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Expanding Quantitative and Qualitative Comparative Politics in China

By Li Hui, Xiong Yihan and Tang Shiping | 2013-07-31 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
The comparative method is at the core of research approaches in both natural sciences and social sciences. Political science is no exception; in fact, comparative politics has always been a driving force in political science research. However, comparative politics is perhaps the weakest branch of political science in China. Scholars have already discussed the problems with comparative politics in China, but we believe more specific and in-depth observations are still needed.
The most serious problem with Chinese comparative politics is that there is basically no comparative political study that truly undertakes an extensive comparison between systems or facets of political life. Rather, much of the extant literature in Chinese political studies highlights the importance of comparative politics, appealing for promotion of its development by scholars, or simply introduces a certain important figure or school in comparative politics without any critical research or new research direction or method. In other cases, studies merely differentiate and analyze some basic concepts. These approaches had their due value when comparative politics was in its fledgling state in China, but the excess of such articles within the field today is an indication that Chinese comparative politics is still in its initial stages.
Real research needs more comparison
The fundamental reason for this lack is that most scholars are not willing to carry out practical research. One can speculate on the reasons behind this lethargy, but we cannot simply attribute the failure to the ideological restrictions. Meanwhile, we should be wary of political scientists who attribute a reluctance to engage in comparison for fear of dogmatizing ideologies. For example, one article seemingly makes rival claims to Western comparative politics, but in so doing simply shows that the author is a captive of Western comparative politics, as the article leaves us a with the impression that western comparative politics exclusively addresses democratization. While democratization has certainly been an important topic in Western comparative politics, the topics and objectives of the field are incredibly broad, addressing modernization, ethnic relations, economic development, individual livelihood, government performance, public trust, inequality, social stability and labor movement—all of which Chinese comparative politics should concern itself with as well.
Quite a few scholars believe that the most urgent agenda for contemporary China is the research of “China issues” in the most absolute sense of the term. However, only when studied comparatively with other countries can China issues be better understood and explained. The segregation of China issues and corresponding generalization of Western issues should be avoided. If we cling to “Chinese characteristics” without any accurate comparison, we may instead repeat the mistakes that have been made before, only to be mocked by others as conceited and ignorant.
New methods should be explored
The extant dialogue within the field is limited to summary and assumption. Those addressing concrete issues generally focus on one single country without any comparison. Most of this discussion has failed to differentiate itself from the methodology of historical research, while not even achieving the accuracy of the latter’s conclusions.
With genuine research issues in hand, we will need proper research methods to address them. Training in research methodology, however, is far from sufficient. Currently in China, there is not even a single research method to serve as pillar of sound comparative political study by which we might measure emerging methods.
Unlike natural sciences where scientists can establish and test a theory through regimented experiments, in social sciences, such straightforward data collection with controlled variables is rarely possible. As such, a higher level of comparison is required, whether it be a comparative case study of a small sample or the statistical analysis of a large sample. Although some comparative studies based on qualitative research, their quality generally leaves much to be desired. Some have assumed that qualitative research is quite easy, which is a serious misunderstanding that leads to many sloppy and unfocused case studies. Even if there is a certain degree of comparison, a lack of serious structure and focus simply leads to an editorial, not good science.
There are some studies based on qualitative research that simply need standardization in terms of case selection and argument formation, but there are hardly any studies based on quantitative analysis or game theory. Even when compared with other fields in China (e.g., economics and sociology), the use of a quantitative approach in Chinese political science is far behind.
The majority of social scientists have recognized that qualitative approaches and quantitative approaches each have their own advantages and shortcomings; ultimately, we should aspire to a synthesis of the two, but such a synthesis is virtually non-existent in China now, as neither method has been adequately developed.
Li Hui, Xiong Yihan and Tang Shiping are from Fudan University.
Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 231, Oct 20, 2011.
 Translated and edited by Jiang Hong
Revised by Charles Horne