In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Democratization

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Defining Democracy
  • Measuring Democracy and Regime Change
  • Class Conflict
  • Economic Growth
  • The Threat of Redistribution
  • Protection of Property
  • Attitude Change
  • Democratization as a Function Social Capital
  • Transitions to Democracy
  • Democratic Consolidation
  • “Illiberal” Democracies
  • The International Dimension

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Political Science Democratization
David Samuels
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0016


Democratization is defined as a change in political regime within a sovereign state from nondemocracy to democracy. The question of the optimal political regime for governing human communities has been core to Western political philosophy since Antiquity (Plato’s Republic), as has been the question of the causes of change between political regime (Aristotle’s Politics). The spread of Enlightenment ideas of individual rights, the advent of the modern state system starting in the 17th century, and the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century in western Europe and North America all contributed to the erosion of traditional religious and monarchical traditions of political rule. Since that time, scholars have continually returned to the classic questions of the sources of regime change. The roots of contemporary social science research can be found in modern political philosophers. Rousseau argued that participation was essential to popular sovereignty, while James Madison’s contributions to the Federalist Papers urged the creation of institutional brakes on popular sovereignty, to balance the will of the majority against the rights of minorities. Likewise, Montesquieu (The Spirit of the Laws) and Tocqueville (Democracy in America) both suggested, in different ways, that a connection exists between a country’s political culture and its political regime. Also, Karl Marx’s and Max Weber’s works continue to influence scholarship, particularly in terms of the question of the political consequences of economic and social modernization.

General Overviews

Dahl 2000, by one of the United States’ foremost democratic theorists, offers an excellent introduction to the study of democracy per se, making the critical link between the study of democracy to the study of democratization. In terms of introducing the empirical study of democratization, Huntington 1993 provides sweeping historical scope. And in terms of introducing the main theoretical questions guiding social science research, Geddes 2007 offers a broadly comprehensive review of twenty years of political science research on democratic transitions. The range of approaches to the study of democratization in the social sciences is extremely broad, as Diamond and Plattner 2009 reveals.

  • Dahl, Robert Alan. On Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

    A useful primer for undergraduates. Written in a very simple style, with short chapters. Summarizes Dahl’s decades of research and thought on democracy.

  • Diamond, Larry. The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies throughout the World. New York: Holt, 2009.

    A review of academic thinking about democratization. Considers the role of structural factors and of elite negotiations or “pacting,” the importance of social movements, of natural resources, and of international factors. Furthermore, leveraging his personal experience working in Iraq, Diamond engages the debate over whether democracy can be promoted through foreign intervention.

  • Diamond, Larry, and Marc Plattner. Democracy: A Reader. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

    A useful compilation of the most widely read articles from the Journal of Democracy; useful for classroom readers. The articles cover the entire gamut of relevant topics, such as transitions, democratic consolidation, electoral authoritarianism, the role of religion, the impact of social capital.

  • Geddes, Barbara. “What Causes Democratization?” In The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Politics. Edited by Jerrold Levinson, 317–339. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    The best recent article-length literature review of research on the causes of democratization. Notes that consensus exists that democracy is correlated with development, less likely in Muslim societies, and more likely where the population is educated, but no consensus exists as to why these correlations exist.

  • Huntington, Samuel. The Third Wave. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

    An essential reading for understanding the “wave” of transitions to democracy that occurred in the last quarter of the 20th century. Huntington explores a series of important factors that tended to favor democracy, most of which work at the international or transnational level.

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