Department of Political Science

An overview of the fundamental developments of the last two decades and the department’s contribution to the field


The apparent difficulty of summarizing the major developments within the field of political science betrays one of the fundamental current characteristics of the discipline: its impressive growth and its compartmentalization into a large number of almost self-sufficient sub-disciplines.


For those within the field, the most spectacular changes have had to do with methodology. In the course of the last two decades, political science has become much more conscious and self-reflective concerning its methods than in the preceding era. Around the 1990s, political science vigorously embraced the "scientific" logic of natural sciences. This shift provoked the mobilization of interpretivist scholars, and a major debate ensued. Although the debate by now has largely concluded into the acknowledgment of pluralism, the constructivist-interpretivist camp has changed considerably in the process, becoming more structured and self-reflective. This trend has been supported by the development of new techniques such as Qualitative Comparative Analysis and the computer-based analysis of texts. The statistical methods used by political scientists are also much more sophisticated than the ones used 20 years ago. Multi-level techniques, structural equation modeling and network analytical methods (just to name a few) have given political scientists powerful tools for the analysis of attitudes, relations and behavior.

A related change concerns the rational choice approach. While political science was dominated by rational models during the first years of this period, the most recent years have been characterized by efforts to refine the abstract models or even by the complete rejection of such models. Rational choice is now considered as one of the numerous possible approaches, rather than the universal theory of the discipline. Institutionalism, an approach and interest area that seemed to many to be a dead end 20 years ago, flourishes again, either by embracing rational choice or by relying on historical and sociological perspectives.


Among the topics that dominated political science 20 years ago, one was particularly important for CEU: regime transition. This focus has partly faded away and has partly transformed. The current interest is more in consolidation and deconsolidation of democracies, and in the survival of hybrid regimes. Concerning the relatively consolidated democracies, there is a growing interest in studying the populist and technocratic challenges to classical models of representation and the exercise of accountability in the new technological environment. The process of representation is nowadays gauged by complex studies, comprising information on mass and elite attitudes and on the institutional environment.

During the 1990s, comparative studies, as opposed to nation-specific studies, were already in ascendance. This trend has continued throughout the last two decades, but next to studies that take nation states as units of analysis, there is a sharp increase nowadays in works conducted at the subnational, European, or global level. The literature of today focuses more on actors and strategies and thereby represents politics as more dynamic than the literature from 20 years ago. Similar to previous decades, today there is a continuous outflow of studies on (violent) conflicts, but the subject is increasingly framed as an international security issue.

Political theory has recently acquired a narrower scope, mainly as legal and moral philosophy, in the spirit of the Anglo-Saxon analytical school. Most attention has been paid to the issue of distributive justice. The most dynamically developing area within this subfield concerns the scope of the requirements of justice, with cosmopolitans arguing that justice has global reach, and their opponents claiming that the principles of justice apply only within each nation-state. In the subfield of democratic theory, deliberative democracy has emerged as a distinctive ideal that is often presented as challenging some of the central tenets of liberal democracy. 

Ever since the 1990s, a central question for comparative politics has been how globalization has impacted the institutions, strategies and performance of different political economies. Comparativists increasingly challenged the idea of convergence. Most recently, the messiness and instability of contemporary capitalism has re-opened debates about the dynamics and unique features of capitalism “without adjective.” Political economy has always contained a stream that criticized the neoliberal consensus. Recently the number of critical studies based on empirical investigation of both failures and promising experiments has risen sharply. As exemplified by the (economics) Nobel Prize of the political scientist Elinor Ostrom, rational choice, as an analytic tool, can also support the progressive reforms of capitalist structures.

Political sociology proved its utility at the beginning of the analyzed period through highlighting the role of social capital on the quality of governance. As a result, the recent governance-studies (increasingly in the limelight) are much more conscious of the relevance of the societal environment than their predecessors.

As other sub-disciplines, political psychology also struggled throughout the two decades with the incorporation of rational choice models. By now, it seems to have finally managed to treat calculative reasoning and emotions within one framework, and it is increasingly well suited to channel the findings of cognitive sciences and biology into the empirical study of political behavior.


Contributions of the department

Since its establishment, CEU’s Political Science Department has contributed robustly to democratization studies, particularly in Central Eastern Europe (Bruszt, Bozoki), but in other parts of the world as well (Schneider, Fumagalli). The specific transition-perspective has also influenced some major works on post-communist constitutionalism, transitional justice, and the relationship between politics and morality (Kis, Dimitrijevic). Colleagues (Bohle, Greskovits) have influenced the debates both on European integration and on comparative capitalism by analyzing the consequences of neoliberal reforms and the social resistance to these reforms in an inter-regional comparative and transnational context and by identifying the role of path dependency in Central Eastern Europe.

The department has been in the forefront of empirical research on political behavior and party politics (Toka, Bozoki, Enyedi). Unusual among political science departments, we also have a strong research record on biopolitics (Sandor). Finally, the department is well known as a center of methodological innovation, partly because of insightful analysis of micro-macro linkages and simulations (Toka) and because of the development of new, quantitative and qualitative methodologies (Rudas, Schneider).