In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Clientelism in Democracies

  • Introduction
  • Conceptual Discussions
  • Overviews
  • Brokers
  • Is Clientelism Efficient?
  • Democracy and Voters’ Perspectives on Clientelism
  • Measuring Clientelism and Methodological Discussions
  • Case Studies

Political Science Political Clientelism in Democracies
Mariana Borges Martins da Silva
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0371


Clientelism has been a central theoretical framework within political behavior and political economy used by political scientists to understand the behavior of low-income individuals in the developing world. Although the topic has been present in the social sciences for decades, political science has witnessed a sharp rise in studies of the topic since the 2000s, mostly, but not all, using surveys and, more recently, experiments to study the phenomena. There is considerable debate in the literature about what clientelism is or what can or cannot be considered clientelism. This article covers all studies that name the practice they study as clientelism, which ranges from studies that understand it as a cultural, political practice to those that conceptualize it as a mode of exchange or a tie between voters and politicians. The article only covers studies that use clientelism to analyze political behavior in democracies. Another set of studies not covered here is dedicated to uncovering how authoritarian leaders may also use clientelism as a tool of political mobilization. The article is divided among the major research topics in the field, covering issues that include conceptual discussions, the mechanism underlying clientelism, and the methodological discussion about measuring an informal practice.

Conceptual Discussions

Most of the texts discussing the concept of clientelism have been centered on distinguishing clientelism from other modes of linkages between voters and politicians. Since the new wave of studies in the 2000s, the contingent aspect of the exchange, that is, the idea that in clientelism, favors and goods are distributed on the condition that political support is given in return, is the main distinctive attribute of clientelism. Kitschelt 2000; Hicken 2011; and Stokes, et al. 2013 lay out the basis of how the field would define clientelism with contingency as a core attribute. Nichter 2008 and Gans-Morse, et al. 2014 define other subtypes of clientelism as a contingent exchange. However, more recently, the field has started to question the focus on contingency. Gonzalez-Ocantos and Oliveros 2019 and Hicken and Nathan 2020 present an alternative view of the definition of clientelism, pushing back against the emphasis on contingency, while Nichter 2014 defends the emphasis on contingency.

  • Gans-Morse, Jordan, Sebastián Mazzuca, and Simeon Nichter. “Varieties of Clientelism: Machine Politics during Elections.” American Journal of Political Science 58.2 (2014): 415–432.

    DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12058

    Disaggregates clientelism into other subtypes and highlights the different strategies that party machines can use to adapt to different contexts. Defines other strategies, such as turnout buying, abstention buying, double persuasion, and rewarding loyalists. Finally, it describes five possible contexts that influence which strategies machines might privilege.

  • Gonzalez-Ocantos, Ezequiel, and Virginia Oliveros. “Clientelism in Latin American Politics .” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. New York: Oxford University Press. 28 August 2019.

    Discusses existing definitions of clientelism and offers one that departs from the prevalent assumption that clientelist exchanges are contingent.

  • Hicken, Allen. “Clientelism.” Annual Review of Political Science 14 (2011): 289–310.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.031908.220508

    Hicken reviews existing definitions of clientelism and other related concepts highlighting contingency as the core element of every definition.

  • Hicken, Allen, and Noah L. Nathan. “Clientelism’s Red Herrings: Dead Ends and New Directions in the Study of Nonprogrammatic Politics.” Annual Review of Political Science 23.1 (2020): 277–294.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-polisci-050718-032657

    Discusses how many exchanges between voters and politicians studied by scholars do not quite fit the concept of clientelism as a contingent exchange and how this lack of a close fit has led scholars to resort to a wealth of residual categories of nonprogrammatic politics. Suggests a more holistic view of what scholars can label as clientelism.

  • Kitschelt, Herbert. “Linkages between Citizens and Politicians in Democratic Polities.” Comparative Political Studies 33.6–7 (2000): 845–879.

    DOI: 10.1177/001041400003300607

    Kitschelt’s piece was one of the first articles published in recent studies on clientelism. In this piece, Kitschelt defines clientelism as a mode of exchange between constituencies and politicians by contrasting it to programmatic linkages. He also lays the ground for future discussions about the conditions that make clientelist linkages more likely.

  • Nichter, Simeon. “Vote Buying or Turnout Buying? Machine Politics and the Secret Ballot.” American Political Science Review 102.01 (2008): 19–31.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055408080106

    In this article, Nichter introduces the concept of turnout buying by arguing that, given the secret ballot, much of what scholars interpret as vote buying may be turnout buying.

  • Nichter, Simeon. “Conceptualizing Vote Buying.” Electoral Studies 35 (September 2014): 315–327.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.electstud.2014.02.008

    Nichter analyzes how different studies use the concept of vote buying, highlighting each definition’s common and distinct attributes. The author makes the case that studies that use vote buying to refer to noncontingent exchanges are incurring conceptual stretching. Nichter also emphasizes the importance of differentiating vote buying from other forms of clientelism, such as turnout buying or abstention buying.

  • Stokes, Susan C., Thad Dunning, Marcelo Nazareno, and Valeria Brusco. Brokers, Voters, and Clientelism: The Puzzle of Distributive Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781107324909

    In the first chapter of this seminal book, the authors distinguish between a programmatic and nonprogrammatic distribution and conditional and nonconditional exchanges, differentiating contingency clientelism from other forms of nonprogrammatic politics.

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