How to Write a Comparative Politics Paper

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How to Write a Comparative Politics Paper
By Prof. David Meyer, Cedarville University

Note: This template may also be useful for certain term papers in history, comparative sociology, social work, international relations/international studies, criminal justice, etc. Always ask your professor first whether or not one of the below strategies is acceptable.

  1. The Introduction:

Alice: 'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'
Cheshire Cat: 'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,'
Alice: 'I don’t know where. . .'
Cheshire Cat: 'Then it doesn’t matter which way you go!’

--Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

There are several different ways to write an introduction, but ALWAYS ANSWER THE “So what?!” QUESTION! In other words, why is this question/problem/case/comparison interesting theoretically, important practically (especially in terms of domestic or foreign policy), counter-intuitive (“man bites dog”), or rivetingly puzzling? i.e. “Here is a case that no current body of literature in comparative politics theory can explain.” Or “Iran is interesting per se as a case because it may soon develop nuclear weapons and start a thermonuclear war.” Or “Comparing different welfare states may yield key insights for American policy makers seeking to improve the content of and the efficiency of delivery of social-welfare programs.”

All but the Story Hook technique should have a clear and concise one-paragraph topic declaration as the first paragraph, or after a description of a problem. Some authors use their entire introduction for laying out the problem, and then they put the topic sentence at the very end of the introduction.

    1. Clearly state the problem and how you intend to solve it, using which theories. Do this in one paragraph.

    1. Pose a question and then state how you will attempt to answer it.

    1. Declare that you are comparing two or more authors’ approaches to two or more cases, i.e. see the section below on the Hypothetical Deductive Method.

    1. The Story Hook: Tell an interesting story to get the reader’s attention first.

      1. Then, at the end of the story, clearly state the problem and how you intend to solve it OR

      2. Pose a question and then state how you will attempt to answer it.

  1. The Body: A Variety of Approaches.

    1. The Hypothetical-Deductive Method: Starting with the theory, and then testing it against the case(s). Having stated in the introduction which one or more theories are to be applied to one or more cases, proceed as follows:

      1. Subsection 1: Explain why you chose the one or more theories that you chose. Why are theses authors and their theories particularly important or particularly representative?

      2. Subsection 2: Justify your choice of which case studies you are choosing. Why are those particular cases interesting or important in and of themselves, or are they exotic or random cases that are just selected in order to provide most similar or most different cases?

      3. Subsection 3: Deduce a series of testable hypotheses from the theories. Quote and/or footnote from whence in the author’s works each hypothesis comes.

      4. Subsection 4: Describe each case, or just take the first case, follow the procedure in v. Subsection 5 below and then repeat for each case.

      5. Subsection 5: Test each hypothesis with the given case. Repeat for each case you are using. State whether the case seems to confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis.

    1. Induction-to-Theory Method: Starting with observing a case or several cases, then choosing which theories can explain the case(s) or else inventing a new theory to explain the given case.

      1. Observe the case. Use Geertzian “thick-description” and/or any statistical information on the case or cases that you can find.

      2. Derive hypotheses from the case(s).

        1. Is this case totally unique? Why or Why not?

        2. What similarities are seen across the cases? Which similarities are the ones which are the most likely to be the most causally important?

        3. What dissimilarities are there and which are the ones most likely to be the most causally important?

        4. What correlations are there? Are the correlations direct? Inverse? Slightly correlated or highly correlated? (slant angle of the regression curve).

      3. Can the correlations be process-traced in order to produce an assertion of a causal mechanism?

        1. If not, speculate on the most probable cause of the correlation, and why the alleged cause should be considered as the most probable one (seek to eliminate rival hypothesized causes).

        2. If yes, then is this causal mechanism likely to be universally applicable to the whole world, or just one region, or just one country?

          1. If universal, show other cases that the theory fits.

          2. If the theory is only local in scope, then why does the theory not work outside of the defined region of its scope?

      4. Attempt to eliminate spurious correlations by asking if their might be other, previously unconsidered possible causes of the given effects, in order to eliminate omitted variable bias.

    1. Straight Comparative Case Method (“Focused, Structured Comparative Case Method”):

      1. Deductive Comparison: Propose a theory, and then test it against several cases to see how “robust” the theory is in its “goodness of fit” to each case.

      2. Inductive Comparison: Compare and contrast the similarities and differences of several different countries. Theorize why those similarities or differences exist, if this is interesting and not obvious.

    1. Single Case Method: This is the method that is closest to the field of history per se, but is nevertheless distinct because of its concentration on isolating the most important and causal of variables, and how those independent variables actually produced the dependent variable.

      1. This method is most often used on cases that are allegedly very unique and whose similarities to other cases are alleged to be far less important that its dissimilarities.

      2. Take the case, and attempt to elucidate how a cause produced a given effect.

      3. Eliminate rival hypotheses of explanation concerning other allegedly independent variables (i.e. “why all the competing theories are wrong”).

    1. Time Lapse Studies: This is a unique type of Single Case Method which comparing changes in one defined area over time.

      1. Comparative Time-Period Method: Compare two or more different periods of time with in a case’s history, OR

      2. Single Period Time-Lapse Process Tracing: Examine one time period, tracing the cause to the effect from the start of the time period to the end of the time period.

  1. The Conclusion: Wrapping it all up, summarizing it, and driving it home.

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. 'Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end: then stop.' --Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.
Writing a good conclusion is, however, a bit more complicated than the Card Deck King’s command printed above. There are several different ways in which a conclusion can be written.

    1. Summarize Findings: Clearly state whether cause and effect relationships were found, what they were, and what the relationship of this finding is to the previous literature. i.e.

      1. “I was expecting to find X, as the literature would suggest, but instead I found Z, and here is why.”

      2. “As I was expecting, on the basis of my literature review, I did indeed find X.”

      3. “My findings confirm the theory, thus expanding the literature with further evidence for the theory.”

      4. “My findings undermine the theory, which calls for further research in order to find a better theory or to revise the old theory.”

      5. “The results are mixed, with some cases supporting the theory for reason A, and others disconfirming it for reason B, and here is why there is a difference between the confirming and disconfirming cases.”

      6. “I was not able to find a definitive answer to my question, but I was at least able to rule out some answers as incorrect. My contribution to the literature of comparative politics is that I have narrowed the field of possible answers to the question.”

      7. If you used the Hypothetical-Deductive Method, clearly state which theory, if any, did the best job of explaining the cases, and why: i.e.

        1. “Theory A fit cases x, y, & z clearly (or marginally) better than theory B did, because theory A’s hypotheses #1.1, 2.4, and 3.6 all clearly were confirmed by the case, whereas some (or all) of theory B’s hypotheses were falsified.”

        2. “Neither theory A nor B fit cases x, y, & z clearly.”

        3. “Both theories A and B had some hypotheses which fit the cases well, and some hypotheses which did not fit the cases, therefore further research is needed to produce a new theory C which will combine the best elements of theories A and B.”

        4. “None of our theories fit the cases well at all, so we must throw out all our theories and start from scratch. I propose we start off in thus and such direction on the basis of the specific findings of my research, namely _________”

    1. State the theoretical, chronological, and geographical scope and relevance of your findings. i.e.

      1. “My theory works very well in Post-Communist cases, but not so well in Western Europe, for X, Y, and Z reasons” or “...for reasons which are not yet clear, and therefore into which further research needs to explore.”]

      2. “My theory is globally applicable to all regions and countries, regardless of their level of economic development and their shoe sizes.”

      3. “My theory only works in the case of explaining the price of tea in the Lower East Occupied Wongo-Bongo Province of China from January 23rd of 451 BC to August 2nd of 678 AD.” [Hmmm, this one may not pass the “SO WHAT?!?!?” test. Think maybe?]

      4. “The theory of Neo-Liberal Institutionalism explains the security situation of the European Union very well, explains North America fairly well, explains Latin America to some degree, explains Africa to a much lesser degree, and totally fails to explain the Middle East and Asia, where the rival theory, Neo-Realism, clearly does a better job of description, explanation, and prediction.”

    1. Enumerate all possible theoretical and “policy-relevant” implications: i.e.

      1. “Based on my findings, the US government should change its foreign policy and do X, as opposed to Y, and the US State Department should modify the way that it does Z, namely by creasing U and decreasing P.”

      2. “My research findings fly in the face of all the previous literature on subject X. Thus we need to seriously rethink this literature and do more research in the direction of Y”

      3. “My research builds upon the previous literature written by the Federalism-Skeptical School and further clarifies the arguments against ethno-federalism by elucidating the exact process by which ethno-territorial autonomy produces incentives for ethnic minority elites to exacerbate ethnic tensions by making political appeals which are explicitly based upon a fear of other ethnic groups.”

I welcome feedback from other professors and from students who can tell me what is or is not acceptable for them in writing or grading.

Please contact me with feedback at:

David J. Meyer, M.Phil. (ABD)

Assistant Professor of Political Science
and International Studies
Department of Social Sciences and History
Collins Hall, Room 16
251 North Main Street
Cedarville University
Cedarville, OH 45314
Tel. 937-766-7932
Fax. 937-766-7583
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