Behavioralism in comparative politics

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Comparative politics is a specific sphere of human activity in which the differences of social groups, nations, and classes are reflected. A core of politics is the problem of gaining and holding of state power. Politics, as any other science, exploits different methodologies. It can be studies on the basis of Marxism or Socialism, historical approach or Legalistic one. The understanding of political phenomenon depends on the set of interrelated concepts to interpret the world. These concepts are not objective realities but analytical tools. That is why researchers give a great attention to the assumptions that underlie their approach to the subjects. It also matters a great deal whether to see politics as mainly concerned with the activities of a few people, or as receiving its force from the needs of masses. Any approach is aimed to emphasize some specific aspects of a phenomenon.

Argument: Behavioralism is a methodological approach which helps to understand politics through concepts of natural science avoiding concepts which cannot be quantified. This approach is essential for comparative politics as it helps to analyze political processes, which cannot be discovered and analyzed by other methodological approaches such as neoliberalism or realism.

Behavioralism was a popular methodological approach developed in 1950s-1960s in America. In comparative politics, Behavioralism is connected with: “individual attitudes, personalities, and physical activity, such as voting, criminal behavior, aggression, etc. and then generalizes to a similar group. Political scientists study political behavior, voting, for example” (Introduction to Research methods. 2003). In general, behavioralism examines the factors affect­ing imitation and notes that behaviour is more likely to be copied. Imitating or modelling as it is called, can be seen to be a very important part of the political process. Aspects of the role model’s behaviour may be incorporated into behaviour patterns and style.

The behavioral approach in comparative politics can be defined by approach to the logic and method of its investigation, and described as a methodology. A study by Easton (1962 cited Berndtson 2005) “every man puts his own emphasis and thereby becomes his own behavioralist”. According to Seidelman and Harpham (1985 cited Berndtson 2005) “attempts at coming to any complete definition of behavioralism are probably futile given the diversity of those who followed its banner”.

It is evident that for behavioralism, an individual’s personality, perceptions, motiva­tions also plays their part in helping or hindering the political process. Political experiences whether positive or negative impinges upon the rate of political process. It should be noted that behavioralism cannot easily explain the natural curiosity that people have and the great desire to learn, to make sense of their environment and to feel competent in activities. Neither can it explain the extent of incidental political experience which takes place, whereby individuals have it by chance.

A number of shared assumptions and analytic prescriptions were at the core of the behavioral movement. According to Eulau (1962 cited Berndtson 2005) “Behavioralists have been eager to demonstrate that the behavioral study of politics can be applied to all kinds of research areas”. Behavioralism in comparative politics tries to generalize political processes and tries to use statements about patterns and regularities about political phenomena presumed to hold across time and place. According to behavioralism approach, natural science is leading a generalizing process. The purpose of political scientific investigation is to discover regular patterns of behavior and find causes of it. Accordingly, comparative politics should have a statement of the relationship between two or more variables, specify the conditions under which the relationships holds, and explain why the relationships should hold.

New tools for analyzing political process were developed. An entire generation of American researchers studied politics on the basis of methodological tools of behavioralism (Lane, 1997).  Some behavioralists addressed empirical questions at the core of competing ideas about the social and political organization of national societies, including not just propositions grounded in realism, but Marxist ideas about the causes and consequences of the inequalities within and between states.

Behavioralism has some limitations (shortcomings) and merits. By concentrating only on observable behaviour it could be argued that behavioralism is seriously restricted in the areas of studies which are particular and special to humans. Individuals have goals and plans not readily observable which might affect political process. To analyze political process, behavioralists inclined comparative cross-national analysis. The limitation of this approach is that it does not study particular countries at particular times. On the other hand, behavioralism gathers data about the characteristics of nations and provide the analysis how these nations behaved toward one another. Consequently, the behavioralism generates and encouraged the comparative and quantitative study of political thought and political process. “the approach cannot be limited to areas where the possibility of quantification is immediate” Truman (1951 cited Berndtson 2005).

The merit of behavioralism approach is that it does not depend upon controlled comparative techniques and quantitative analyses as “its temperament toward inquiry”. Behavioralism needs greater strictness and accuracy in analysis. Behavioralists tried to replace subjective belief with demonstrable knowledge, “to supplant impressionism and intuition with testable evidence, and to substitute data and reproducible information for mere opinion” (Ponton, Peter, 1993). In this sense, behavioralists hold idealism’s “high regard for modern science” and its “attacks against superstition and authority” (Ponton, Peter, 1993).

The limitations of this approach is that it “threatens to reduce the discipline of political analysis to little more than the study of voting and the behaviour of legislatures” (Behavioralism, 2005). In contrast to this, the merit of behavioralism approahc is that “A virtual obsession with the observation of data, although providing interesting findings in these fields deprives the field of politics of other important viewpoints” (Behavioralism, 2005). Behavioralists try to acquire knowledge and build on it cumulatively by suspending judgment in claims about truth until sufficient evidence could support them. Behavioralists seek to conduct objective or value-free research. It is very important, as they try to replace ambiguous verbal definitions of traditional political concepts with so-called “operational” ones built on indicators on which empirical tests could be con­ducted and whose meaning was easily communicated from one analyst to the next. Another methodologies do not allow provide this type of analysis.

Another merit of behavioralism is possibility to avoid previous studies and researches to select facts and cases to make them fit previous events. All available data, those not supportive of as well as those consistent with existing theoretical hypotheses, are to be analyzed. The merit means that knowledge would advance best if a careful, skeptical attitude toward any empirical statement were assumed. The main argument of behavioralists is to seek some evidence, but questioned it. (Ponton, Peter, 1993).  According to Berndtson (2005) “The essence of behavioralist methodology seems to have been in many cases only a systematic analysis of facts”. The merit is that findings of behavioralism are historically accurate but irrelevant to present day political analysis.

The limitation of this approach is “Value Free” concept. Opponents argues that “this is impossible because every theory is tainted with an ideological premise that led to its formation in the first place and subsequently the observable facts are studied for a reason” (Behavioralism, 2005). Other limitations are: behavioralists became preoccupied with method to the exclusion of real-world problems; behavioralists focused on testing interesting facts or processes accessible ignoring political process as a whole; behavioralists tried to base theories in hard data and relied on past patterns of human experience, but most of this did not reflect changing political processes and made it impossible to predict the future development.

An example of “value bias” is that “through this discipline the term ‘”democracy” has become the competition between elites for election ‘a la’ the western conception rather than an essentially contested term concerning literally rule by the people (the demos). In this manner behaviourism is inherently biased and reduces the scope of political analysis” (Behavioralism 2005).

Arguably the behavioralism enhanced knowledge of processes and their theories are capable of explaining many simple political situations. But, by themselves, they are not able to account for the complexity of differing situations that society faces nor for the variety of responses given. Critics state that behavioralism approach “relates very closely to the quantitative fallacy is false quantification. When a researcher does go to study national pride, they might measure it wrong. What if their variable actually measures opinion of the leader rather than the nation; perhaps the death of that leader could still tear the nation apart, while the research shows that solidarity will prevail” (Behavioralism’s Critics, 2005).

Negative reinforcement was also shown to be powerful because analyses were still concerned with the Stimulus-Response bond. Because of this scientific basis, however, behavioralism is a mere science. It is not a new way of looking at the past, at the meaning of life, of the world, of thought. As a system of life behavioralism is not real (Ponton, Peter, 1993).

Behavioralism addresses the moral issues which are central to the differences between realism and idealism, its relative neglect of many of the ethical questions raised in a world of poverty, hunger, violence, and other forms of malaise was also criticized. Bear in mind the weak points of behavioralism it is evident that it cannot be the leading approach to study politics. Behavioralism has generally tried to base their own accounts of Behavioralism as a science on the best available contemporary knowledge, while at the same time remaining faithful to the essentials of Behavioralism.

It is possible to conclude that comparative politics consists of interconnected concepts, but this understanding depends upon particular methodology and approach on the basis of which the concept is explained. Behavioralism approach applied to political study has a lot of limitations which do not allow to use it as a core one, but merits of this approach allow overcome limitations of the other methodologies and provide a complex and substantial analysis of political processes.

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  1. Berndtson, E. Behavioralism: Origins of the Concept. Available at:
  2. “Behavioralism” From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Available at:
  3. Behavioralism’s Critics.
  4. Introduction to Research methods. 2003. Available at:
  5. Lane, R. The Art of Comparative Politics. Longman, 1997.
  6. Ponton, G., Peter G. Introduction to Politics. 3d edition. Blackwell Oxford UK and Cambridge USA. 1993.
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