Part 1: Introduction

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Studying democracy

The best way to study democracy is by combining qualitative and quantitative research approaches.

Qualitative research approach is exploratory in nature. Its aim is to gain an understanding of preconditions such as history and culture that can explain the institutional organisation of a given society and the values and motivations of its people. Qualitative research is also used to uncover overall trends in thought.  In other words, qualitative research provides insights into the society we want to study and helps us develop ideas and hypotheses for potential quantitative research, which can then verify or disprove them.

Quantitative research approach is based on a systematic investigation of phenomena of political and social life by gathering new or using existing measurable data and performing statistical, mathematical or computational analyses of these data. Quantitative Research helps to uncover patterns.

Both methods, separately or in conjunction, can be used to study either a single society or conduct comparative cross-country, cross-regional or cross-cultural research on democracy.  

The best way to understand how well or how badly democracy functions in one’s own country is to compare it with other countries.

Cross-country comparisons reveal the specific cultural, social, political, and economic factors that influence the emergence, consolidation, quality, and stability of democracy.

These factors are located at different levels:

  • Macro-level attributes are the same for all citizens residing in a country.
  • Meso-level is distinguished by various political subunits such as provinces, districts, and local levels. Different organizations operate at these different levels. At each level they might include economic enterprises, voluntary political associations such as political parties, NGOs, and many other civil society associations, for example sports clubs. The meso-level organizations are important because they link citizens to society and politics and help us understand how different political interests are processed by the political system.
  • The micro-level refers to individual citizens with their unique value orientations, political outlooks, demographic characteristics, and attitudes towards others in the society. Micro-level indicators can help us determine in what ways the political preferences of citizens influence political decision-making.

Comparative Analyses Require Data for all Three Levels:

Macro-level data usually include information on the political system, the level of socioeconomic development, the quality of governmental services, and the average standard of living. To be comparable across different countries, international collections of national data have to use uniform criteria for measuring these different aspects. Data for the individual countries are mostly compiled using national governmental publications or evaluations provided by national experts. The data collections are regularly published. The  World Bank publishes data on economic development; the United Nations Development Program on Human Development and Freedom House publish data on various aspects of governance, such as respect for the rule of law;  the V-Dem Institute presents data on the quality of democracy.

Meso-level data is more difficult to find. There are only a few global data collections at that level, such  V-Dem  that regularly updates a data base on national party systems. Otherwise, researchers must rely on data that are only available for certain world regions or for single countries. This limits the systematic inclusion of meso-level data in global comparisons.

Micro-level data collections include results from representative public opinion surveys for a large number of countries. They include the World Values Survey (WVS), Global Barometer Surveys and several regional surveys, such as  Afrobarometer, or Latinobarómetro, the European Social Survey (ESS), and the International Social Survey Program (ISSP).

Ideally, comparative studies on democracy should combine data for more than one level to demonstrate how the combination of factors on these different levels influence the quality and the functioning of democracy in different countries. This is statistically more complicated than comparative studies relying on either country-level data or individual data only. Multi-level analysis splits into the part that is explained by the macro-level variables and the part explained by the micro-level variables. Only such a more complex method of analysis will yield valid results. Procedures for multi-level analysis are included in all major statistical analysis packages, such as SPSS, SAS, R.

Next up:
Connecting reality to research