>Western specialists on Eastern Europe: Time to take stock?

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An interesting article by Professor Phil Hanson of the University of Birmingham makes its way into my inbox in connection with a discussion about crossovers between the comparative study of politics and economics of post-communist states. The paper traces the decline (and re-emergence under different labels) of “comparative economics” the label under which communist economies were studies for much of the 1970s and 80s. These days some very non-comparative studies of post-communist transition economies are labelled ‘comparative’ because of the lingering sense of CEE and the FSU as sui generis. Meanwhile political economists writing on ‘varieties of capitalism’ have revived the sub-discipline in a new guise.

For specialists on post-communist politics, the article highlights some interesting parallels and differences. Comparative politics was (and is) a much better established sub-discipline/tradition than comparative economic studies with a fairly rich vein of work comparing communist and post-communist states both before and (especially) after 1989, although US work on post-communist politics is far more (rigorously) comparative than the more monographic British tradition of research. However, one can see parallels: for example, the ‘invasion from the mainstream’ of 1990s as non-area specialists moved in the study the region with generalised/generalizable theoretical approaches – which led to sharp polemic between Valerie Bunce and Philippe Schmitter on the pages of Slavic Review and occasionally resurfaces, despite the emergence of a kind of consensus that knowledge of area specifics and broad generalizability comparability are both important.

Another and the slow erosion of the ‘competitive advantage’ enjoyed by Western specialists on CEE politics purely because of country specific knowledge, cultural background and language skills (in Western academia) others didn’t have. This is partly due to eclipse of distinct communist political systems – post-communist states are, on the whole, merely variations of democracy or electoral authoritarianism (aka ‘hybrid regimes’) although the Central Asian states seem to offer relatively original forms of authoritarianism less amenable to mainstream political science analysis. However, there are other factors at work too.

It is especially interesting to observe the steady rise of Central and East European political science, largely relegated to a kind of poor relation or apprentice status in the 1990s. Although still very uneven in terms of quality and international profile – Estonia and Hungary are the clear leaders as far as I can tell – and suffering a chronic lack of cash and (in some cases) starting from a low base of expertise, it seems to make horse sense that (in the coming years) the basic research on Hungarian or Czech domestic politics should be carried out by Hungarian and Czech political scientists with the need for excessive duplication by Western-based country-watchers shaped by the pre-1989 area studies tradition.

Of course, some Central European scholars say they value an outside view as it helps them see their own countries from a broader perspective and there are, of course, formal and informal research networks spanning East and West. But I wonder though if this is not really a coded reference to the (slowly closing) resource and expertise gap? Would the arguments would/ should perhaps be applied in reserve. Would Poles and Slovenes start moving to research US or British politics from a more objective perspective if they had the resources? There are US and British traditions of studying German or French domestic politics, it’s true, but somehow I can’t help feeling that shares in Western country specialists on CEE – like those of comparative economists Phil Hanson writes about – perform steadily but are in long term decline.

Phillip Hanson, ‘The Tasks Ahead in Comparative Economic Studies: What Should We Be Comparing?’, Japanese Journal of Comparative Economics, 44 (1) January 2007, 1-14.

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