Modern Populism: Research Advances, Conceptual and Methodological Pitfalls, and the Minimal Definition
Takis S. Pappas
Populism is one of the most dynamic fields of comparative political research. Although its study began in earnest only in the late 1960s, it has since developed through four distinct waves of scholarship, each pertaining to distinct empirical phenomena and with specific methodological and theoretical priorities. Today, the field is in need of a comprehensive general theory that will be able to capture the phenomenon specifically within the context of our contemporary democracies. This, however, requires our breaking away from recurring conceptual and methodological errors and, above all, a consensus about the minimal definition of populism.
All in all, the study of populism has been plagued by 10 drawbacks: (1) unspecified empirical universe, (2) lack of historical and cultural context specificity, (3) essentialism, (4) conceptual stretching, (5) unclear negative pole, (6) degreeism, (7) defective observable-measurable indicators, (8) a neglect of micromechanisms, (9) poor data and inattention to crucial cases, and (10) normative indeterminacy. Most, if not all, of the foregoing methodological errors are cured if we define, and study, modern populism simply as “democratic illiberalism,” which also opens the door to understanding the malfunctioning and pathologies of our modern-day liberal representative democracies.
Process tracing is a research method for tracing causal mechanisms using detailed, within-case empirical analysis of how a causal process plays out in an actual case. Process tracing can be used both for case studies that aim to gain a greater understanding of the causal dynamics that produced the outcome of a particular historical case and to shed light on generalizable causal mechanisms linking causes and outcomes within a population of causally similar cases. This article breaks down process tracing as a method into its three core components: theorization about causal mechanisms linking causes and outcomes; the analysis of the observable empirical manifestations of the operation of theorized mechanisms; and the complementary use of comparative methods to enable generalizations of findings from single case studies to other causally similar cases. Three distinct variants of process tracing are developed, illustrated by examples from the literature.
Sabine C. Carey and Neil J. Mitchell
Pro-government militias are a prominent feature of civil wars. Governments in Colombia, Syria, and Sudan recruit irregular forces in their armed struggle against insurgents. The United States collaborated with Awakening groups to counter the insurgency in Iraq, just as colonizers used local armed groups to fight rebellions in their colonies. An emerging cross-disciplinary literature on pro-government non-state armed groups generates a variety of research questions for scholars interested in conflict, political violence, and political stability: Does the presence of such groups indicate a new type of conflict? What are the dynamics that drive governments to align with informal armed groups and that make armed groups choose to side with the government? Given the risks entailed in surrendering a monopoly of violence, is there a turning point in a conflict when governments enlist these groups? How successful are these groups? Why do governments use these non-state armed actors to shape foreign conflicts whether as insurgents or counterinsurgents abroad? Are these non-state armed actors always useful to governments or perhaps even an indicator for state failure?
We examine the demand for and supply of pro-government armed groups and the legacies that shape their role in civil wars. The enduring pattern of collaboration between governments and these armed non-state actors challenges conventional theory and the idea of an evolutionary process of the modern state consolidating the means of violence. Research on these groups and their consequences began with case studies, and these continue to yield valuable insights. More recently, survey work and cross-national quantitative research contribute to our knowledge. This mix of methods is opening new lines of inquiry for research on insurgencies and the delivery of the core public good of effective security.