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Influences Of The Rationalist, Structuralist And Culturalist Theoretical Approaches On Comparative Politics

1642 words - 7 pages

What influence have the rationalist, structuralist and culturalist theoretical approaches had on the study of comparative politics?

Comparative politics is the empirical comparative study of political systems. It involves the classification and comparison of institutions - ‘a rule that has been institutionalised’ (Lane and Ersson, 1999: 23) - in order to determine the nature of political regimes. The study of comparative politics has come to be guided by three major research schools: rational choice theory, culturalist analysis and structuralist approaches; each of which spearhead a distinctive notion over what about institutions affects the nature of the political process. Rationalists are methodological individualists who assert that ‘collectivities have no status apart from the individuals who comprise them’ (Lichbach, 1997: 245). Rational choice theory is guided by the principle that individuals ‘act as maximisers of benefits over costs’ (Bara and Pennington, 1997: 17), and whilst there is scope for the acceptance of the role played by culture and institutional structures in conditioning individual action, it is still primarily maintained that an understanding of social structures is fundamentally driven by ‘the incentives and beliefs of individual actors’ (Bara and Pennington, 1997: 33). However, an overlap between the rationalist and culturalist train of thought has been forged by political scientist Herbert Simon with his theory of ‘bounded rationality’ - individuals cannot always ‘assimilate and digest all the information’ (The Economist) required to maximise their benefit from a particular course of action, and instead ‘resort to habits, traditions and rules of thumb’ (Lichbach, 1997: 34); ‘satisficing’. Culturalists are methodical holists who view ‘norms as intersubjective or transindividual’ (Lichbach, 1997: 246). They believe that the prevailing values found in all of society’s institutions reflect the ideas and beliefs widely shared by the community as a whole; in this sense ‘individual perceptions are largely a product of the social environment’ (Bara and Pennington, 1997: 21). Cultural theorists therefore focus their studies on ‘group level processes’ (ibid) when conducting research. However, as highlighted by survey researchers Almond and Verba, by identifying cultural variables, it is almost inevitable that analysts will engage in generalised comparative study. Synthesis can be found between cultural analysis and less rigid forms of structural institutionalism. Political theorist Antonio Gramsci pointed out that coherence between these two schools of thought can be found when considering the fact that whilst, according to Marxist teachings, capitalist societies are based on underlying structural conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the manifestation of such conflict is dependent on the cultural circumstances of the country concerned. Similarly to culturalists, structuralists adopt a form of methodological...

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