Defining 'democracy': Are we staying on topic?


Political scientists' failure to pay careful attention to the content (as opposed to the operationalization) of their chosen definition of 'democracy' can make them liable to draw invalid inferences from their empirical research. With this problem in mind, we argue for the following proposition: if one wishes to conduct empirical research that contributes to an existing conversation about democracy, then one must choose a definition of 'democracy' that picks out the topic of that conversation as opposed to some other (perhaps nearby) topic of conversation. We show that, as a practical matter, one of the most effective methods for preserving "topic continuity" is to choose a definition of `democracy' that concurs with prevailing judgments about how to classify particular regimes, emphasizing the superiority (in this regard) of judgments about stylized hypothetical scenarios as opposed to judgments about the actual regimes we observe in our datasets.

Author Profiles

David Wiens
University of California, San Diego
Sean Ingham
University of California, San Diego


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