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Theories of Democratic Transitions Eric Davis

790:540 Fall 2014

Course Description
Conceptual perspectives

In the past two decades, the concept of democratic transitions has become a central analytic focus in political science. This course examines the normative, epistemological and conceptual underpinnings of this concept. Because this conceptual framing is of recent origin, having proliferated after the collapse of communism, we need to ask to what extent the idea of a democratic transition represents a moment of Western triumphalism in the wake of communism’s collapse, and to what extent a legitimate theoretical approach applicable across time and space.

To interrogate the notion of democratic transitions suggests a number of questions: First, what is the nature of the two core concepts that comprise this theory, namely “democracy” and “transition.” Is the concept of democracy subject to a universal or “trans-historical” definition, or has it changed over time? Did democracy mean the same thing in ancient Athens, for example, as it does in the modern era, e.g., in contemporary United States, India, Spain or Japan? Is there a concept of “local democracy,” namely the idea of understandings of democracy that are geographically specific? In short, what are the normative underpinnings and empirical content of the concept of democracy?

Second, what do we mean by the concept of transition? Do all transitions assume the same form? Is the notion of transition the same in early modern Europe as it is in post-communist Eastern Europe and non-Western societies in the 21st century? What analytic elements need to be incorporated for us to explain the transition process in a truly theoretical manner?

Finally, how do we know when a transition is successful? What exactly is meant by a democratic consolidation? Are democracies ever fully consolidated? Does the process of democratization ever end, or is it part of an ongoing process that is constantly characterized by contestation and challenges to authority? Alexis de Tocqueville predicted an imminent universalization of democracy in the 1840s. After WWI, the “war to end all wars,” and following the defeat of fascism in World War II, there were further predictions suggesting that the ascendancy of democracy was imminent. Following the collapse of communism, a Pax Americana suggested that “universal democracy” was just around the corner.

Nevertheless, the struggle to sustain and further institutionalize democratic governance continues throughout the world, even in the United States. During the past few years, crises and instability in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia suggest the possibility of the collapse of fragile democracies and the possibility of the failure of democratic transitions that are in their early stages, e.g., in the Arab Spring countries.

What these thoughts suggest is that the theorist who is committed to democracy in a normative as well as analytic-empirical sense needs to be extremely cautious about accepting formulaic propositions about the transition to and the long-term sustainability of democratic governance. It also suggests the need to explore the antithesis of democratic governance, namely the causes of authoritarianism. After all, does not democratization occur after the collapse or atrophy of authoritarian rule? In viewing the process of democratic transition largely in linear terms, much of the literature fails to account for the ability of authoritarian legacies to undermine and impede the democratization process. Think, for example, of the legacy of distrust that exist in many post-authoritarian countries, such as South Africa, Iraq, and Ukraine.

While we may seek to develop a more “open-ended” approach to democratic change, this does not prevent us from formulating testable hypotheses about the causal factors that promote democracy, as well as those that impede its implementation and lead instead to political repression. Finally, how can we synthesize “small N” case study oriented research on democratic transitions with larger structural and especially quantitative research on the topic? Are these two approaches antithetical to one another or can they be reconciled and even enrich one another?

We will concentrate on six models in the study of democratic transitions: the socioeconomic requisites, political culture, institutional, comparative historical/political economy, elite bargaining models, and ethnic conflict models. The classic approach is typified by Seymour Martin Lipset’s famous essay, “Socioeconomic Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” published in 1959. The political culture model involves a variety of approaches, including those drawn from modernization theory, symbolic interaction theory, social psychology and hegemony theory. The institutional approach draws upon traditional formal-legal analysis, procedural analysis, as well as more recent historical-institutional models. The comparative historical/political economy model, which draws upon structural variables, focuses on historical trajectories which result in either democratic or authoritarian outcomes. Finally, The elite bargaining model, which focuses on decision-making and the role of political elites in transitions from authoritarianism to democratic governance, is based in an actor-centric approach. While there is considerable overlap between these approaches, we will seek to identify readings in terms of the dominant conceptual framework that they employ in the study of democratic transitions.

Despite these theoretical efforts, there is considerable amount of “variance” that is not explained by democratic transitions theories. Such theories have said very little about ethnic and sectarian strike, the role of corruption, gender inequality and “neighborhood effects,” i.e., the impact of surrounding countries on a nation-states’s efforts to implement a transition to democracy. The role of illiberal democracy as implied by concept of competitive authoritarianism also not well theorized to date. We will attempt to address some of these shortcomings during the course of the seminar.

Analysis of the seminar readings

To systematize our study of the democratic transitions literature, we will analyze course readings according to the following criteria. Students should pose and be able to answer the following questions for each seminar reading:

  • First, what is the main question and derivative questions posed by the author(s)?

  • Second, why are these questions significant for an understanding of democratic transitions?

  • Third, what types of relationships/hypotheses does the author test in her/his/their study? Do you agree that these are the most appropriate hypotheses to pose in relation to the author’s main question?

  • Fourth, what types of conclusions does she/he/they reach and do you find them convincing?

  • Fifth, what conceptual framework and methodological approach(es) inform the reading?

  • Sixth, what sources/database(s) does the author(s) use in the study of democratic transitions and do they provide, in you view, an effective basis for conducting the study at hand?

  • Finally what is your assessment of the author(s)’ ability to test and come to conclusions about the hypotheses offered in the reading given the concepts and methods she/he/they deploy?

Course requirements

Course requirements entail developing a journal on Sakai which critically analyzes each of the course readings. Journal entries should follow the format of questions listed above and be posted in your Drop Box. They should replicate normal note taking and be no more than 1-2 pages. The course also requires periodic Reaction Papers, which critically analyze seminar readings, serving as a co-discussant for a particular week’s readings, and completing a final examination at the end of the seminar. Students will be asked to submit 3 questions with accompanying rationales that will be used to comprise the final examination. Please expect to attend the seminar on a regular basis. .

Office hours: W. 2:00- 4:00 pm, and by appointment, Hickman Hall 501; email:; website:; course readings: ; blog: ; Twitter @NewMidEast

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