Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-55597f9d44-qcsxw Total loading time: 0.368 Render date: 2022-08-08T09:01:29.587Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true

Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 June 2011

Steven Levitsky
University of California, Berkeley


The recent trend toward democratization in countries across the globe has challenged scholars to pursue two potentially contradictory goals. On the one hand, they seek to increase analytic differentiation in order to capture the diverse forms of democracy that have emerged. On the other hand, they are concerned with conceptual validity. Specifically, they seek to avoid the problem of conceptual stretching that arises when the concept of democracy is applied to cases for which, by relevant scholarly standards, it is not appropriate. This article argues that the pursuit of these two goals has led to a proliferation of conceptual innovations, including numerous subtypes of democracy—that is to say, democracy “with adjectives.” The article explores the strengths and weaknesses of alternative strategies of conceptual innovation that have emerged: descending and climbing Sartori's ladder of generality, generating “diminished” subtypes of democracy, “precising” the definition of democracy by adding defining attributes, and shifting the overarching concept with which democracy is associated. The goal of the analysis is to make more comprehensible the complex structure of these strategies, as well as to explore trade-offs among the strategies. Even when scholars proceed intuitively, rather than self-consciously, they tend to operate within this structure. Yet it is far more desirable for them to do so selfconsciously, with a full awareness of these trade-offs.

Research Note
Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 1997

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Sartori, Giovanni, “Concept Misformation in Comparative Politics,” American Political Science Review 64 (December 1970)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Collier, David and Mahon, James E. Jr., “Conceptual ‘Stretching’ Revisited: Adapting Categories in Comparative Analysis,” American Political Science Review 87 (December 1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 A parallel expression, “democracy without adjectives,” appeared in debates in Latin America among observers concerned with the persistence of incomplete and qualified forms of democracy. See, for instance, Krauze, Enrique, Por una democracia sin adjetivos (Mexico City: Joaquin Mortiz/Planeta, 1986)Google Scholar.

3 Schumpeter, , Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper, 1947)Google Scholar; and Dahl, , Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971)Google Scholar.

4 Along with the qualitative categories that are the focus of this discussion, valuable quantitative indicators have been developed for comparing recent cases of democratization. Ultimately, it will be productive to bring together insights about the strategies of conceptual innovation employed in these alternative approaches. However, an essential prior step, which is our present concern, is to learn more about the conceptual innovations introduced by scholars who employ qualitative categories.

5 We are thus not primarily concerned with the literature on advanced industrial democracies, although this literature is an important point of reference in the studies we are examining. In a few places, we have included recent studies of countries that are not actually part of the current episode of democratization, but whose relatively new democracies are a point of comparison in the studies under review, for example, Colombia. We also include a few references to other historical cases that have been used in recent scholarship as important points of analytic contrast.

6 Sartori (fn. 1), 1039.

7 Moore, Barrington Jr., Social Origins ofDictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966)Google Scholar; Luebbert, Gregory M., Liberalism, Fascism, or Social Democracy: Social Classes and the Political Origins of Regimes in Interwar Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, Stephens, Evelyne Huber, and Stephens, John D., Capitalist Development and Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Lipset, Seymour Martin, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Review 53 (March 1959)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and idem, “The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited,” American Sociological Review 59 (February 1994)Google Scholar; Londregan, John B. and Poole, Keith T., “Does High Income Promote Democracy?” World Politics 49 (October 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi, “Modernization: Theories and Facts,” World Politics 49 (January 1997)Google Scholar.

8 Przeworski, Adam and Limongi, Fernando, “Political Regimes and Economic Growth,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 7 (Summer 1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bollen, Kenneth A. and Jackman, Robert W., “Political Democracy and the Size Distribution of Income,” American Sociological Review 50 (August 1985)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; hairy Sirowy and Inkeles, Alex, “The Effects of Democracy on Economic Growth and Inequality: A Review,” Studies in Comparative International Development 25 (Spring 1990)Google Scholar; Remmer, Karen L., “The Politics of Economic Stabilization: IMF Standby Programs in Latin America, 1954–1984,” Comparative Politics 19 (October 1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Stallings, Barbara and Kaufman, Robert, eds., Debt and Democracy in Latin America (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1989)Google Scholar; Russett, Bruce, Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Brown, Michael E., Lynn-Jones, Sean M., and Miller, Steven E., eds., Debating the Democratic Peace: An International Security Reader (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Stepan, Alfred and Skach, Cindy, “Constitutional Frameworks and Democratic Consolidation: Parliamentarianism versus Presidentialism,” World Politics 46 (October 1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Linz, Juan J. and Valenzuela, Arturo, eds., The Failure of Presidential Democracy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994)Google Scholar; and Guillermo O'Donnell, “Delegative Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 5 (January 1994)Google Scholar.

9 See, for example, Bollen, Kenneth A. and Jackman, Robert W., “Democracy, Stability, and Dichotomies,” American Sociological Review 54 (August 1989), 613–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Russett (fn. 8), 15–16.

10 For an analysis that focuses on some of these same strategies with reference to another social science concept, see Collier, David, “Trajectory of a Concept: ‘Corporatism' in the Study of Latin American Politics,” in Smith, Peter H., ed., Latin America in Comparative Perspective: New Approaches to Method and Analysis (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995)Google Scholar. For discussions by linguists and cognitive scientists of the intuitive structure that underlies these strategies, see Cruse, D. A., Lexical Semantics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), chap. 6Google Scholar; Lakoff, George, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), chaps. 2, 6CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Taylor, John R., Linguistic Categorization: Prototypes in Linguistic Theory, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), chaps. 2–3Google Scholar.

11 Gallie, W. B., “Essentially Contested Concepts,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 56 (London: Harrison and Sons, 1956), 184Google Scholar; emphasis in original.

12 Ibid., quote at 186; see also pp. 178, 189,190, 193.

13 For discussions of procedural definitions, see O'Donnell, Guillermo and Schmitter, Philippe C., Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986)Google Scholar, chap. 2; Huntingdon, Samuel P., “The Modest Meaning of Democracy,” in Pastor, Robert A., ed., Democracy in the Americas: Stopping the Pendulum (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1989)Google Scholar; Schumpeter (fn.3); and Dahl (fn. 3). On minimal definitions, see Palma, Giuseppe Di, To Craft Democracies: An Essay on Democratic Transitions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 28Google Scholar; and Huntington, Samuel P., The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 9Google Scholar. On treating characteristics of the society and economy as a cause or consequence of democracy, see Linz, Juan J., “Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes,” in Greenstein, Fred I. and Polsby, Nelson W., eds., Handbook of Political Science, vol. 3 (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1975), 182Google Scholar; and Karl, Terry Lynn, “Dilemmas of Democratization in Latin America,” Comparative Politics 23 (October 1990), 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 O'Donnell and Schmitter (fn. 13), 8 (but see note 33 below); Diamond, Larry, Linz, Juan J., and Lipset, Seymour Martin, “Preface,” in Diamond, , Linz, , and Lipset, , eds., Democracy in Developing Countries: Latin America (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1989), xviGoogle Scholar; Di Palma (fn. 13), 16. See also Linz, Juan J., The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes: Crisis, Breakdown, and Reequilibration (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 5Google Scholar.

15 Sartori (fn. 1), 1040, actually refers to a ladder of “abstraction.” However, because the term abstract is often understood in contrast to concrete, this label can be confusing. We therefore find that “ladder of generality” expresses the intended meaning more clearly.

16 Sartori (fn. 1), 1041.

17 We refer to these as classical subtypes because they fit within the “classical” understanding of categorization discussed by such authors as Lakoff (fn. 10), 9 and passim; and Taylor (fn. 10), chap. 2.

18 In referring to the root definition, we do not imply that it is the “correct” definition of the relevant concept (in this case, of democracy). It is simply the definition that, for a particular author, is the point of departure in forming the subtype. We will occasionally use the expression “root concept” to refer to the concept (again, in the present context, democracy) that is the point of departure for the various conceptual innovations analyzed here.

19 Linz and Valenzuela (fn. 8); Stepan and Skach (fn. 8); and Sartori, Giovanni, Comparative Constitutional Engineering: An Inquiry into Structures, Incentives, and Outcomes (New York: New York University Press, 1994)Google Scholar.

20 Sartori (fn. 1), 1041.

21 See, respectively, Wilson, Richard, “Continued Counterinsurgency: Civilian Rule in Guatemala,” in Gills, Barry, Rocamora, Joel, and Wilson, Richard, eds., Low Intensity Democracy: Political Power in the New World Order (London: Pluto Press, 1993)Google Scholar; and Karl, Terry Lynn, “Democracy by Design: The Christian Democratic Party in El Salvador,” in Palma, Giuseppe Di and Whitehead, Laurence, eds., The Central American Impasse (London: Croom Helm, 1986)Google Scholar.

22 The idea of diminished subtypes builds on the discussion of radial concepts in Collier and Mahon (fn. 1), 850–52. See also Lakoff(fn. 10), chap. 6.

23 Because they are less than complete instances, it might be objected that they are not really “subtypes” of democracy at all. Drawing on a term from cognitive linguistics, one can refer to them as conceptual “blends” that are derived in part from the concept of democracy. However, to avoid referring repeatedly to “subtypes and blends,” it seems simpler in the discussion below to call them subtypes. See Fauconnier, Gilles and Turner, Mark, “Conceptual Projection and Middle Spaces,” Report no. 9401, Department of Cognitive Science (San Diego: University of California, San Diego, 1994)Google Scholar.

24 This subtype is understood to have the meaning explained above in the discussion of Figure 1.

25 Regarding illiberal democracy, see Figure 3. Two further points about diminished subtypes should be underscored. First, if scholars fail to identify the root definition of democracy in relation to which they form subtypes, it is difficult to determine whether a given subtype is classical or diminished. Second, the fact that a subtype refers to what might be understood as a “problematic” feature of democracy does not necessarily mean that it is a diminished subtype. For example, O'Donnell's concept of “delegative democracy,” which refers to cases with weak horizontal accountability among the branches of government, in fact meets his minimum definition of democracy, given that he does not include horizontal accountability in the definition. See O'Donnell (fn. 8), 56. Hence, in his usage, delegative democracy is a classical subtype. For a discussion of subtypes that refer to “problematic” democracies, see a longer version of the present analysis in Collier, David and Levitsky, Steven, “Democracy ‘with Adjectives’: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research,” Working Paper no. 230 (Notre Dame, Ind.: The Kellogg Institute, University of Notre Dame, 1996), 2026Google Scholar. The above characterization of delegative democracy as a classical subtype should be understood as correcting the assessment of this subtype presented in Collier (fn. 10), 147–48.

26 Malloy, James M., “The Politics of Transition in Latin America,” in Malloy, James M. and Seligson, Mitchell A., eds., Authoritarians and Democrats: Regime Transition in Latin America (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987), 256—57Google Scholar; Conaghan, Catherine M. and Espinal, Rosario, “Unlikely Transitions to Uncertain Regimes? Democracy without Compromise in the Dominican Republic and Ecuador,” Journal of Latin American Studies 22 (October 1990), 555CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hartlyn, Jonathan, “Crisis-Ridden Elections (Again) in the Dominican Republic: Neopatrimonialism, Presidentialism, and Weak Electoral Oversight,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 36 (Winter 1994), 9396CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Karl, Terry Lynn, “The Hybrid Regimes of Central America,” Journal of Democracy 6 (Summer 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Francisco Weffort, Qual democracia? (Sao Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1992), 8990Google Scholar.

27 Bagley, , “Colombia: National Front and Economic Development,” in Wesson, Robert, ed., Politics, Policies, and Economic Development in Latin America (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1984), 125–27Google Scholar.

28 See Sartori, Giovanni, “Guidelines for Concept Analysis,” in Sartori, , ed., Social Science Concepts: A Systematic Analysis (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1984), 81Google Scholar; and Copi, Irving M. and Cohen, Carl, Introduction to Logic, 9th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1994), 173–75Google Scholar. In Social Science Concepts (p. 42), Sartori also uses this as a verb, as in “to precise” a definition.

29 Valenzuela, J. Samuel, “Democratic Consolidation in Post-Transitional Settings: Notion, Process, and Facilitating Conditions,” in Mainwaring, Scott, O'Donnell, Guillermo, and Valenzuela, J. Samuel, eds., Issues in Democratic Consolidation: The Next) South American Democracies in Comparative Perspective (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 70Google Scholar.

30 Karl (fn. 13), 2; Valenzuela (fn. 29); and Loveman, Brian, “‘Protected Democracies’ and Military Guardianship: Political Transitions in Latin America, 1979–1993,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 36 (Summer 1994)Google Scholar. See also Rubin, Humberto, “One Step Away from Democracy” Journal of Democracy 1 (Fall 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Rabkin, Rhoda, “The Aylwin Government and ‘Tutelary’ Democracy: A Concept in Search of a Case?” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 34 (Winter 1992–93), 165CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Weffort, Francisco, “New Democracies, Which Democracies?” Working Paper no. 198, Latin American Program (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1992), 18Google Scholar; Weffort (fn. 26), 100–101; O'Donnell, Guillermo, “Challenges to Democratization in Brazil,” World Policy Journal 5 (1988), 297–98Google Scholar; and idem, “Transitions, Continuities, and Paradoxes,” in Mainwaring, O'Donnell, and Valenzuela (fn. 29), 48–49.

33 Authors who have employed horizontal accountability in their definitions include Schmitter, Philippe C. and Karl, Terry Lynn, “What Democracy Is … and Is Not,” Journal of Democracy 2 (Summer 1991), 76, 87CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Ball, Alan R., Modern Politics and Government, 5th ed. (Chatham, N.J.: Chatham House, 1994), 4546Google Scholar. O'Donnell and Schmitter (fn. 13), 8, actually include it in their formal definition, but it appears to play no role in their subsequent analysis.

34 On the problem of unsettling the semantic field, see Sartori (fn. 28), 51–54.

35 Jennifer Whiting, personal communication, suggested this term.

36 See Linz, Juan J., “The Future of an Authoritarian Situation or the Institutionalization of an Authoritarian Regime: The Case of Brazil,” in Stepan, Alfred, ed., Authoritarian Brazil: Origins, Policies, Future (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973)Google Scholar. Malloy uses “democratic moment” to convey a similar meaning. See Malloy (fn. 26), 236.

37 O'Donnell, Guillermo, “On the State, Democratization and Some Conceptual Problems: A Latin American View with Glances at Some Postcommunist Countries,” World Development 21, no. 8 (1993), 1359 and passimCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 See again references in note 10.

39 For a reminder of how important vivid labels can be, one need only look at the impressive evolution of game theory, with its codification of different patterns of political interaction designated by such labels as “prisoners’ dilemma,” “chicken,” “stag hunt,” “slippery slope,” and “battle of the sexes.”

40 Linz, Juan J., “An Authoritarian Regime: Spain,” in Allardt, Erik and Littunen, Yrjö, eds., Cleavages, Ideologies and Party Systems: Contributions to Comparative Political Sociology, Transactions of the Westermarck Society, vol. 10 (Helsinki: Academic Bookstore, 1964)Google Scholar; Dahl (fn. 3); O'Donnell, Guillermo, Modernization and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism: Studies in South American Politics, Institute of International Studies, Politics of Modernization Series no. 9 (Berkeley: University of California, 1973)Google Scholar; Schmitter, Philippe C., “Still the Century of Corporatism?” Review of Politics 36 (January 1974)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Arend Lijphart, Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977)Google Scholar.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *