham: Duke University Press, 1969), pp. 325334.)Google Scholar appears somewhat unfair.

8 On the boomerang effect of the developing areas more in the final section.

9 More precisely in Croce, B., Logica come Scienza del Concetto Puro, (Bari: Laterza, 1942), pp. 1317 Google Scholar, universals are defined ultrarappresentativi, as being above and beyond any conceivable empirical representability.

10 For the comparative method as a “method of control” see especially Lijphart, Arend, Comparative Politics and the Comparative Method, (mimeographed) paper presented at the Torino IPSA Round Table, 09, 1969 Google Scholar. According to Lijphart the comparative method is a “method of discovering empirical relationships among variables” (p. 2); and I fully concur, except that this definition can be entered only at a later stage of the argument.

11 Recent Trends in Research Methods,” in Charlesworth, J. C. (ed.), A Design for Political Science: Scope, Objectives and Methods (Philadelphia: American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1966), p. 156 Google Scholar.

12 Hempel, Carl F., quoted in Martindale, Don, “Sociological Theory and the Ideal Type,” in Gross, , Symposium on Sociological Theory, p. 87 Google Scholar. Martindale aptly comments that “Hempel's judgments are made from the standpoint of the natural sciences.” But the vein is not dissimilar when the statistically trained scholar argues that “whereas it is admittedly technically possible to think always in terms of attributes and dichotomies, one wonders how practical that is”: Blalock, Hubert M. Jr., Causal Inferences in Nonexperimental Research (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1964, p. 32)Google Scholar.

13 Kaplan, Abraham, The Conduct of Inquiry (San Francisco: Chandler, 1964), p. 213 Google Scholar.

14 Eg., Festinger, L. and Katz, D. (eds.), Research Methods in the Behavioral Sciences (New York: Dryden Press, 1953)Google Scholar; and Selltiz, Jahoda et al., Research Methods in Social Relations (rev. ed., New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1959)Google Scholar.

15 There is some question as to whether it can really be held that ordinal scales are scales of measurement: most of our rank ordering occurs without having recourse to numerical values, and whenever we do assign numbers to our ordered categories, these numbers are arbitrary. However, there are good reasons for drawing the threshold of quantification between nominal and ordinal scales rather than between ordinal and interval scales. (See Tufte, Edward R., “Improving Data Analysis in Political Science,” World Politics, 21 (07 1969), esp. p. 645.)CrossRefGoogle Scholar On the other hand, even if the gap between ordinal scales and interval measurement is not as wide in practice as it is in theory, nonetheless from a mathematical point of view the interesting scales are the interval and even more, of course, the cardinal scales.

16 Otherwise the comparative method would largely consist of the statistical method, for the latter surely is a stronger technique of control than the former. The difference and the connections are cogently discussed by Lijphart, “Comparative Politics and and the Comparative Method,” op. cit.

17 Benson, Oliver, “The Mathematical Approach to Political Science,” in Charlesworth, J. C. (ed.), Contemporary Political Analysis (New York: Free Press, 1967), p. 132 Google Scholar. The chapter usefully reviews the literature. For an introductory treatment see Alker, Hayward R. Jr., Mathematics and Politics (New York: Macmillan, 1965)Google Scholar. An illuminating discussion on how quantification enters the various social sciences is in Lerner, Daniel (ed.), Quantity and Quality (Glencoe: Free Press, 1961)Google Scholar, passim.

18 A classic example is the (partial) mathematical translation of the theoretical system of The Human Group of Homans, George C. by Simon, Herbert A., Models of Man (New York: Wiley, 1967)Google Scholar, Chap. 7. No similar achievement exists in the political science field. To cite three significant instances, political science issues are eminently lacking in Arrow, Kenneth J., “Mathematical Models in the Social Sciences,” in Lerner, D. and Lasswell, H. D. (eds.), The Policy Sciences (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1951)Google Scholar, Chap. 8; in the contributions collected in Lazarsfeld, P. F. (ed.), Mathematical Thinking in the Social Sciences (Glencoe: Free Press, 1954)Google Scholar; in Kemeny, J. G. and Snell, J. L., Mathematical Models in the Social Sciences (Boston: Ginn, 1962)Google Scholar.

19 Perhaps the mathematical leap of the discipline is just around the corner waiting for non-quantitative developments. If one is to judge, however, from the “mathematics of man” issue of the International Social Science Bulletin introduced by Levi-Strauss, Claude (IV, 1954)Google Scholar, this literature is very deceiving. More interesting is Kemeny, John G., “Mathematics without Numbers,” in Lerner, , Quantity and Quality, pp. 3551 Google Scholar; and the modal logic developed by the Bourbaki group, Eléments de Mathématique, appearing periodically (Paris: Hermann)Google Scholar. For a general treatment see Kemeny, J. G., Snell, J. L., Thompson, G. L., Introduction to Finite Mathematics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1957)Google Scholar.

20 Spengler, Joseph J., “Quantification in Economics: Its History,” in Lerner, , Quantity and Quality, p. 176 Google Scholar. Spengler equally points out that “the introduction of quantitative methods in economics did not result in striking discoveries” (ibid.). While formal economic theory is by now highly isomorphic with algebra, mathematical economics has added little to the predictive power of the discipline and one often has the impression that we are employing guns to kill mosquitos.

21 “Qualitative Measurement in the Social Sciences: Classifications, Typologies and Indices,” in D. Lerner and H. D. Lasswell (eds.), The Policy Sciences, op. cit., p. 155 (my emphasis).

22 Lasswell, Harold D. and Kaplan, Abraham, Power and Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), pp. XVIXVII Google Scholar.

23 Macrotheories and Microapplications in Comparative Politics,” Comparative Politics, (10 1968), p. 66 Google Scholar.

24 It hardly needs to be emphasized that census data—and for that matter most of the data provided by external agencies—are gathered by conceptual containers which hopelessly lack discrimination. The question with our standard variables on literacy, urbanization, occupation, industrialization, and the like, is whether they really measure common underlying phenomena. It is pretty obvious that, across the world, they do not; and this quite aside from the reliability of the data gathering agencies.

25 Fundamentals of Concept Formation in Empirical Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 54 Google Scholar.

26 Bendix, Reinhard, “Concepts and Generalizations in Comparative Sociological Studies,” American Sociological Review, 28 (1963), p. 533 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 See Kaplan, Abraham, The Conduct of Inquiry, pp. 56–57, 6365 Google Scholar. According to Hempel theoretical terms “usually purport to not directly observable entities and their characteristics …. They function … in scientific theories intended to explain generalizations”: The Theoretician's Dilemma,” in Feigl, Scriven and Maxwell, (eds.), Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958), vol. II, p. 42 Google Scholar. While it is admittedly difficult to draw a neat division between theoretical and observational terms, it is widely recognized that the former cannot be reduced to, nor derived from, the latter. For a recent assessment of the controversy, see Meotti, A., “L'Eliminazione dei Termini Teorici,” in Rivista di Filosofia, 2 (1969), pp. 119134 Google Scholar.

28 I quote from Salmon, Wesley C., Logic (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963), pp. 9091 Google Scholar. The distinction is more or less the same in any text-book of logic.

29 “Connotation” is also applied, more broadly, to the associations, or associated conceptions brought to mind by the use of a word. As indicated by the text, I intend here the narrower meaning.

30 The space and time dimensions of concepts are often associated with the geography versus history debate. I would rather see it as the “when goes with when?” question, that is, as a calendar time versus historical time dilemma. But this line of development cannot be pursued here.

31 Notes on the Methodology of Comparative Analysis of Economic Activity,” Transactions of the Sixth World Congress of Sociology, 1967, International Sociological Association, vol. II, p. 103 Google Scholar.

32 Ibid.

33 Bendix, , “Concepts and Generalizations ….,” p. 536 Google Scholar.

34 This criticism is perhaps unfair to Truman's, David The Governmental Process (New York: Knopf, 1931)Google Scholar. However, in spite of its penetrating anatomy the pace of the enquiry is set by the sentence that “an excessive preoccupation with definition will only prove a handicap” (p. 23). For a development of this line of criticism see Sartori, G., “Gruppi di Pressione o Gruppi di Interesse?,” Il Mulino, 1959, pp. 742 Google Scholar.

35 Apter, David E., “Political Studies and the Search for a Framework,” (pp. 1516 mns.)Google Scholar to be published in Allen, C., Johnson, W. (eds.), African Perspectives, Cambridge University Press Google Scholar.

36 The same caution applies to the distinctions between micro and macro, or between molecular and molar. These distinctions are insufficient for the purpose of underpinning the level of analysis.

37 I quote Allardt, Erik, “The Merger of American and European Traditions of Sociological Research: Contextual Analysis,” Social Science Information, 1 (1968), p. 165 Google Scholar. But the sentence is illustrative of a current mood.

38 In this latter connection an excellent reader still is Lazarsfeld, P. F. and Rosenberg, M. (eds.), The Language of Social Research (Glencoe: The Free Press, 1955)Google Scholar. See also its largely revised and updated revision, Boudon, R. and Lazarsfeld, P. F., Méthodes de la Sociologie, 2 Vols. (Paris and La Haye: Mouton, 19651966)Google Scholar.

39 Rose, Richard, “Social Measure and Public Policy in Britain—The Empiricizing Process,” mns. p. 8 Google Scholar.

40 Lazarsfeld, and Barton, in Lerner, and Lasswell, , The Policy Sciences, p. 170 Google Scholar. This notably excludes, for the authors, the application of “variable” to items that can be ranked but not measured.

41 Fundamentals of Concept Formation in Empirical Science, p. 60. At p. 47 Hempel writes: “it is precisely the discovery of concepts with theoretical import which advances scientific understanding; and such discovery requires scientific inventiveness and cannot be replaced by the—certainly indispensable, but also definitely insufficient—operationist or empiricist requirement of empirical import alone.”

42 This is not to say that operationalization allows eo ipso for quantitative measurements, but to suggest that either operational definitions are ultimately conducive to measurement, or may not be worthwhile.

43 I specify political science setting to avoid the unnecessary regression to Malinowski and Radcliff-Brown. This is also to explain why I set aside the contributions of Talcott Parsons and of Marion J. Levy. Flanigan and Fogelman distinguish between three major streams, labeled 1) eclectic functionalism, 2) empirical functionalism (Merton), and 3) structural-functional analysis. (Functional Analysis,” in Charlesworth, , Contemporary Political Analysis, pp. 7279 Google Scholar). My discussion exclusively applies to part of the latter.

44 Almond, Gabriel A. and Coleman, James S., The Politics of the Developing Areas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), p. 59 Google Scholar.

45 It should be understood that by now the structural-functional label applies to a widely scattered group operating on premises which are largely at variance.

46 This focus was suggested by R. K. Merton, whose concern was to separate function—defined as an “observable objective consequence”—from “subjective disposition,” i.e., aims, motives and purposes ( Social Theory and Social Structure, Glencoe: The Free Press, rev. ed., 1957, p. 24 and, passim, pp. 1984.Google Scholar) In attempting to meet the difficulties raised by the Mertonian focus, Robert T. Holt construes functions as “sub-types” of effects, and precisely as the “system-relevant effects of structures”; understanding system-relevance as the “system-requiredness” which is determined, in turn, by the “functional requisites” of a given system. (A Proposed Structural-Functional Framework,” in Charlesworth, , Contemporary Political Analysis, pp. 8890 Google Scholar). My own position is that Merton overstated his case thereby creating for his followers unnecessary and unsettled complications.

47 This is the mathematical meaning of function. E.G. according to Fred W. Riggs in systems theory function refers to “a relation between structures.” (“Some Problems with Systems Theory—The Importance of Structure,” mimeographed p. 8. A redrafted version is scheduled for publication in Haas, Michael and Kariel, Henry (eds.), Approaches to the Study of Political Science, (Chandler Publishing Co.)Google Scholar There are problems, however, also with this definition. In particular, while the mathematical meaning of function is suited for whole systems analysis, it hardly suits the needs of segmented systems analysis.

48 Rationality of ends should not be confused with Wertrationalität, value rationality, among other reasons because in the former perspective all conceivable ends can be hypothesized as being equally valid. Hence in the Zweckrationalität perspective there is little point in unmasking functions aa “eu-functions” or, conversely, as “caco-functions.” Whether the good goals of one man are the bad goals of the next man becomes relevant only if we enter a normative, Wertrationalität discussion.

49 For the many additional intricacies of the subject that I must neglect, a recent, interesting reader largely focussed on the “debate over functionalism” is Demerath, N. J. and Peterson, R. A. (eds.), System, Change and Conflict (New York: Free Press, 1967)Google Scholar. For a critical statement of the inherent limitations of functionalism see Runciman, W. C., Social and Political Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), pp. 109123 Google Scholar. Hempel equally takes a critical view of “the logic of functional analysis” (in Gross, , Symposium on Sociological Theory, pp. 271307 Google Scholar), but his standpoint is often far removed from our problems.

50 This is not to fall prey to the subjectivistic fallacy on which Merton builds his case (supra, note 46). Purpose may be a “motivation” of the actor, but may equally be—as it is in teleological analysis—an “imputation” of the observer.

51 “Unintended functions”—the fact that structures may serve ends and obtain results which were neither forseen nor desired by the structure builders—can be entered, for the economy of my argument, into the list of the purposes actually served. Likewise “latent functions” are immaterial to my point.

52 Riggs makes the same point, namely, that “current terminology quite eonfusingly links structural and functional meanings” from the opposite angle that expressions such as “legislature and public administrator … are normally defined structurally, the first as an elected assembly, the second as a bureaucratic office”; but then goes on to say that “the words … also imply functions” (p. 23 of the paper cit. supra, note 47). It should be understood, therefore, that my “structural definition” calls for a thorough structural description. If the argument were left at defining a legislature as an elected assembly, then it can be made either way, as Riggs does.

53 I cite the title of MacKenzie's, W. J. M. book Free Elections, (London: Allen & Unwin, 1958)Google Scholar to imply that a real structural underpinning may well presuppose a hundred-page description.

54 A sheer list of the functional denominations, roles or attributions scattered throughout the literature on political parties suffices to illustrate the point, and would be as follows: participation, electioneering, mobilization, extraction, regulation, control, integration, cohesive function, moderating function, consensus maintenance, simplification of alternatives, reconciliation, adaptation, aggregation, mediation, conflict resolution, brokerage, recruitment, policy making, expression, communication, linkage, channelment, conversion, legitimizing function, democratization, labelling function.

55 I make specific reference to Almond because I believe that his very conception of structure is largely responsible for this outcome. For instance, “By structure we mean the observable activities which make up the political system. To refer to these activities as having a structure simply implies that there is a certain regularity to them.” ( Almond, and Powell, , Comparative Politics: A Developmental Approach, Boston: Little, Brown, 1966, p. 21 Google Scholar). In the subsequent paragraph one reads: “We refer to particular sets of roles which are related to one another as structures.” Under such porous and excessively sociological criteria, “structure” becomes evanescent.

56 This complaint is ad hoc, but could be expanded at length. On the general lack of logical and methodological status of the approach two strong critical statements are: Dowse, R. E., “A Functionalist's Logic,” World Politics, (07 1966), 607622 Google Scholar; and Kalleberg, A. L., “The Logic of Comparison,” World Politics, 18 (10 1966), 6982 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. While the two authors are overconscious thinkers, I would certainly agree with Dowse's concluding sentence, namely, that “to ignore trivial logical points is to risk being not even trivially true” (p. 622).

57 Flanigan, and Fogelman, in Charlesworth, , Contemporary Political Analysis pp. 8283 Google Scholar.

58 On general systems theory one may usefully consult Young, Oran R., Systems of Political Science (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968), Chap. 2Google Scholar. See also Urbani, Giuliano, “General Systems Theory: Un Nuovo Strumento per l'Analisi dei Sistemi Politici?,” Il Politico, 4 (1968), 795819 Google Scholar.

59 While there is some controversy on the respective merits and shortcomings of the two strategies, the structural-functional approach is not inherently tied to either one. For the partial versus whole systems controversy the two stances are well represented by J. LaPalombara, who favors the segmented approach, (cf. esp. “Parsimony and Empiricism in Comparative Politics: An Anti-Scholastic View,” in R. T. Holt and J. E. Turner (eds.), The Methodology of Comparative Research, op. cit., pp. 125–149); and, for the contrary view, Fred W. Riggs (cf. especially his forthcoming essay in Haas and Kariel, Approaches to the Study of Political Science.)

60 Flanigan and Fogelman, op. cit.

61 The relevant “family difference' is that structure and function are not culture-bound concepts, while the four other categories are. This is also to note that the travelling problem of comparative politics cannot be reduced to the construction of “non-culture bound” conceptualizations. How to use those conceptualizations which cannot help being culture bound is equally a problem.

62 Since we are discussing here macro-problems and macro-theory I need not follow the concepts under investigation all the way down the ladder of abstraction. I should not let pass unnoticed, however, that “integration” also belongs to the vocabulary of sociology and psychology, thereby lending itself to very fine lower level distinctions. See e.g., W. S. Landecker, “Types of Integration and their Measurements,” in The Language of Social Research, op. cit., pp. 19–27.

63 The point could be extended at great length. E.g., I would assume that only in a truly pluralistic society (i.e., qualified by the characteristics conveyed by the Western use of term) may differentiation result in, and join forces with, integration. But much of the literature on political development seems to miss this essential condition.

64 Shils and Deutsch relate the notion also to Mannheim's “fundamental democratization” (see esp. Deutsch, K. W.Social Mobilization and Political Development,” this Review, 55, 09 1961, p. 494 Google Scholar). But while Mannheim may well have provided the bridge across which “mobilization” entered the vocabulary of democracy, the fact remains that the term was commonly used in the early thirties, in Italy and in Germany, as reflecting a distinctly totalitarian experience.

65 The boomerang effect is also responsible, in part, for the disappearance of politics (supra, note 5).

66 Comparative Politics (10 1968), p. 72 Google Scholar.

67 Holt and Richardson, “Competing Paradigms in Comparative Politics,” in Holt and Turner, The Methodology of Comparative Research, cit., p. 70. The chapter is perhaps perfectionistic, but surely a very intelligent and stimulating “stock taking” overview.