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Human Rights Quarterly 24.4 (2002) 890-923

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Comparative Politics and Human Rights

Todd Landman*


I. Introduction

The academic study of human rights since the 1948 UN Declaration has flourished considerably, a process that has increasingly involved a variety of disciplines from the legal, social, and human sciences including traditional and critical legal studies, political science, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, history, psychology, economics and environmental sciences. Despite the claim and desire to make the study of human rights truly inter-disciplinary, much work is still needed in examining the contribution that particular disciplines can make to understanding key issues in the field. Within political science, normative and empirical studies seek to establish the rational, cultural, and structural foundations for human rights, their possible relationships with democracy, and the key factors that help explain the global variation in their protection.

The field of comparative politics has much to contribute to this important area of research both in substantive and methodological terms. Comparative politics fits well with the theory and practice of human rights because it is based upon the cross-cultural comparison of individual nation states in an effort to explain and understand the different ways in which [End Page 890] human rights are promoted and protected. In contrast to some skeptics, 1 it accepts that valid comparisons can be made between and among different countries to examine empirically the universal claims for human rights that are made normatively. 2 Starting from this basic assumption, this article seeks to demonstrate how comparative politics can establish the methodological rigor from which substantive inferences about human rights protection can be made. It does so through outlining the purpose of comparison, differentiating comparative methods available to human rights researchers, and reviewing exemplars from the extant political science literature on human rights.

II. The Purpose Of Comparison

The comparison of countries centers on four main objectives: (1) contextual description, (2) classification, (3) hypothesis testing, and (4) prediction. Contextual description allows political scientists to learn about the historical events, important actors, cultural aspects, among other elements in countries with which they have little or no prior knowledge. Typically, such contextual description does not seek to make larger inferences beyond the confines of the study's immediate focus. Classification seeks to simplify the world of politics through providing the researcher with "data containers" into which empirical evidence is organized. 3 Indeed, from Aristotle to Samuel Finer, political observers and political scientists have sought to classify regimes, regime transitions, modes of political behavior, classes of [End Page 891] people, events, among other factors, in an effort to clarify and simplify the world of politics. 4 Hypothesis testing helps eliminate rival explanations about particular events, actors, and structures in an effort to help build more general theories. Since comparativists cannot manufacture their own counterfactuals, comparing across a range of countries or time periods provides a "quasi-experimental" situation of control test rival hypotheses. 5 Finally, the generalizations that result from comparing countries help predict likely outcomes in other countries not included in the original comparison, or outcomes in the future, given the presence of certain antecedent factors.

These four functions of comparative politics are not mutually exclusive, and in most instances, they are cumulative such that classification requires description, hypothesis testing requires description and classification, and prediction needs all three. This cumulative nature of these four functions is evident in many popular comparative studies. For example, in Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation, Linz and Stepan describe different periods of democratic transition and consolidation, provide a classification of regime types that precede the moment of transition, test rival hypotheses about the key factors that affect the period of consolidation, and offer tentative predictions about problems that are likely to confront other countries going through similar process of democratization. 6 These functions are directly related to different methods of comparison, which allow scholars to make larger inferences about the political world they observe. It is to the consideration of these different comparative methods that the discussion now turns.

III. Methods Of Comparison

The central distinction between different comparative methods depends on the key...


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