Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Explaining the Unexpected: Political Science and the Surprises of 1989 and 2011


Political scientists have been caught by surprise by some of the world’s most dramatic political transformations. To assess how the discipline fared in explaining two of the most large-scale and unexpected developments of the past decades, we compare scholarship around the time of popular mobilization in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Arab world in 2011. We argue that while scholars cannot be expected to predict utterly extraordinary events such as revolutions and mass mobilization, in these two cases disciplinary trends left scholars ill-prepared to explain them. Political scientists used similar paradigms to study both regions, emphasizing their failure to develop politically and economically along the lines of Western Europe and the United States. Sovietologists tended to study the communist bloc as either anomalously totalitarian or modernizing towards “convergence” with the West. Likewise, political scientists studying the Arab world focused disproportionately on the prospects for democratization or the barriers to it, and they now risk treating the 2011 protest movements essentially as non-events if they are not clearly tied to institutional democratic reform. By broadening their research agendas beyond a focus on regime type, political scientists will be better prepared to understand future changes in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Lisa Anderson . 2006. “Searching Where the Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East.” Annual Review of Political Science 9: 189214.

Walter Armbrust . 2002. “Islamists in Egyptian Cinema.” American Anthropologist 104(3): 922–30.

Walter Armbrust . 2012a. “Dreaming of Counterrevolution: Rami al-I’tisami and the Pre-Negation of Protest.” Cinema Journal 52(1): 143–48.

Walter Armbrust . 2012b. “Islamically Marked Bodies and Urban Space in Two Egyptian Films.” Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief 8(3): 354–73.

Joel Beinin . 2009. “Workers’ Protest in Egypt: Neo-Liberalism and Class Struggle in 21st Century.” Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest 8(4): 449-54.

Eva Bellin . 2004The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective.” Comparative Politics 36(2): 139–57.

Eva Bellin . 2012. “Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Lessons from the Arab Spring.” Comparative Politics 44(2): 127–49.

Lisa Blaydes 2010. Elections and Distributive Politics in Mubarak’s Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lisa Blaydes , and James Lo . 2012. “One Man, One Vote, One Time? A Model of Democratization in the Middle East.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 24(1): 110–46.

Carles Boix . 2003. Democracy and Redistribution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jason Brownlee . 2007. Authoritarianism in an Age of Democratization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jason Brownlee . 2012. Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Daniel Brumberg . 2002. “The Trap of Liberalized Autocracy.” Journal of Democracy 13(4): 5668.

Filipe R. Campante , and Davin Chor . 2012. “Why Was the Arab World Poised for Revolution? Schooling, Economic Opportunities, and the Arab Spring.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 26(2): 167–87.

Thomas Carothers . 2002. “The End of the Transition Paradigm.” Journal of Democracy 13(1): 521.

Stephen F Cohen . 1980b. “The Friends and Foes of Change: Reformism and Conservatism in the Soviet Union.” In The Soviet Union Since Stalin, ed. Stephen F. Cohen , Alexander Rabinowitch , and Robert Sharlet . Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Randall Collins . 1986. Weberian Sociological Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

John L. Comaroff , and Jean Comaroff . 1997. “Postcolonial Politics and Discourses of Democracy in Southern Africa: An Anthropological Reflection on African Political Modernities.” Journal of Anthropological Research 53(2): 123–46.

Rabab El-Mahdi . 2009. “Enough! Egypt’s Quest for Democracy.” Comparative Political Studies 42(8): 1011–39.

Jennifer Gandhi and Ellen Lust-Okar . 2009. ”Elections under Authoritarianism.” Annual Review of Political Science 12: 404–06.

Jeff Goodwin . 2011. “Why We Were Surprised (Again) by the Arab Spring.” Swiss Political Science Review 17(4): 452–56.

Clarissa Rile Hayward . 2000. De-Facing Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Michael Hechter . 1995. “Introduction: Reflections on Historical Prophecy in the Social Sciences.” American Journal of Sociology 100(6): 1520–27.

Michael Herb . 2005. “No Representation Without Taxation? Rents, Development, and Democracy.” Comparative Politics 37(3): 297316.

Steven Heydemann , ed. 2004. Networks of Privilege in the Middle East: The Politics of Economic Reform Revisited. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Marc Morjé Howard . 2003. The Weakness of Civil Society in Post-Communist Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Phillip N Howard . 2010. The Digital Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship: Information Technology and Political Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Alex Inkeles . 1968. Social Change in Soviet Russia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stathis N Kalyvas . 1999. “The Decay and Breakdown of Communist One-Party Systems.” Annual Review of Political Science 2: 323–43.

Timur Kuran . 1995. “The Inevitability of Future Revolutionary Surprises.” The American Journal of Sociology 100(6): 1528–51.

Charles Kurzman . 2004a. “Can Understanding Undermine Explanation? The Confused Experience of Revolution.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 34(3): 328–51.

Seymour Martin Lipset , and Gyorgy Bence . 1994. “Anticipations of the Failure of Communism.” Theory and Society 23(2): 169210.

Ellen Lust . 2009. “Competitive Clientalism in the Middle East.” Journal of Democracy 20(3): 122–35.

Ellen Lust-Okar . 2005. Structuring Conflict in the Arab World: Incumbents, Opponents, and Institutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellen Lust-Okar , and A. Ahmed Jamal . 2002. “Rulers and Rules: Reassessing the Influence of Regime Type on Electoral Law Formation.” Comparative Political Studies 35(3): 337–66.

Adam Przeworski , Michael E. Alvarez , Jose Antonio Cheibub , and Fernando Limongi . 2000. Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950–1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jillian Schwedler . 2005. “Cop Rock: Protest, Identity, and Dancing Riot Police in Jordan.” Social Movement Studies 4(2): 155–75.

Jillian Schwedler . 2006. Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jillian Schwedler . 2012. “The Political Geography of Protest in Neoliberal Jordan.” Middle East Critique 21(3): 259–70.

Lucan Way . 2011. “The Lessons of 1989.” Journal of Democracy 22(4): 1727.

Lisa Wedeen . 2004Concepts and Commitments in the Study of Democracy.” In Problems and Methods in the Study of Politics, ed. Ian Shapiro , Rogers M. Smith , and Tarek E. Masoud . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lisa Wedeen . 2008. Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lisa Wedeen . 2013. “Ideology and Humor in Dark Times: Notes from Syria.” Critical Inquiry 39(4): 841–73.

Stephen White . 1979. Political Culture and Soviet Politics. London: Macmillan.

Carrie Rosefsky Wickham . 2013. The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Quintan Wiktorowicz . 2000. “Civil Society as Social Control: State Power in Jordan.” Comparative Politics 33(1): 4361.

Jessica Winegar . 2012The Privilege of Revolution: Gender, Class, Space, and Affect in Egypt.” American Ethnologist 39(1): 6770.

Alexei Yurchak . 2003. “Soviet Hegemony of Form: Everything Was Forever, until It Was No More.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 45(3): 480510.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Perspectives on Politics
  • ISSN: 1537-5927
  • EISSN: 1541-0986
  • URL: /core/journals/perspectives-on-politics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 9
Total number of PDF views: 98 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 515 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd September 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.