Top 6 Characteristics of Comparative Government

This article throws light upon the top six characteristics of comparative government. The characteristics are: 1. Essentially Non-Comparative 2. Essentially Descriptive Studies 3. Historical-Legalistic-Institutional Approach 4. Essentially Parochial 5. Essential Static 6. Essentially Monographic.

Characteristic # 1. Essentially Non-Comparative:

The vast majority of publications in the field of comparative government deal either with one country or with parallel descriptions of the institutions of a number of countries. The majority of the texts illustrate the non-comparative character of this approach.

Characteristic # 2. Essentially Descriptive Studies:

Undoubtedly the description of political institutions is vital for the understanding of the political process and that it leads to comparative study. However mere description is not enough. Hardly ever can any real comparison between the particularly institutions described.


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A reading, for instance, of one of the best texts, “Governments of Continental Europe” edited by James T. Shot-well, reveals that as we pass from France to Italy, Switzerland, Germany and the U.S.S.R., there is no common thread, no criterion of why these particular countries were selected and no examination of the factors that account for similarities and differences.

The same generally applies to Frederic Oggs and Harold Zink’s “Modern Foreign Governments” and to Fritz M. Marx’s “Foreign Governments.”

Characteristic # 3. Historical-Legalistic-Institutional Approach:

There are two typical approaches in the descriptive study of political institutions. The first is historical and the second is legalistic. We trace the origin of the British parliamentary system to the Magna Carta and then study its development through successive historical accounts of the evolution of the French Parliament or the German Representative Assemblies which indicate similarities and differences.

The second most prevalent approach is what we might call the legalistic approach. Here, the student is exposed primarily to the study of the ‘legal powers’ of various branches of government and their relationships with reference to the existing constitutional and legal prescriptions.

This is almost exclusively the study of what can be done or what cannot be done by various governmental agencies with reference to legal and constitutional provisions. Hence the traditional approach has been legalistic.

Characteristic # 4. Essentially Parochial:

The great number of studies on foreign political systems has been addressed to the examination of Western European institutions. Accessibility of the countries studied, relative ease of overcoming language barriers, and the availability of official documents and other source materials, as well as cultural affinities, account for this fact.

The traditional approach has been parochial because it has concentrated only upon European political systems.

Characteristic # 5. Essential Static:

In general, the traditional approach has been ignoring the dynamic factors that account for growth and change. It has concentrated on what we have called political anatomy. After the evolutionary premises of some of the original works in the nineteenth century were abandoned, students of political institutions apparently lost all interest in the formulation of other countries in the light of which change could be comparatively studied.

Characteristic # 6. Essentially Monographic:

The most important studies of foreign political systems, apart from the basic texts, have taken the form of monographs that have concentrated on the study of political institutions of one system or on the discussion of a particular institution in different systems.

Works such as those by John Marriott, Arthur Keith, Joseph Barthelemy, James Bryce, Ivor Jennings, Harold Laski, A.V. Dicey, Frank Good-now, W.A. Robson, Abbott L. Lowell, Woodrow Wilson, and several others were addressed generally to only one country or to a particular institutional development within one country.

In other words, the main characteristics of Comparative Government have been:

(1) Emphasis upon the study of political institutions of various countries.

(2) Main focus on the study of major constitutions of the world.

(3) Emphasis upon the study of powers and functions of various political institutions working in different states.

(4) Legal Intuitionalism i.e. formal study of the organisation and powers, description of the features of the constitutions and political institutions, and legal powers of political institutions, form the basic contents of Comparative Government study.

(5) Building a theory of ideal political institutions constituted the objective.

With all these features, Comparative Government remained a very popular area of study unto the 1st quarter of the 20th century. Thereafter, a large number of political scientists got greatly dissatisfied with its narrow scope, unscientific methodology, formal legalistic- institutionalistic and normative approach.

They revolted against it and came forward to adopt comprehensiveness, realism, precision and scientific study of the processes of politics as their new goals. Their efforts came to be designated as Comparative Politics.

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