Doing Comparative Research on Local Politics: At a Crossroads Between Inertia and Innovation

  • Kristof Steyvers Faculty of Political and Social Science, Ghent University, Belgium
Keywords: local politics, local government systems, comparative method, institutionalism, urban regimes, urban governance


This article tries to build a case for more rigorous and systematic comparative research on local politics, i.e., on the actors, instruments, institutions, and processes of place-bound governance. It discusses the opportunities (i.e. the methodological advantages in tackling descriptive, explanatory, and pragmatic questions) as well as the obstacles often associated with this approach (i.e. the existence of multiple middle-level theories and a number of methodological trade-offs innate to the comparative method). The article attempts to provide a timely state of the art of the field, and in doing so discerns three phases. The first two can be summarised as addressing the challenge of classification (with a more descriptive and a more explanatory variant rooted in old institutionalism) while the third may be said to address theorisation (where description and explanation are embedded in new institutionalism). Each phase is illustrated by one or more cases representative of that stage of development and the underlying complexities. In terms of classification, the article tries to demonstrate how the classic categorical approach to intergovernmental relations, focused on the West, gives way to a more discrete outlook, including cases from the rest of Europe. Equally, the intragovernmental perspective has gradually entered the picture (sometimes in combination with its earlier counterpart in more integrated modes of local democracy). With regard to theorisation, the (comparative) evolution of regime analysis from a mould of governing to a mode of governance is taken as a case in point. For the nowadays dominant concept of governance, contemporary assessments are increasingly considering the consequences of the empirically established albeit contingent shift away from government. In addition, the article formulates some prospects for improvement within the field in terms of explanations (i.e., multi-tiered with a primary focus on the local), theories (i.e., developing and testing empirical implications or propositions viable across and within levels), designs (i.e., maximising the added values of propinquity and numerosity), and measurement (i.e., addressing issues of equivalence).