Uncorking democracy

Photo: Davide Restivo, Lenzburg, Aarau, Switzerland. Via Wikicommons

Like a good wine or an old cheese, comparative research on democratisation is often described as a ‘mature’ academic literature and, as such, one that can lay claim to have accumulated some real knowledge about one of the central trends in global politics over last two centuries or so. Leonardo Morlino’s new book Changes for Democracy: Actors, Structures, Processes, however, warns that even such cautious satisfaction is not in order.

 There has, he suggests, been high-level theorising of institutional change and empirical research with quantitative research preoccupied with operationalization tends to produce simplistic variable-driven theories.  Regionally oriented approaches to democratisation –beginning with the ‘transition’ approaches developed by O’Donnell and other Latin Americanists in 1970s – however, get the lowest marks for offering  ‘questions but not theoretical results’ heralding a  ‘…retreat from theory or a fear of developing a theory… ’ .

 Morlino’s wide-ranging book which – sometimes rather awkwardly –  mixes literature review, empirical analysis and discusses concepts tries to correct this with an ambitious three-part reflection seeking to identify underlying mechanisms of democratisation. It takes in definitions of democracy (and illiberal democracy); phases of democratisation and democratic ‘anchors’ and the question of deepening democracy once established.

 

The book is in some ways a rather untidy and frustrating read. Parts of the discussion, seemed laboured and the book shifts frustratingly between recapitulation and revision of conventional approaches such Dahl’s minimal definition of procedural democracy to much more novel insights. In the end in its own terms, however, its does deliver  picking out three key shared mechanisms of democratisation:  learning as the main motor transition; ‘anchoring’ mechanisms as key to consolidation; and the fact that the good qualities of good democracies tend to converge, rather than being brutally traded-off.

 Set against the sheer complexity and diversity of global democratisation, however, such conclusions to me seemed a little sparse. Much more interesting were the arresting and sometimes rather brilliant linkages Morlino make between phases of democratisation which tend to be theorised and studied in isolation. Reflections on ‘anchoring’ democracy, for example, lead to an innovative idea about the nature of political crises in modern democracies as rooted to initial patterns of democratic consolidation.  His suggestion that the well-worn ‘transition’ perspective might be used to analyse shifts within democracies from one model of democracy to another is a similarly arresting insight.

 All in all while not quite a vintage work, certainly a book with some subtle and interesting flavours worth savouring for a while.

(A longer version of this review is forthcoming in Czech Sociological Review)

 

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