Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, and Comparative Politics: Transitology and the Need for New Theory

World Affairs, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, and Comparative Politics: Transitology and the Need for New Theory


A vigorous polemic has been conducted over the last decade concerning the usefulness of employing in Central and Eastern Europe the model of transitions to and consolidations of democracy fashioned out of the Southern European (Greece, Portugal, Spain) and Latin American experiences. (1) Some scholars of the latter regions have taken to calling themselves "transitologists" and "consolidologists" and have put forth sometimes exaggerated and self-important claims to have invented entirely new areas of the discipline. The study of the transitions to and consolidation of democracy is fascinating and important, but since its theory and empirical material are still weak and underdeveloped, it ought at this stage to be considered merely a new, significant, interesting, but perhaps also topical subject matter, like "liberation theology" or "bureaucratic-authoritarianism," rather than a major theoretical breakthrough.

Meanwhile, students of Eastern and Central Europe have often been put on the defensive in this debate. They have been branded as narrow "area specialists," "regionalists," presumably devoid of theoretical interest and insights and therefore out of the mainstream of comparative politics. It is true that within East/Central European studies there are some narrow area specialists who are not interested in large, comparative studies; but for the most part this is an unfair, demagogic, and misleading charge.

The question is not whether East/Central European scholars are also theoretically oriented comparativists but rather which body or insights of theory are the most appropriate ones to use. Why should we assume a priori, before the evidence is even collected or the East/Central European experience carefully weighed and considered, that Southern Europe and Latin America have much to teach students of East/Central Europe? Actually, there is much that the East/Central European scholar can learn from the Southern European and Latin American experiences, as to both what is relevant to their own studies and what is not. At the same time we need to recognize that the Eastern/Central Europe experience is so fundamentally different from those of Southern Europe and Latin America that the theory and categories developed out of the latter for studying the former are only of limited usefulness. We need to sort out which insights from studying Southern Europe and Latin America are useful and which are less so; certainly no wholesale, mindless application of the transitology/consolidology literature to East/Central Europe is appropriate.

But I wish to take another tack here. So far the debate among East/Central European scholars has been over whether the literature developed by students of Southern Europe/Latin America is relevant for this area. Students of East/Central Europe have largely assumed that the transitologists and consolidologists got the Southern European/Latin American experiences right. I wish, however, to suggest that the model developed by transitologists and consolidologists is fundamentally flawed even as interpretation of Southern Europe and Latin America--in other words, that the transitology/ consolidology scholars got it wrong (or much of it) even for their own area. And, of course, if this literature is wrong or, more accurately, incomplete even on Southern Europe (let us leave Latin America out of the discussion for now; that area is so far removed from East/Central Europe culturally, sociologically, economically, and politically that its utility as a model for East/Central Europe is extremely limited), then it certainly cannot be of great usefulness for East/Central Europe.

Obviously, this is a big subject area and a controversial one, certain to generate even more polemic. I cannot in this brief research note answer all the questions or provide all the data and references to support the case completely. But let me present some of the main themes and arguments as a way of opening the debate.

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Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, and Comparative Politics: Transitology and the Need for New Theory
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