The change in political participation is currently a hotly discussed topic. Low turnouts in the 2001 and 2005 UK general elections, along with falling membership of political parties have led political organisations to discover the reasons for this (BBC, 2006). One method is to use comparative analysis. This “is about comparing aspects of countries’ political systems” (Dobson, 2005, p.140) to try to understand why a phenomenon occurs in one country or time period but not in another. This essay looks at two factors, which evidence suggests affect political participation: gender and socio-economic standing. It examines whether comparative analysis is a useful tool for studying this topic. It concludes that whilst comparative politics is helpful at identifying participation trends, it is too simplistic to provide practical answers and that further studies are required to reveal useful outcomes.
Historically, conventional ways for citizens to participate in politics were by voting in elections and joining a political party. The decline in these activities has led some to believe there is political apathy in Britain. However Helena Kennedy (cited by White, 2006, p.4), chair of the Commission which produced the Power to the People report (2006) denies this, saying that despite “no longer want[ing] to join a party or get involved in formal politics,” people instead take direct action by raising money for charities, joining protest marches, signing petitions and undertaking volunteering work within their communities. The possibility for differing definitions of key outcomes is a disadvantage for comparative analysis.
A study that defines participation in terms such as voting or contacting politicians will conclude that political participation has decreased and supports the political apathy theory, whereas, a study such as the Citizen Audit (2001), using “unorthodox” definitions, such as membership of political organisations (anything from trade unions to community groups) or financially supporting activist organisations, find that participation is still strong. The Citizen Audit “found that approximately 40 per cent of adults belong to at least one political organisation” (Smith, 2005, p.83) and “there is little evidence of widespread apathy” (Smith, 2005, p.84). When trying to create policies to increase political participation, these conflicting results are unhelpful.
Following a 2002 European Union directive, which required member states to “promote equality in relation to sexual orientation, age and religion in addition to race, gender and disability” (Squires, 2005, p.119), European governments began to initiate changes to the way women were represented within parliament. Governments did not necessarily choose the same initiatives and comparative analysis is useful to identify quickly the comparative success of each government’s initiatives. (See table 1, Appendix).
Political systems are hugely complex and as Dobson states; “Each day most of us find ourselves describing, explaining and predicting something. Comparative politics is no more, then, than carrying out these apparently basic human activities in the context of what we are calling ‘political worlds’ ” (Dobson, 2005, p.143). Comparing what happens in different countries or different political systems enables the analysis of differences and similarities and thereby, identifying factors that can be applied generally to simplify complex systems. For example Table 1 shows that Nordic countries have significantly higher levels of female participation in comparison to the UK.
A policy maker, looking to increase participation by UK women, can then look at why there is such a large disparity between the two countries and whether there is something the UK could learn from Nordic policy. This illustrates another advantage of comparative study; it gives opportunity to expand one’s knowledge of political worlds. For comparison there must be at least two things to compare which must be evidently different. In political comparison, this is often two different countries and even if one is one’s own, the other will not be and “if we assume that knowledge of others is a prerequisite for finding our way around, and managing, a globalizing world, then comparative politics seems to be of increasing practical importance” (Dobson, 2005, p.143).
Expanding one’s knowledge is generally auspicious and simplifying complex information is usually advantageous although over simplification is a risk. Table 2 shows the same information as table 1 but for the elections that were held closest to the time of the aforementioned EU directive. Figure 1 shows the percentage point difference between both elections. Using this information, that same policy maker may feel that focussing on France’s policies would be of much greater value than that of the Nordic countries as, in only 10 years, France has almost doubled the amount of women who hold parliamentary seats.
Comparing and ranking countries can be useful but, as illustrated here, it is only part of a story and great care must be taken when interpreting comparative data. Oversimplification is a distinct risk of comparative analysis. It is possible to mitigate the risk by undertaking more study, producing more data and a more sophisticated and detailed analysis to guide forecasting or policy change. It is important that one considers this potential issue when working with conclusions drawn from comparative analysis.
In 2005 the Electoral Commission produced a research report, Social Exclusion and Political Engagement. Its aim was to explore “why those experiencing social disadvantage tend to also be the most politically excluded in society.” (Electoral Commission, 2005) Looking at the aim of this report highlights an advantage of using comparative politics but also a disadvantage. The advantage is that it allows testing of hypotheses; in this case, those who experience social disadvantage are more likely to be politically excluded. By comparing different circumstances, one can find out what factors affect the political situation in a country, giving an idea as to what particular social/financial or other conditions might give rise to say, reform or revolution in the future. The possibility to predict outcomes is especially important for politicians; “the possibility of knowing that under certain social conditions, policy X will produce outcome Y” (Dobson, 2005, p.144) allows them to make informed policy decisions.
The disadvantage is that in research, subjectivity and objectivity can sometimes be lost. Baxter, (cited by Dobson, 2005, p.146) points out; “Research is not a wholly objective activity carried out by detached scientists. It is a social activity powerfully affected by the researcher’s own motivations and values.” In this case, the researcher(s) has(ve) already taken on the axiom that those with social disadvantages are politically excluded. This does not necessarily mean that conclusions drawn by social scientists are useless it just means that it is important that anyone working with these conclusions is aware that they “might be ‘contaminated’ by their [comparative scientists’] own motivations and values” (Dobson, 2005, p.154).
The report drew together much information on the subject and found that the ‘working class’ (C2DEs) were 21 percentage points less likely to vote than the ‘middle class’ (ABC1), 60% to 41%. It also found “ABC1s twice as likely as C2DEs to take advantage of the opportunity to contact their elected representatives: two-thirds of those who present their views to their councillors or MPs are ABC1s… Political activism is higher among ABC1s than C2DEs (23% as compared to 7%). Across a range of different activities which could still be defined as ‘political’, there is a correlation with class and income… those in the lowest social class, the poorest in society and the less educated were less likely to be politically active than those who are in a higher social class” (Electoral Commission, 2005, p.9).
This gives a lot of interesting information and seems to make it clear that there is a correlation between social class and political participation but then it could be argued that it does not really say anything useful. It illustrates a difference but it does not give any reason for this difference. It does not give any principles that one could draw from the comparisons to enable one to make wider or more generalised conclusions about what would lessen the gap. Anyone using the data runs the risk of putting their own interpretation on the results, as stated by Lewis (cited in Dobson, 2005, p.157) “the development of the comparatives’ tools seems to involve the interpretation of political reality rather than its simple and problem-free observation”. The other difficulty with this is that people interpret things in different ways and one person’s interpretation of these results might not be another’s. This runs the risk of further confusion rather than clarifying issues.
To conclude, Dobson asks; “Whether, despite their peculiarities, we can build theories for comparing political worlds that will enable us to offer general truths about them. Or are we only ever able to tell stories about them – stories rich in specific detail but devoid of generalizable truths?” (Dobson, 2005, p.140). Comparative analysis is a key tool in identifying trends in participation. It also allows for the testing of hypothesis and for simplification of complicated data, with the possibility of expanding ones knowledge; all notable advantages. However, the disadvantages of contamination and misinterpretation along with the possibility for over simplification reveal crucial limitations, meaning that comparative analysis offers little in the way of definitive predictions about or practical answers which could influence political participation.
BBC, 2006. Political system faces ‘meltdown’. BBC UK Politics. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4753876.stm [Accessed 3 December, 2014].
Electoral Commission, 2005. Available at: http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/63835/Social-exclusion-and-political-engagement.pdf [Accessed 4 December, 2014].
Dobson, A., Story telling and theory building: comparing political worlds. In: Lewis, P ed. 2005. Exploring Political Worlds. Milton Keynes, The Open University
Smith, M., Taking part in politics. In: Lewis, P ed. 2005. Exploring Political Worlds. Milton Keynes, The Open University
Squires, J., Common citizenship and plural identities: the politics of social difference. In: Lewis, P ed. 2005. Exploring Political Worlds. Milton Keynes, The Open University
White, I., Power Inquiry, 2006. Power to the People: the report of Power, an Independent Inquiry into Britain’s Democracy. – Commons Library Standard Note, Power to the People: the report of Power, an Independent Inquiry into Britain’s Democracy. – Commons Library Standard Note. Available at: http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN03948/power-to-the-people-the-report-of-power-an-independent-inquiry-into-britains-democracy [Accessed 3 December, 2014].
Whiteley, P.F., Pattie, C. and Seyd, P., Citizen Audit of Great Britain, 2000-2001 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], March 2005. SN: 5099, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-5099-1
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