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47 Program on Central and Eastern Europe

Institutional Choice After Communism: A Critique of Theory-Building in an Empirical Wasteland

1998 – Michael Bernhard


During the past decade there has been a tendency in political science to belittle area-based compara tive politics and argue that comparativists need to become more "scientific" like their colleagues in other subdisciplines. Robert Bates, the former president of the APSA's organized comparative politics section, even has called area specialists traitors to science who have forsaken the search for general izable knowledge. This tendency in the discipline has been contemporaneous with the collapse of European communist regimes, and the discipline's treatment of these events provides one of the first opportunities to assess the emergent orthodoxy. Mainstream journals have published a number of articles by specialists in democratization who do not have extensive training in the region. Such "trespassers" have applied existing theories of democratization to Eastern Europe. This paper critically evaluates the part of this literature devoted to questions of institutional choice in new democracies. The major find ing is that much of this literature is marred by highly suspect interpretations and outright errors of fact. In many cases, these inaccuracies are so great as to render much of the theoretical insight drawn by these articles suspect. The conclusion of the paper is that by radically separating empirical from nomothetic knowledge, and determination of fact from theorizing, the errant trespassers create well specified theories that are based on slim or bad evidence. In short, they practice bad science.