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O'Donnell: Illusions and conceptual flaws

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

O'Donnell. 1996. Illusions and conceptual flaws. Journal of Democracy 7 (October): 160-68.

This is a full assault on Gunther et al's rejoinder and their book. Basically, O'Donnell's complaint (from his original article too--the one that started all this) is that many people studying consolidation view it teleologically. From 162-3: "By a teleological concept I mean one which posits, explicitly or implicitly, that a given entity inherently tends to move from lower (or immature or incomplete) to higher (or more mature, or complete) stages, up to an end point that marks the full development of its potentialities. Characteristically, the stages are understood from their end point: a seed is "basically" a potential tree, or a given democracy is, as the authors put it, "not yet" sufficiently consolidated. Entities are defined negatively, characterized not by their specific attributes but by what they lack in relation to the paradigmatic end point of their presumed trajectory. Negative definitions generate residual categories: cases are classified together on the basis of their sharing the lack of attributes that the more developed specimens of the same genus supposedly have."

O'Donnell doesn't like that many scholars of consolidation view consolidation this way. Countries lie somewhere on a continuum from "newly transitioned" to "consolidated." Rather than being sorted into analytically useful categories, states are categorized negatively (i.e. according to what they lack compared to fully consolidated countries). In his original article, O'Donnell suggested a new way of categorizing non-consolidated states, one that would sort them in an empirically useful way. He recommended looking not only at the formal institutions (Dahlsian), but also at another dimension: how closely does actual practice within those institutions follow what the formal rules prescribe? (In other words, how much do the informal institutions--like clientelism especially--deviate from the formal ones?)

Research on similar subjects


O'Donnell, Guillermo (author)Comparative PoliticsDemocratizationDemocracyConsolidationRegime Type

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