World Politics

Research Note

Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research

David Collier and Steven Levitskya1*

a1 University of California, Berkeley


The recent trend toward democratization in countries across the globe has challenged scholars to pursue two potentially contradictory goals. On the one hand, they seek to increase analytic differentiation in order to capture the diverse forms of democracy that have emerged. On the other hand, they are concerned with conceptual validity. Specifically, they seek to avoid the problem of conceptual stretching that arises when the concept of democracy is applied to cases for which, by relevant scholarly standards, it is not appropriate. This article argues that the pursuit of these two goals has led to a proliferation of conceptual innovations, including numerous subtypes of democracy—that is to say, democracy “with adjectives.” The article explores the strengths and weaknesses of alternative strategies of conceptual innovation that have emerged: descending and climbing Sartori's ladder of generality, generating “diminished” subtypes of democracy, “precising” the definition of democracy by adding defining attributes, and shifting the overarching concept with which democracy is associated. The goal of the analysis is to make more comprehensible the complex structure of these strategies, as well as to explore trade-offs among the strategies. Even when scholars proceed intuitively, rather than self-consciously, they tend to operate within this structure. Yet it is far more desirable for them to do so selfconsciously, with a full awareness of these trade-offs.

David Collier is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He is coauthor of Shaping the Political Arena: Critical Junctures, the Labor Movement, and Regime Dynamics in Latin America (1991), and he has published extensively on concept analysis and comparative method. He is the incoming president of the Comparative Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

Steven Levitsky is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently conducting research on the transformation of Peronism in the contemporary neoliberal era in Argentina.

* We acknowledge the valuable suggestions of Ruth Berins Collier, Larry Diamond, Andrew Gould, Peter Houtzager, Marcus Kurtz, Terry Karl, David Laitin, George Lakoff, Arend Lijphart, James Mahoney, Scott Mainwaring, Carol Medlin, Gerardo Munck, Guillermo O'Donnell, Michael Pretes, Philippe Schmitter, Laura Stoker, Mark Turner, Samuel Valenzuela, and participants in the Berkeley Working Group on Comparative Method. Steve Levitsky's participation in this research was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship, and David Collier's work on this project at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences was supported by National Science Foundation Grant no. SBR-9022192.