Tag Archives: area studies

Will the West become the East?

“I included a dummy for Eastern Europe” the presenter said, explaining the statistical methodology in her paper.

You have, you see, to control for the unknowable, complex bundle of historical peculiarities that mark out one half of the continent’s democracies from the other and might skew your results.

“But not just a dummy for Western Europe?” my colleague and I mischievously wondered.

Silly question. of course. And we didn’t ask it.  Most comparative political science research –West European democracies in the old (pre-2004) EU as their point of departure.  Most political science theories and paradigms have been framed on the experience of established (or as they are sometimes termed ‘advanced’) democracies of Western Europe and the United States. Many political models, – of democracy, interest group politics or party organisation – are abstractions and distillations of the experience Western Europe.

The task of those studying Eastern and Central Europe typically been an exercise in model fitting, of noticing and measuring up the gaps – like a tailor trying to fix up a suit made for someone else with quick alterations.  Eastern Europe – despite geographical and cultural proximity success of democratisation and liberal institution building – is not Western Europe.

The normative question lurking in the background is, of course, that of catch-up and convergence: when will Central and Eastern Europe become more like Western Europe? When would it consolidate ‘Western-style democracy’? Read More…

Area studies in the dock again?

Cover of Brzezinski's book The Grand Failure

Foreseeing Soviet collapse?

In the early-mid 1990s  –  along with a chain of momentous social and political consequences- the fall of communism also triggered soul searching and crises in the academic world among specialists on Soviet and East European politics: Why, with the possible and belated exception of Zbigniew Brzenzinki, had no one seen the speed and completeness of the Soviet collape coming?

Breast beating self-examination and self-criticism among wrong footed  USSR and Eastern European specialist soon gave way to academic spats between proponents of Soviet/East European area studies and comparativeists more closely plugged in to the political science mainstream, who argued that the  (ost-communist world  should be seen along with Latin America and parts of Africa and Asia as just one more newly democratizing region.

As anyone who takes my comparative politics courses knows, the most famous expression of this was Bunce/Schmitter & Karl polemic played out on the pages of Slavic Review which still makes informative and interesting reading today, although the polemical positions expressed have since softened, become more complex and the dabtes has generally  moved on.

Indeed, two decades of research on post-communist systems have, in broad terms,  yield a pretty thorough and sophisticated understanding of the various paths  taken by the former socialist world. So much so, that come the Arab Spring  East European politics specialists have moved play the role that Latin Americanists twenty odd years ago, offering interpretations of events in North Africa and the Middle East based on analogies with Eastern Europe and the former USSR, while specialists on the region  are bogged down trying to make sense of unfolding events and fight off requests for TV studios and journalists. Is Egypt closer to Romania in 1989 or East Germany? Or Yugoslavia in 2000? And so on.  As you know, in a minor way, even I have been at it.

But, of course, as with Eastern Europe in 1990s, the inevitable question comes – why did specialists on the region failed to see the wave of protest and regime change coming? F. Gregory Gausse takes up this challenge in an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs (many thanks to the person who forwarded me a copy of the article).  The answer  he gives is threCover of Foreign Affairsefold :

1) that they misread the natire of regime  institutions, failing to see the political importance of armies and secuirty forces and their ability, in some case, to detach themselves from authoritarian rulers:

2)  that they ignored ‘Pan-Arabism’, the extent to which people in one Arab country would take events in others as template and inspiration for protest; and

3) that they under-estimated the ability of de-mobilised societies to spring into life over night and over-estimated the effectiveness of regimes’ ability  to stabilise themselves, and especially their the extent of their (admittedly often limited) social constituencies and their abilities to co-opt better-offsocial groups.

Parallels with the misreadings and mistakes of (post-)Sovietologists of the 1980s and 1990s? Well, yes and no. A clear commonality is the over-estimation of authoritarian stability and failure to sense that there was potential for ‘Now Out of Nothing’ mass mobilisation (but how can you tell when such mobilisation will occur?) and the critical role of demonstration effective across a culturally similar region. East Europeans inMap of Miidle East 1989 may not have spoken a common language, but saw themselves culturally as European  and as historically belonging to West not East.

Moreover,  for communist Eastern Europe there is one single lynchpin, the USSR:  misunderstand the unravelling but genuine reform politics  of the Gorbachev period and you would be likely to miss everything else. I still can’t get away from the feeling that Central and East European democracy is ultimately just a side effect of  perestroika .

Misinterpretation of institutions offers few parallels: no East European armies acted as midwives of revolution and well placed and savvy communist party-state apparatus at best negotiated themselves off the political stage. Perhaps, howver,  the underlying commonality is of failing to grasp the sheer adaptability of authoritatarian institutions, both in the good sense (accomodation to democracy) and the bad (‘stolen revolutions’, surreptious denial of popular aspirartions for far reaching change).

But does Area Studies have some fatal flaw? Some of the accusations of parochialism and disconnect from wider comparative and theoretical development in political science were perhaps true in the case of Soviet and East European Area Studies during late communism – I am. let’s admit it,  a  fan of Schmitter, both generally and on this point – but it seem hard to make the same charge even half stick for Middle East studies.

Perhaps the real point is that even being comparatively and theoretically well tooled and having the language, cultural and historical background are insufficient to waves of regime change until they are upon you.  Social and political science is not about prediction, but the ability to make accurate anticipations (even retrospectively?) of major historical developments is a reasonable test.

The jury’s still out, but trouble is peering into the dock,  I’m not actually sure who the accused is.

Update: Martin Brown (via Facebook) helpfully points out the following roundtable discussion between US Sovietologists on H-net.

Setting the seal on CEELBAS: Parties and post-communism

Logo of the CEELBAS consortiumThe Centre for East European for Language Based Area Studies (CEELBAS) research consortium which has brought researchers interested in  various aspects of Russia and CEE at UCL, Birmingham, Oxford and beyond together in a variety of events and networks over the last few years is moving into its concluding phase, at least as far as social science are concerned – it will continue as a slightly different form dealing with culture and humanities. To mark its achievements the Centre  held a  conference  which saw me chairing a politics panel trying to paint a big picture overview of post-communist transformation, as well as providing characteristically generous support for a series of  more specialised workshops, including one I co-ran with Birmingham’s Tim Haughton and my SSEES colleague Allan Sikk on changing patterns of party stability and instability in CEE.

The bigger picture conference panel, slightly to my surprise at the time – although in hindsight it is perhaps less surprising – assumed the form of kind of clash between David Lane’s pessimistic and critical view of the trajectories of post-communist states, which he saw as having been set back or impeded in socio-economic and developmental terms by the attempted creation of market societies and market democracies. He anticipated new projects of statism and/or state corporatism with echoes of interwar Europe.

Aleks Szczerbiak speaks at CEELBAS conference

Aleks Szczerbiak on Poland

Other panel members – and at at least one questioner from the audience taking a social democratic perspective – questioned both some of the statistics and some of the assumptions: simple measures of output and development were surely misleading and increases in choice and personal freedom (both economic and – sometimes – political) had to be factored in. Moreover, where were the strong organised social interests required for experiments in (neo-)corportatism to come from?

The more optimistic strand of the discussion, from panelists who it must be said tended to foreground the experience of CEE, centred on the role of the EU and domestic elites in delivering relatively successful outcome, although there were some differences of emphasis about the nature of Polish politics – were the divisions between liberal and national-conservative camps that currently structure the party politics of CEE’s largest democracy legacies of Solidarity or a more durable and contemporary culture war?

I, alas, had to close the proceedings to avoid melting down the conference schedule. A rather good panel on post-communist social networks, which I caught the end of after rushing off to discuss a student’s dissertation plans with her, was waiting in the wings.

Picture of biscuits

Food for thought

The theme of party politics , as well as some of the surplus biscuits from the conference,  were, however, taken up in our smaller workshop the following week, where a dozen or so party specialist pondered the fact that – with the recent breakthough of new parties in previously stable-seeming party systems in the region – CEE party politics could no longer be understand as a weak, partical approximation of West European party systems.

The first panel centred on Stephen Whitefield and Robert Rohrscheider’s findings on the different forms ‘representational strain’ generated by party-voter relationships in CEE and Western Europe by parties trying to accommodate voters with different levels of partisanship. Interestingly, they find, Western Europe offers a tougher and more complex environment for parties than CEE, highlighting (perhaps) the gap in organising and campaigning capacities in the two halves of the continent. Their forthcoming book promises to be a real highlight.

Founders of anti-establishment parties

The many and varied leaders of CEE's new anti-establishment parties

Panel two saw Allan Sikk and I presenting our current work in progress on the emergence of anti-establishment, pro-reform parties in CEE. Like our fellow presenters, Andreas Bågenholm and Andreas Johansson Heinö (who has a very readable – even via Google translate – blog here dealing mainly with Swedish politics) we see the politicisation of corruption and the (party) politics of anti-corruption as an important party of the story, but we are also fans of Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) and causal complexity as our preliminary work suggests that not only are there  other factors are also in play and that are several ways for these parties to break through.

As Andreas and Andreas’s paper, which dealt with the impacts of the same set of moderate anti-corruption protests parties, suggests, however, ‘corruption’ may be as much a stand-in for more inchoate dissatisfaction and disgust with politics than bribe taking and –making. Some workshop participants think that a certain mix of high and low real-life corruption is needed for this kind of party to step onto the political stage, but I am swept away by the idea of corruption of a political metaphor.

Children's book about dinosaurs

What every CEE specialist should be reading?

There is more political metaphor in panel 3 in which Tim Haughton and Kevin Deegan-Krause lead off with an outline of their work on larger, more enduring mainstream parties (‘hardy perennials’) and, less horticulturally, suggested a threefold recipe for survival (effective leadership, organisational capacity, meaningful programme/identity) in the electoral jungle. Although like me a fan of his children’s dinosaur books, Kevin resisted my suggestion that such large, well evolved beasts called for more of a Jurassic Park analogy.

The surprise package of the workshop – and a theme running through discussion across the workshop – was the role of party organisation and specifically its role in anchoring enduring parties in CEE, nicely highlighted by Raimondas Ibenskas’s presentation on Lithuania and – as Mazen Hassan’s presentation on party institutionalisation showed – new democracies generally. As these – and David Art’s book (reviewed in an earlier post) – suggest from being something of niche interest in party studies the study of party organisation (and what ‘organisation’ in fact means) may be moving centre stage.