by Rod Hague and Martin Harrop

Chapter Five: Theoretical Approaches

Chapter Notes

  • Theoretical approaches as ways of understanding that structure the questions we ask and constrain the answers we can obtain.
  • The institutional approach: focus on the organizations of government. Emphasis on roles or positions, not individuals. Institutions create interests and a house view. Their capacity for long-term, credible commitments. The approach can be static and can ignore the social context: who benefits from the institutional set-up?
  • The behavioural approach: ‘the root is man’, not institutions. Focus on individuals and their attitudes, especially among the public. Search for generalizations, tested against quantitative data. Useful findings (including comparative) but apolitical and static.
  • The structural approach: emphasizes the objective relationships between social actors including social classes. The state as the driver of political change. ‘Structure’ as underlying social forces, operating at a deeper level than institutions or individuals. Its method is comparative history.
  • The rational choice approach: seeks to explain and predict political outcomes as the product of strategic interaction between individuals pursuing their own goals. ‘As if’ application to larger units e.g. parties. A universal model with limited applicability to understanding variations between countries.
  • The interpretive (constructivist) approach: seeks to understand rather than explain political action by grasping its meaning for the actor. The approach regards concepts such as ‘class’ and ‘state’ as socially constructed rather than as existing in a ‘real’ world.

Multiple choice questions


Essays and term papers

  1. Which theoretical approach is most useful for students of comparative politics and why?
  2. What are the strengths and weakness of the institutional approach to the study of politics?

Hague & Harrop, 2013 edn, ch. 5.

D. Marsh and G. Stoker, Theory and Methods in Political Science
T. Landman, Issues and Methods in Comparative Politics: An Introduction
M. Lichbach and A. Zuckerman, Comparative Politics: Rationality, Culture and Structure
B. GuyPeters, Comparative Politics: Theory and Methods
B. GuyPeters, Institutional Theory in Political Science: The New Institutionalism
R. Rhodes, S. Binder and B. Rockman, The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions



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