Perspectives on Politics

Reflections Symposium

Explaining the Unexpected: Political Science and the Surprises of 1989 and 2011

Marc Morjé Howard and Meir R. Walters


Political scientists have been caught by surprise by some of the world’s most dramatic political transformations. To assess how the discipline fared in explaining two of the most large-scale and unexpected developments of the past decades, we compare scholarship around the time of popular mobilization in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Arab world in 2011. We argue that while scholars cannot be expected to predict utterly extraordinary events such as revolutions and mass mobilization, in these two cases disciplinary trends left scholars ill-prepared to explain them. Political scientists used similar paradigms to study both regions, emphasizing their failure to develop politically and economically along the lines of Western Europe and the United States. Sovietologists tended to study the communist bloc as either anomalously totalitarian or modernizing towards “convergence” with the West. Likewise, political scientists studying the Arab world focused disproportionately on the prospects for democratization or the barriers to it, and they now risk treating the 2011 protest movements essentially as non-events if they are not clearly tied to institutional democratic reform. By broadening their research agendas beyond a focus on regime type, political scientists will be better prepared to understand future changes in the Middle East and elsewhere.


  The authors are grateful for valuable suggestions and feedback from Daniel Brumberg, Sofia Fenner, Leah Gilbert, Ian Hartshorn, Mostafa Hefny, Payam Mohseni, Yonatan Morse, Hesham Sallam, Rachel Sternfeld, and Gerasimos Tsourapas. They also thank Jeffrey Isaac and the anonymous reviewers from Perspectives on Politics for their extensive and insightful comments on a previous version of this paper. Meir Walters would like to thank the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC) for providing him with office space while writing this paper.