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Putting Institutions into Perspective: Two Waves of Authoritarianism

Studies and the Arab Spring1

Kevin Koehler and Jana Warkotsch

European University Institute
Department of Political and Social Sciences

Paper prepared for the Panel Conceptualizing Autocracy at the 2011 General Conference of the
European Consortium for Political Research, Reykjavik, August 2011

The mass protests that recently shook the Arab world and, in reminiscence of such
earlier springs in the region as the Damascene Spring of 2000/2001 or the Cairo
Spring in 2005 have come to be known as the Arab Spring (Anderson 2011), not only
took the Arab and international public by surprise, but also challenged long-held
assumptions within the academic community (Gause 2011). After all, the study of
authoritarianism in recent years had mainly been focused on explaining why such
regimes as those of the Arab world had been so remarkably (and maybe, one might
add in hindsight, seemingly and superficially) stable and resilient. The events thus
ushered in a period of self-reflection for many scholars of Middle Eastern politics and
authoritarian rule. Plagued by the question of why we have been unable to foresee
events of such magnitude and to predict the instability of these regimes, it is tempting
to proclaim the failure of authoritarianism studies and to turn to other fields for
conceptual salvation.
Instead of joining the chorus of those proclaiming the death of authoritarianism
studies, we want to take this chance to thoroughly take stock of the discipline of
what is left of it after the Arab Spring seemingly dealt it such a decisive blow. While

Parts of the paper are based on an earlier contribution to a workshop on authoritarian rule which is published
(in German) as Koehler & Warkotsch (2010). We would like to thank the participants in this workshop,
and especially the editors of the conference volume, Holger Albrecht and Rolf Frankenberger, for their
helpful feedback. We would also like to thank the participants in a workshop on authoritarianism in the
MENA at the European University Institute, in particular the co-chairs Oliver Schlumberger and Philippe
Schmitter, for their feedback. In addition, Adrienne Hritier and Peter Mair read and commented on this
paper and gave us critical input and suggestions. Remaining shortcomings are nevertheless exclusively our

the discipline has changed considerably over the years in terms of the questions asked
and the approaches and methods employed, the problem of how to subdivide the
space of authoritarian regimes into conceptually and empirically meaningful categories,
as well as how to define the boundaries to neighboring areas, or more specifically to
democratic regimes, remained at the heart of the subfield. While classificatory
questions have always been central to the discipline, the uses to which they have been
put varied quite significantly: Earlier studies of authoritarian rule in what we refer to as
the first wave of authoritarianism studies in the 1970s and 1980s tended to see
different forms of authoritarianism as political outcomes whose emergence was to be
explained by specific constellations of political and social forces in developing nations,
whereas second wave studies from the late 1990s onwards converged on seeing
regime types as explanatory factors for regime stability and breakdown.
External events certainly drove the many changes in the way authoritarian regimes
were studied and classified. These developments at the same time also mirror
paradigmatic changes in the mother discipline of Comparative Politics itself. First
wave approaches, broadly speaking, relied on the background of grand theorizing in
the modernization theoretical tradition, focusing on how processes of socio-economic
change during the transition from tradition to modernity affected political structures.
Under the methodological influence of behavioralism, moreover, there was a strong
tendency to explain macro-level outcomes as an aggregation of individual-level
factors. Second wave approaches, on the other hand, adopted a (new) institutionalist
focus on the role of institutions in shaping political behavior and outcomes via the
reliance (in its rational choice variant) on formal models and regression analyses.
Taking institutions as independent variables, second-wave approaches (in accordance
with the general development in Comparative Politics), both reversed the logic of
their first-wave predecessors and emphasized the independent influence of
institutional factors.
However, the considerable academic attention authoritarian rule has received in the
past decades notwithstanding, the questions of how to properly subdivide the space of
authoritarian regimes as well as how to define them to begin with, remain fraught with
problems. While there have been some attempts to do both in a comprehensive
fashion, most notably by Juan Linz in 1975 (then republished in 2000), work in the
first wave of authoritarianism studies barely bothered with exploring the range of
authoritarian regimes and focused on specific subtypes instead; the second wave
literature, by contrast, while producing some influential typologies generally relied on
rather truncated definitions of authoritarianism and its bordering categories and
tended to overemphasize the significance of institutional factors, thus reproducing
conceptual difficulties that found their expression in the debate on hybrid regimes and
new authoritarianisms that are still in the heart of debates on nondemocratic regimes.
This paper thus serves several purposes at once. On the one hand we will present the
state of the art in authoritarianism studies by reviewing the two distinct waves of
scholarship on authoritarian rule mentioned above and by situating the development
of the subfield in the broader context of theorizing in Comparative Politics. On the
other hand, we aim to show how the current state of the art suffers from empirical

and conceptual problems arising out of second wave scholarship. The recent turn
towards a stability debate that has dominated authoritarianism studies in the 2000s
and focused on authoritarian institutions began to address some of the conceptual
issues but left others unresolved and hence reproduced the main theoretical problems.
We will first review the development of the discipline, then address these
methodological and theoretical issues, and finally try to point to ways of moving the
field forward by drawing on illustrations from regime trajectories in the Arab Spring.

Two Waves of Authoritarianism Studies

Authoritarianism studies developed in two distinct waves that differed in terms of the
main focus of the respective debates. One of the most fundamental differences
between these two waves is the degree to which the different authors take into
account factors transcending more strictly institutional aspects of political regimes.
Whereas the first wave of the 1960s and 1970s analyzed nondemocratic political
orders primarily in their interaction with broader socio-economic conditions, thus
focusing on the interrelations between the political, social, and economic subsystems,
second-wave approaches from the late 1990s onwards mainly restricted their analyses
to features of the political regime proper and tended to focus on formal institutional
structures. In the next sections, we provide a schematic (and necessarily incomplete)
overview over some central contributions to both debates that together constitute the
state of the art in conceptual thinking about authoritarian rule.
Political Order, Development, and Authoritarian Rule: First-Wave Approaches to
In order to understand the emergence of first-wave approaches to the study of
authoritarianism, it is imperative to locate them within the broader development of
Comparative Politics. Developing mainly from the 1970s onwards, first-wave
scholarship was deeply embedded in the dominant paradigm of that time
modernization theory (see Almond & Coleman 1960; Apter 1965; Huntington 1968;
Huntington & Dominguez 1975) which arguably shaped the discipline in conceptual
as well as methodological regards. First-wave approaches generally remained
committed to this conceptual tradition, even though many authors more or less
strongly rejected some of its theoretical assumptions or conclusions.
Thus the classical studies of authoritarianism we review here in general shared a
common interest in the socio-economic conditions shaping authoritarian rule,
although many authors explicitly rejected the supposedly uniform relationship
between economic and political development implicit in modernization theory (e.g.
Huntington 1968; ODonnell 1973; Schmitter 1971). According to classical
modernization theory, the traditional societies of the developing world were expected
to gradually develop more complex economic, political, and social structures in a
process of modernization that would ultimately result in the emergence of modern

political and economic systems modeled after the Western example (Apter 1965;
Binder et al. 1971; Rustow 1967). The original impetus behind models of
modernization and political development was thus to understand political processes in
the rapidly expanding universe of independent countries of the 1950s and 1960s by
focusing on how they tackled the supposedly universal challenges and crises of
modernization and political development.
With modernization the prospects of economic wealth and political stability appeared
on the horizon of underdeveloped nations that could, it was hoped, draw on the
earlier experiences of modernization and political development in the west and thus
avoid some of the more painful by-products of the process.2 On the other hand,
however, such developments were also seen as posing significant dangers and
challenges to societies undergoing modernization. Increasing levels of economic
development, industrialization, the expansion of education and social mobility, the
emergence of new social roles, urbanization, and associated processes would
ultimately, it was assumed, lead to attitudinal and behavioral changes that were bound
to exert adaptive pressures on the political system. Since the fundamental process of
modernization was thought to be universal (see especially Apter 1965; Bendix 1977;
Binder 1971; Rustow 1967), analysts were mainly preoccupied with understanding the
conditions under which political instability could be avoided and political order
maintained under such circumstances. The link between the process of modernization
and challenges to political stability was provided by the theory of relative deprivation
(see especially Gurr 1970; also see Huntington & Dominguez 1975, 8): The social and
attitudinal changes associated with modernization would lead to increasing aspirations
among different social groups; if these increasing aspirations were not met by
increasing opportunities to achieve their fulfillment, the likelihood of civil violence
was thought to increase.
Far from simply describing the supposed social mobilization and resulting increase in
demands for participation, many modernization theorists actually took a fairly explicit
stance against mass involvement in the politics of developing nations. Based on the
rationale that an increasing gap between demands for participation and a political
systems capacity to institutionally channel such demands would stall or entirely
endanger the modernization process itself, modernization theorists often saw
authoritarian methods of rule as necessary stages in a larger process of development
(see for example Apter 1965; Rustow 1967; Huntington 1968). The concern for
political order clearly trumped the concern for forms of political rule.
Thus, modernization theory generally was based on an elitist model of politics
whereby all that was necessary for modernization was the development of a
sufficiently educated, westernized elite that adhered to a scientific understanding of
reality that supposedly was characteristic of modern thought. This elite would then

This project was mainly pursued by Social Science Research Councils Committee on Political Development
under the guidance of Gabriel Almond that commissioned a series of edited volumes on questions of
political development that ultimately aimed at understanding such processes against the at least implicit
backdrop of the European experience (see Binder et al. 1971; LaPalombara & Weiner 1966; Pye & Verba
1965; Tilly 1975).

man state institutions and successfully drive modernization from above without the
potentially disruptive interference of the masses (Huntington 1968). Hand in hand
with modernization theories elitism hence went a strong focus on the state as
instrument of modernization in the hands of elites.
Whereas early modernization theory was characterized by a certain optimism with
regard to the prospects of a quick recapitulation of the European experience in the
new nations in the form of quicker and less painful processes of industrialization and
social transformation for such late-comers, this optimism over the years gave way to
a more subdued vision where progress was not easily achieved and the transition
process from tradition to modernity was fraught with perils. Consequently, hope for
fast democratization gave way to wariness about the political stability of these states
during the transitional phase: modernity breeds stability but modernization breeds
instability (Huntington 1968).
First-wave scholarship in this respect took an increasingly pessimistic stance towards
the prospects of democracy in transitional societies and instead described how
changes in state-society interaction brought about by the disruptive force of social,
economic and political modernization resulted in distinct forms of authoritarian rule.
Elites were trying to solve the problems created by modernization and reacted
differently to different developmental challenges. The bureaucratic-authoritarian
military regimes of Latin America were thus interpreted as emerging from the
challenges of capitalist deepening at relatively advanced levels of modernization (see
especially ODonnell 1973), while single party regimes in Africa were presented as
political elites attempts to overcome problems of national integration and nationbuilding (Zolberg 1966). In brief, the centralization of political authority in the hands
of elites and the suppression of demands for (immediate) participation were seen as
the result of and to some extent necessary for achieving specific developmental goals.
In addition to this common perspective, first-wave literature was also characterized by
a focus on either a specific region populated predominantly by authoritarian regimes,
mainly Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, or on a specific subtype of
authoritarianism (see e.g. Finer 1988; Jackson & Rosberg 1981; ODonnell 1973;
Zolberg 1966). While these authors often constructed a rough overall typology of
authoritarian rule as they went along, there are very few systematic attempts to capture
the whole range of nondemocratic regimes (see Linz 1975 and 2000; and Perlmutter
1981 as notable exceptions).
In our review on the following pages, we follow the literature in adopting their focus
on specific regime types clustered in geographical regions. The discussion of military
regimes thus mainly concentrates on Latin America, whereas the debate on singleparty rule is primarily concerned with post-independence Sub-Saharan Africa; in the
last section, finally, we review some studies on personalism (or patrimonialism) that
grew out of debates on the persistence of supposedly traditional modes of political

Military Authoritarianism
Military interventions apparently are an inseparable part of political modernization
whatever the continent and whatever the country (Huntington 1968, 192). This
paradigmatic statement by Samuel Huntington aptly illustrates the modernizationtheoretic backdrop that informed many of the characteristic works on military regimes
specifically and authoritarianism more generally. Authors such as S.E. Finer (1988),
for example, held that military rule in its most direct form was always embedded in a
context of a low economic and political development, whereas others such as
Guillermo ODonnell (1973) argued that relatively high levels of development in some
Latin American cases had led to the rise of the special brand of bureaucraticauthoritarianism, combining a highly technocratic coup coalition of military officers,
managers and bureaucrats. While there is thus disagreement concerning the exact
nature of the socio-economic conditions giving rise to military intervention, most
classical authors agree that military rule is intimately tied to a specific stage of the
modernization process (Finer 1988; Huntington 1968; Huntington & Moore 1970;
Nordlinger 1977; ODonnell 1973; Perlmutter 1981).
The range of different types of military involvement in politics can best be
exemplified by Amos Perlmutters study on Modern Authoritarianism (1981).
Perlmutter classifies what he calls the non-institutionalized variant of authoritarian
regimes3 into corporatist and praetorian subforms, the former of which he further
subdivides into exclusionary and inclusionary corporatism, and the latter into
personalist, oligarchic, and corporate praetorianism.
Corporatism, according to Perlmutter, is a type of political domination by a coalition
of politicians, technocrats, military men and bureaucrats, with the military as the
ultimate arbiter and source of elite recruitment, in which different more or less
organized and more or less autonomous social groups are linked to the state and its
bureaucracy via patrimonial-clientelistic structures of control (Perlmutter 1981, 38 and
117). Praetorianism, on the other hand, essentially refers to a military dictatorship and,
depending on the degree of military interference, is subdivided into personalist (direct
rule by a military despot), oligarchic (the military ruler is dependent on the military
establishment to secure his rule), and corporate regimes (the military is still the most
powerful group, but rule is exercised by a coalition of the military and bureaucrats)
(Perlmutter 1981, 129). This scale thus reaches from military tutelage over civilian
politics to direct rule by military officers.
The exclusionary corporatist pole of Perlmutters authoritarianism scale is further
elaborated upon by Guillermo ODonnell (1973) who is mainly concerned with
explaining the rise of regimes he branded bureaucratic-authoritarian. At the same time

The institutionalized variants consist in essence of the two totalitarianisms of the 20th century Bolshevism
and Nazism as well as Fascism (Italy). Perlmutter thus dissolves the totalitarianism category into the
broader authoritarianism category. Besides giving rise to potential theoretical problems, empirically each
corresponds to only one case, which renders the utility of this conceptual subdivision somewhat doubtful.
Following more conventional usages of the authoritarianism concept, we will thus in the further
discussion of his argument exclusively deal with the noninstitutionalized types.

he explicitly turns against the idea of a uniformly positive relationship between

modernization and democracy inherent in modernization theory. Focusing on the
development of bureaucratic authoritarianism in Argentina and Brazil, he argues that
the process of industrialization in these countries led to an increase in the size of the
urbanized labor force, as well as in what he calls technocratic roles.4 As a result of
these developments, more social sectors became politically activated, putting
increasing demands on the political system. With growth unsustainable over the long
run, developmental bottlenecks occurred that reduced the performance of the populist
regimes and led to gaps between demands and performance (ODonnell 1973, 74).
Efforts to minimize this gap, along with the multiplication of political forces as a
result of deepening social differentiation, created new and sharpened existing conflicts
over the distribution of economic and political power, while diminishing the problem
solving capabilities of the existing regime (ODonnell 1973, 79). The result was mass
praetorianism, providing the stage for the take-over of the military. The bureaucratic
authoritarian regimes emerging from military intervention attempted to solve these
structural problems by excluding the working classes and bringing order to a divisive
political environment. The other side of the coin of these basic problems of social
structure and modernization is the frustration of elite actors occupying technocratic
roles managers, military officers, technocrats who often had acquired their training
abroad and were transplanted to the context of the modernizing society. The greater
the penetration and linkage of these technocratic roles, the higher the probability that
a coup coalition will emerge that aims at reshaping social structures to make them
more compatible with their learned role-expectations. This eventually results in an
exclusive and highly coercive regime, aimed at the political deactivation of the working
classes and the elimination of divisive politics more generally in the service of further
economic modernization (ODonnell 1973, 88-91).
On the other end of Perlmutters scale, S.E. Finer (1988), basing his analysis on a
distinction between the motive, mood and opportunity for military intervention, finds
a correspondence between the degree of intervention influence, blackmail,
displacement, or supplantment and the level of political culture of a given society.
The level of political-cultural development mainly refers to the attachment to civil
institutions within a given population and influences the degree of legitimacy a
potential military intervention can claim. Thus, the higher the level of development in
political culture, the higher the standards for the legitimation of authority and the less
overt the military intervention.5
All these conceptions of military rule whether on the corporatist end of the scale or
the praetorian one share the common feature that the military is taken to intervene
in societies shaped by overt political conflict and mobilization. In each of these cases,

According to ODonnell, technocratic roles are positions in a social structure which require application of
modern technology as on important part of their daily routine. To perform these roles, each incumbent
must have prolonged schooling geared to provide the necessary technical expertise. In addition he must
keep abreast of developments in the more industrialized societies, where most of these roles originated
(1973, 30-31).
For a similar conception of military rule see Eric Nordlinger (1977), who argues for a subdivison into
moderators, guardians, and rulers based on different degrees of military intervention.

the military perceives itself (and sometimes is perceived) as an institution standing

above the rest of society, either because of their Westernized training and
corresponding role expectation (in coalition with similarly minded technocrats), or
because of their unitary and more advanced organizational character in underorganized societies an organization superiorly positioned to deal with the
modernizing challenges their societies and economies face. It is thus not surprising
that, in addition to reshaping their respective systems, the regimes that resulted from
military rule more often than not had a highly exclusionary character, aiming at
demobilizing their societies rather than allowing them a role in pushing forward the
national project.
Single-Party Regimes and National Integration
The conditions that led to the emergence of the second major type of modern
authoritarian regimes as seen by the first-wave literature, namely single-party rule,
were different from that leading to military intervention.6 As Samuel Hungtington
observed, single-party regimes are always the product of nationalist or revolutionary
movements from below which had to fight for power (Huntington 1968, 418). The
classical literature on single-party rule is thus mainly concerned with the postindependence development of new states emerging from colonialism and focuses on
the role of dominant political parties in the processes of nation building and national
integration (see Apter 1955 and 1965, 179-222; Coleman & Rosberg 1964; Huntington
1968; Moore 1962; Schachter 1961; Wallerstein 1960; Zolberg 1963 and 1966).7
Exploiting their privileged position as the only organized political force,
independence-movements-turned-parties in many cases monopolized political power
and established dominant- or single-party regimes.
Juan Linz consequently discusses this form of authoritarianism under the title of
post-independence mobilizational authoritarian regimes (Linz 2000, 227-233). In
such regimes, empirically mainly located in post-independence Africa (see Brooker
1999, 106), the period of colonialism had destroyed traditional structures of political
domination and led to the emergence of a nationalist movement under the leadership
of mainly Western-educated elites. Facing economically as well as socially little
developed societies with low levels of national integration, in many cases, these
movements transformed into dominant or single parties once independence had been
achieved. This process is often attributed to the overwhelming economic strain, the
difficulties of a nation-building project in poorly integrated societies, or perceived
threats from mounting opposition (Linz 2000, 229; also see Schachter 1961; Zolberg
1963 and 1966).

In fact, David Apter (1965, 396) described what he called a mobilization system as being very likely to
transform into a military oligarchy once the early stages of mobilizational success are over.
7 We consciously exclude the communist single-party regimes in Eastern Europe from consideration here since
they would have been considered totalitarian in Linzs framework. This leaves us with mainly African
single-party cases (see Brooker 1999, 106).

The process of Creating Political Order by transforming a nationalist movement

first into a dominant and then into a single party was aptly described by Aristide R.
Zolberg (1966) for five West African cases. Tracing the emergence of unitary
ideologies as well as single-party structures in Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, and
Senegal, he analyzes the transformation of nationalist movements into single parties as
well as the characteristics of the resulting regimes. According to this analysis, the roots
of single-party rule lay in a combination of structural, psychological, cultural, as well as
ideological factors. Psychologically, having achieved national independence, African
leaders faced a nation building project in economically poor and socially weakly
integrated societies, the sheer magnitude of which put enormous psychological strain
on them. Ideology in this regard served as a conceptual map created by men facing
an unknown political world, pinpointing a way of dealing with the burden of nation
building in this case by instituting a one-party ideology that defined opposition as
illegitimate (Zolberg 1966, 59 and 91). Whereas governmental bureaucracies were
often perceived as alien Western imports and partially remained in the hands of
European elites even after independence (Schachter 1961, 294), the party represented
a familiar tool of organizing political affairs and often enjoyed an organizational
monopoly. In addition, single-party structures were further seen as supported by a
cultural understanding of unity as oneness, not as a form of unity achieved via the
competition of different interests. The party in this regard was the organizational
expression of this unity (Zolberg 1966, 62; also see Linz 2000, 229). The resulting
regimes, in Zolbergs words were system[s] of government with a monocephalic and
nearly sovereign executive; a national assembly that is consultative rather than
legislative and which is based on functional and corporate representation rather than
geographical and individual; a centralized political administration []; and a
governmental bureaucracy in which the criterion of political loyalty is given
overwhelming weight (Zolberg 1966, 108).
It is doubtful, however, to what an extent many of the African cases discussed in this
context ever reached a level of organization that justifies speaking of mass parties
(Schachter 1961). Thus, as Zolberg acknowledges, the West-African party-states
approximate Webers patrimonial type in many important respects. The relationships
between the ruling group and their followers are indeed based on personal loyalty
(Zolberg 1966, 141; also see Brooker 1999, 125-29; Harik 1973). In the next section,
we turn to more explicitly consider this type of political rule that has been classified as
pre-modern by much of the literature based on the premises of modernization theory.
Neopatrimonialism and Personalist Rule
Linz (1975 and 2000) explicitly excluded regimes seemingly or de facto based on what
Max Weber (1978) called traditional authority from his typology of authoritarian
regimes and adopted the Weberian term of sultanism to describe such forms of
political rule (see Linz 2000, 151-155; also see Chehabi & Linz 1998). Beginning in the
1970s, however, especially Africanists and scholars working on the Middle East began
to reconsider this distinction (see Eisenstadt 1973; Lemarchand & Legg 1972; Roth

1968; Springborg 1979). There is a certain tension between the work of these scholars
and mainstream modernization theory with the new focus on the role of personal
loyalty in authoritarian regimes implying a critical attitude to some of the
assumptions of the first studies of modernisation and political development
(Eisenstadt 1973, 8). While under the assumptions of modernization theory, clientelist
or patrimonial patterns of behavior where relegated to the realm of pre-modern or
traditional politics, the term modern neo-patrimonialism first introduced by Samuel
N. Eisenstadt (1973) emphasized the fact that some modern political systems seemed
to combine legal-rational and patrimonial forms of domination (see also Mdard 1982,
179; Roth 1968).
The first author to comprehensively discuss personalism in modern contexts (and on
whose work Linz [1975 and 2000] largely bases his own account) was Guenther Roth
(1968). In Roths understanding, personalism or patrimonialism refer to a typology of
beliefs and organizational practices that can be found at any point of [] a continuum
[of political regimes, the authors] (Roth 1968, 197), and thus does not describe a
specific type of political rule. Eisenstadt (1973), and following him scholars such as
Jean-Franois Mdard (1982), Robert H. Jackson and Carl G. Rosberg (1981), and
Peter Pawelka (1985) by contrast, describe what they refer to as modern neopatrimonial or personalist rule as a specific form of (modern) authoritarian regimes
that is highly centralistic in the sense that access to power and resources is
concentrated at the center in the hands of political elites that are loyal to the person of
the ruler. The basis of regime maintenance in such orders is the distribution of
resources, rewards and access to spoils (Eisenstadt 1973; Jackson & Rosberg 1981;
Mdard 1982; Pawelka 1985; Roth 1968).
In African studies, the concept of neopatrimonialism (or one of its various forms)
became the orthodoxy of the 1970s and early 1980s (Erdmann & Engel 2007, 97),
but the notion was also widely employed in the Middle East and North Africa (see Bill
& Springborg 1994; Pawelka 1985; Springborg 1979), as well as for a number of
regimes outside of these regions (see the contributions in Chehabi & Linz 1998). In
most conceptions, the notion not only describes a political regime, but at the same
time connotes relatively low state capacities with political control being mostly
exercised indirectly via cooptation and clientelism, but with repression remaining an
option of last resort (for different forms of personal rule in Africa, see Jackson &
Rosberg 1981). As Mdard succinctly put it, under neopatrimonial conditions, the
problem is not development, but the maintenance of order and survival. All the
energy of the rulers goes into more or less successful efforts to stay in power
(Mdard 1982, 163).
While most analyst of neopatrimonialism or personalism agree on the core defining
features of these terms (but not on the terms themselves), there is little agreement
about whether this phenomenon should be considered an independent regime type or
a trait of specific regimes. Taking the first position, Michael Bratton and Nicolas van
de Walle argue that while neopatrimonial practices can be found in all polities, it is
the core feature of politics in Africa and in a small number of other states, including
Haiti, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Thus, personal relationships are a factor at the

margins of all bureaucratic systems, but in Africa they constitute the foundation and
superstructure of political institutions (Bratton & Van de Walle 1994, 459). Other
analysts, however, consider personalism a trait that can be found in different forms of
(democratic and nondemocratic) political regimes and hesitate to conceptualize it as
an independent regime type (Hadenius & Teorell 2007; Lemarchand & Legg 1972;
Roth 1968).
The debate on personalist rule is certainly farthest removed from the focus on socioeconomic conditions characteristic of first-wave scholarship, although the prevalence
of neopatrimonial structures is linked with economic underdevelopment. The
informal political processes on which this perspective focuses, however, also play an
important role in the second-wave debates on the so called gray zone. Overall, the
first-wave literature on authoritarian rule strove to understand the origins of specific
forms of authoritarian rule in terms of the socio economic conditions and
constellations at the start of the modernization process as in the case of personalist
rule, or in the nature and consequences of the process itself, as in the case of military
and single party rule. Thus the focus of these studies was much broader, and included
economic as well as social factors, with more narrowly political factors such as regime
types being mainly thought of as dependent variables. However, while the focus of
these studies was on a broader array of factors within the individual countries, there
was hardly any comparative effort to delineate differences not just between countries,
but rather between different types of authoritarian rule. In terms of the question of
how to properly classify authoritarian regimes, efforts largely proceeded inductively,
implicitly based on the theoretical question of who holds power, but without attempts
to outline the general features of authoritarian regimes and then classify its subtypes
along generally identified dimensions.
Post-Democratization Debates and the Second Wave of Authoritarianism Studies
Several developments came together by the end of the 1980s and gave rise to what we
call the second wave of authoritarianism studies. Empirically, in the wake of the third
wave of democratization (Huntington 1991), many nations seemed to take the road of
democratization, but frequently developed into something that might at best be called
incomplete democracies, rather than full-fledged liberal democratic regimes. However
flawed these new democracies were, the global political changes of the third wave
resulted in renewed interest if not in the autocracies from which they resulted, then at
least in the conditions under and processes by which they embarked on
democratization. What Thomas Carothers (2002) called the transition paradigm
became the dominant theoretical lens in the study of authoritarian rule. Under the
impression of the successful democratization processes in Southern Europe and Latin
America, the conceptual tools developed in this context (see especially the seminal
work by ODonnell & Schmitter 1986) were applied on a global scale and produced
numerous studies on the progress of and obstacles to democratization or political
liberalization in other countries or regions (see for example Bratton & van de Walle
1994 and 1997 on Africa, or Brynen, Korany & Noble 1995 on the Middle East).

Despite the initially positive outlook, it soon became clear that democratization was
not on the agenda in large parts of the world and that the End of History (Fukuyama
1992) was thus not forthcoming. This realization spawned a series of new debates on
the conceptual level. Scholars began to develop new classificatory tools to deal with
the allegedly novel (or hybrid) nature of a number of post-third wave regimes, ranging
from so called adjective democracies to hybrid regimes and new authoritarianisms
(see Collier & Levitsky 1997; Diamond 2002; Levitsky & Way 2002 and 2010;
Schedler 2002 and 2006).
Theoretically, the gradual demise of modernization theorys grand theorizing which
sought to identify general pathways from tradition to modernity largely independent
of specific historical contexts ushered in a phase in which the so called new
institutionalisms put an explicit focus on the way in which political institutions shaped
actors behavior and thus political outcomes. Thus, while in the immediate tail waters
of modernization theory authoritarianism studies had emerged as a more distinct field
of study within Comparative Politics, due to the specific logic of the approach, area
study approaches dominated the subfield. This was to change with the arrival of the
second wave of authoritarianism studies which again sought to identify the
mechanisms in which transitions from authoritarian rule proceeded via the mediating
factors of mainly formal political institutions within more broadly comparative crossnational research designs often based on quantitative data.
These changes must again be understood against the background of general
developments in the discipline. By the late 1970s and more pronouncedly from the
1980s onwards, the behavioral focus on explaining macro level outcomes as
aggregates of individual level choices and modernization theorys focus on grand
theorizing were challenged on theoretical grounds. Whereas modernization theory
sought to find similarities in the transition processes of developing countries on their
way to modernity, other approaches started to explicitly focus on differences and tried
to trace them back to the institutional design of different polities (March & Olsen
1984; Hall 1996, 936). Hence, a number of approaches subsumed under the headline
of the new instiututionalisms developed and would set the tone from there on:
[N]ew institutionalists moved away from concepts (like modernity and tradition) that
tended to homogenize whole classes of nations, toward concepts that could capture
diversity among them. [] These new institutionalists shared the behavioralists
concern for building theory. However, by focusing on intermediate institutions, they
sought to explain systematic differences across countries that previous theories had
obscured (Thelen and Steinmo 1992, 6).
The focus on institutional factors combined with an emphasis on cross-national
comparison on the basis of quantitative indicators would thus come to be one of the
defining features of second wave studies on authoritarianism. Whereas the first wave
literature mostly sidestepped the question of regime classification, the cross-national
comparative focus of second wave studies presupposed the construction of
typological systems to capture relevant difference. Again, efforts at delineating regime
types proceeded inductively by adding new types more or less ad hoc which, instead
of being part of a systematic effort to outline the space of political regimes, blurred

the line between the different types to accommodate empirical cases that were deemed
to not fit either category. This process was largely a reaction to the political changes
brought about by the third wave of democratization and the end of the Cold War.
From Adjective Democracies to New Authoritarianisms: The Gray Zone Debate
The first reaction to the Eddies in the Third Wave (Eisenstadt 2000) that became
apparent in the second half of the 1990s in this regard was the development of so
called adjective democracies (see especially Collier & Levitsky 1997; Collier & Mahon
1993). The debate on adjective democracies is part of the transition and consolidation
debates and grew out of the empirical observation that some regimes, even though
they might have acquired the form of democracies, continued to lack its substance
(see Merkel 2004; Merkel & Croissant 2000; ODonnell 1994 and 1996; Zakaria 1997).
As David Collier and Steven Levitsky observed in their seminal 1997 article, this
empirical phenomenon led to the proliferation of diminished subtypes8 of democracy
in the literature. Concepts such as illiberal democracy (Zakaria 1997), defective
democracy (Merkel 2004), or delegative democracy (ODonnell 1994), all have one
fundamental point in common in that they serve to highlight a specific regimes
democratic deficits by adding a negative adjective that signals in which area the
respective regime fails to reach democratic standards: The characteristic feature of
Guillermo ODonnells delegative democracy (1994), for example, is that the formal
institutional system is counteracted by powerful informal particularistic and
patrimonial norms that severely weaken horizontal accountability; Wolfgang Merkel
and Aurel Croissant (2000), in turn, argue that democratic deficits in defective
democracies in general are due to the existence of informal institutions alongside a
formal institutional system and differentiate between different types of defects
according to the partial regime affected. In general, the characteristic feature of
adjective democracies is the existence of formally democratic institutions that are
prevented from working properly by informal institutions and processes. In the
context of adjective democracies, moreover, these democratic deficits tend to be
interpreted as consolidation challenges, rather than permanent features of alternative
regime types, thus establishing an implicit expectation that these regimes will
eventually develop into complete liberal democracies.
Partly in opposition to this teleological bias, the discussion on hybrid regimes
conceptualized regimes in the gray zone between democracy and authoritarianism as
mixed regimes that combine elements of both fundamental types, rather than being
simply on the way towards consolidated democracy (Karl 1995; Bogaards 2009;
Diamond 2002; Levitsky & Way 2002; Ottaway 2003; Rb 2002; Zinecker 2004).

We do not discuss the methodological problems of diminished subtypes and radial categories here (for these
notions, see Collier & Mahon 1993; Lakoff 1987). We argued elsewhere (Koehler & Warkotsch 2010, also
see the appendix to this paper) that the concept of diminished subtypes and the underlying notion of
radial categories suffer from the so called problem of wide-open texture (Andersen 2000). In less
abstract terms, since radial categories by definition lack a core of defining features, their extension cannot
be defined sharply.


Although the insistence of many theorists of hybrid regimes that such forms of
political rule are potentially stable rather than yet-to-be-consolidated democracies
represents an important step, there are also some interesting similarities between this
debate and the debate on adjective democracies. The most important of these
similarities in the given context is the role of formal institutions. Steven Levitsky and
Lucan Way (2002, 52) for example, initially defined their concept of competitive
authoritarianism as a hybrid regime in which formal democratic institutions are
widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority,
although [i]ncumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent [] that the
regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy. Thus, what
distinguishes hybrid regimes from adjective democracies (if anything) is the extent of
violations of formal democratic rules, rather than any qualitative differences.9 In other
words, it is the extent to which the existing rules are observed by the actors (a
question of regime consolidation), rather than the rules themselves (a question of regime
type) that distinguishes hybrid regimes from adjective democracies.10
The last step in the classification debate has been taken by theorists of so called new
authoritarianisms, with the electoral authoritarian (Schedler 2002 and 2006) type
being the most widely used variant. Electoral authoritarian regimes, to use Andreas
Schedlers (2002) characterization, are regimes in which opposition parties lose
elections.11 The difference between electoral authoritarian and hybrid regimes thus
again mainly lies in the extent to which the formal political arena is controlled by the
authoritarian incumbents and reflects Barbara Geddes (2005, 6) warning that most
authoritarian governments that hold elections are not hybrids but simply successful,
well institutionalized authoritarian regimes. In contrast to both, adjective
democracies and hybrid regimes, new authoritarianisms are clearly located within the
classical three fold typology of political regimes (Linz 1975). They constitute subtypes
of authoritarian regimes that allow for some degree of political participation, without,
however, crossing the threshold to meaningful political contestation. In a way, the
emergence of new authoritarianisms as the (as of yet) last step of the classification
debate indicates that analysts have almost come full circle in their conceptual
understanding of the gray zone phenomenon. Whereas early contributions
emphasized the democratic side and the dynamism inherent in gray zone regimes,
more recent work suggests that we might be looking at stable, nondemocratic regimes
that are not altogether different from classical forms of authoritarianism.

On a more abstract level, another major difference is that in contrast to adjective democracies, hybrid regimes
can be defined clearly in the framework of classical categories (Sartori 1970). In other words, whereas it is
impossible to state unambiguously where the boundary between adjective democracies and nondemocracy lies, it is possible to define hybrid regimes by a combination of necessary and sufficient
features (see Rb 2002 for one of the very few clear definitions).
10 If we follow a classical definition of political regimes (Easton 1965; Munck 1996), then this in the last analysis
amounts to saying that on the level of regime types, there are no differences between hybrid regimes and
adjective democracies because the defining rules are the same. The difference would rather be on the level
of regime consolidation (ODonnell 1996).
11 Of course, Schedlers characterization of EA regimes was inspired by Adam Przeworskis (1991) famous
definition of democracy.


The three conceptual perspectives outlined above cover different parts of an

underlying continuum in terms of the degree to which formal, democratic rules
effectively structure political processes. Whereas in adjective democracies, formal
institutions provide the main rules of the game but are circumvented by important
actors in specific fields (such as the rule of law in illiberal democracies or horizontal
accountability in delegative democracies), the same rules are violated systematically in
different variants of hybrid regimes without, however, completely eliminating formal
political competition; in different types of new authoritarianism, finally, the formal
rules are violated to such an extent as to preclude effective contestation for power
through formal channels.
There are several ways to critically engage with this second wave literature. One of
them is empirical, showing how existing authoritarian regimes deviate from the
theoretical expectations expressed in such conceptual systems. This route has been
taken by scholars working in the context of authoritarian institutionalism (see Gandhi
2008; Geddes 1999 and 2003; Lust-Okar 2005; Magaloni 2006 and 2008). The main
conclusion from these debates is that the effects different authoritarian institutions
should be understood in careful empirical analyses, rather than conceptually
presupposed. The second way is more fundamental in that it addresses logical
problems created by the attempt to conceptualize regime types by relying on
continuous scales, rather than discrete criteria.
In the following pages, we will illustrate both paths. We start by showing that the idea
of typological systems mainly differentiated by the degree of democraticness
produces logically unsound categories because concept formation presupposes the
establishment of clear thresholds. We then discuss empirical results on the functioning
of authoritarian institutions that underline the necessity to put institutional factors into
perspective and to take variation in institutional strength and effectiveness seriously
(Levitsky & Murillo 2009). In the conclusion we take up these arguments and illustrate
how a perspective linking the second-wave emphasis on institutional form with the
first-wave interest in the social and economic underpinnings of authoritarian rule can
help us to understand the dynamics of the Arab Spring and thus provides a fruitful
avenue of conceptual development.

Concept Formation, Institutions, and the Continuum Problem

In a nutshell, in the following section we will show how the fact that recent
conceptualization strategies relied on the idea of an underlying continuum of political
regimes not only produces empirically doubtful results that are difficult to
operationalize, but is logically inconsistent with the notion of regime typologies
containing qualitatively different regimes. We call this problem the continuum
problem. Our main conclusions are that if we want to work with empirically useful
and logically sound regime typologies, we should (1) give up the idea of an underlying
regime continuum that makes certain nondemocratic regimes more democratic than
others (note that already this statement is a contradiction in terms), and that we should

(2) go beyond the exclusive focus on formal institutional features for classificatory
Before we can develop this argument in more detail, we have to briefly take a step
back and ask a more fundamental question: Why do we need concepts in the first
place? What is their function in the research process? Although it is certainly true that
the issue of concept formation in social science research has received relatively little
attention especially when compared to the vast literature on indicators and
measurement (Goertz 2006, 2; also see Gerring 1999, 358), there nevertheless seems
to be a consensus that answering the what-is question (Mair 2008, 179) necessarily
has to be the first step in any (social) scientific endeavor (Gerring 1999; Goertz 2006;
Mair 2008; Sartori 1970 and 1991). The fundamental epistemological reason for this is
that there are a potentially unlimited number of similarities and differences between
any two objects (Dupr 2002, 61). Since this is the case, there is at least one
perspective under which any two objects can be considered the same (Popper 1973,
376). Concept formation solves this problem. In an effort to provide conceptual
containers (Sartori 1970, 1038), the process of concept formation forces us to take a
position (Popper 1973, 375)12 and to single out a dimension which we consider
essential in the given context, thus establishing a system of similarity and dissimilarity
relations among the objects concerned. Only once we have decided under which
perspective we compare two objects can we decide if they are different or the same;
and only once we answered the what-is question can we approach the how-much
question (Mair 2008, 179). Or, to put it in Giovanni Sartoris words, [we] cannot
measure unless we know first what it is we are measuring (Sartori 1970, 1038).
This last point is especially important in our context since it is linked with a debate
between proponents of dichotomous regime measures and advocates of continuous
scales (see Collier & Adcock 1999).13 Without going into too many details with respect
to this discussion here, it is important to note two things. First, the view that any
concept could be of an inherently continuous nature (Bollen & Jackman 1989, 612)
as is sometimes argued for the case of democracy misses the important point that
if we conceptualize a concept as continuous, this is a theoretical choice that cannot be
justified with reference to the real concept being continuous (also see Mair 2008, 185
for a critique of this idea). To see this, consider that such a claim would force us to
accept the philosophically quite strong position that concepts possess some form of
objective existence that is independent of the process of concept formation. As long
as we consider conceptual systems to be the products of our own attempts to impose
order on the world (rather than to reflect an objectively existing order), there is no way


Translation from German by the authors. The original quote is Diese Skizzen zeigen, da Dinge in
verschiedener Hinsicht hnlich sein knnen und da beliebige zwei Dinge, die von einem Standpunkt aus
hnlich sind, von einem anderen Standpunkt aus unhlich sein knnen. Allgemein gesprochen setzt
hnlichkeit und somit auch Wiederholung stets die Einnahme eines Standpunkts voraus []. (Popper
1973, 375; emphases in the original).
The debate about continuous vs. dichotomous regime type measures revolves around the question whether
regime types, and here especially democracy, should be considered to be qualities that are either present
or absent in a given regime (dichotomous), or rather occur in different degrees in any regime


of maintaining that they possess any inherent qualities. From a theoretical perspective,
conceptualizing a concept as continuous or dichotomous is thus a choice that can only
be justified by the usefulness of the resulting conceptual containers.
Secondly, it is important to keep in mind the distinction between conceptualization on
the one hand, and operationalization and measurement on the other. While the
usefulness of operationalizing the features of a certain regime type in a continuous
manner depends on the specific research question being asked (Adcock & Collier
1999; Brownlee 2009a; Hadenius & Teorell 2007), on the level of conceptualization
the notion of continuous regime types is indeed confused (Alvarez et al. 1996, 21).
Either we can order all existing regimes on a single continuous scale, or there are
different regime types; to maintain that there are different regime types and that they
can at the same time be ordered on such a scale is simply a contradictory statement
because a continuous scale by definition does not allow for qualitative differences.14
If we look at recent conceptual discussions in the field of authoritarianism studies
from such a perspective, a number of problems on different levels emerge. As we
have alluded to above, the different expressions of the gray zone debate, namely
adjective democracies, hybrid regimes, and new authoritarianisms all rely on the idea
of an underlying regime continuum, with liberal democracy on the one end, and fully
closed autocracies on the other. In between these two poles lay a number of different
regime types that are conceived of as neither fully democratic, nor completely
authoritarian, but exhibit qualities of both regime types to varying degrees. Whether
this continuum is expressed in terms of degrees of democracy, competitiveness, civil
liberties and political rights, or some other concept does not matter for the given
context. The fundamental idea remains that of a continuum on which all political
regimes can be projected (see Munck 2006 for an explicit version of this argument).
As Axel Hadenius and Jan Teorell (2007, 144) pointedly observe, however, [i]f the
degree of competitiveness were the only dimension along which authoritarian regimes
differed, we would need no regime typology. This observation is quite to the point.
To see why this is true and how it is linked to the problem of concept formation, let
us assume we indeed had such a scale of competitiveness and corresponding values
for all regimes around the globe.15 What would we do with these data? Following the
logic of the gray zone, we would probably try to specify a number of thresholds that
would, for example, result in the well known spectrum of liberal democracy, electoral
democracy, competitive authoritarianism, hegemonic authoritarianism, and closed
authoritarianism (see Diamond 2002 for a classificatory scheme that comes very
close). But how would we decide where to establish the cutoff points? In principle,
there are two different possibilities: Either we rely on some kind of arbitrary process

The reverse of course is even more obvious: a nominal variable cannot be projected on an interval scale.
Some scholars tend to think of the Polity scale, the EIEC (executive index of electoral competition) and
LIEC (legistative index of electoral competition) contained in the World Banks dataset of political
institutions (DPI), or even the Freedom House or Polity scores in such terms. While all of these scales
certainly have their problems, our point here is more fundamental. Irrespective of which scale we use,
establishing thresholds is either arbitrary (and thus empirically useless), or presupposes a conceptual
dichotomy that justifies this particular threshold.


(e.g. random choice or statistical procedures such as mean or median cutoffs,

clustering, etc.), or we have to provide some kind of theoretical justification for each
cutoff point. The first method is very unlikely to produce empirically valid regime
categories since it entirely relies on the (arbitrary) distribution of our observations on
the scale. Or, to again quote Giovanni Sartori, [t]here is a fantastic lack of perspective
in the argument that these cutoff points can be obtained via statistical processing, i.e.,
by letting the data themselves tell us where to draw them. For this argument applies
only within the frame of conceptual mappings which have to tell us first of what reality
is composed (1970, 1038; emphasis in the original).
Thus, we would do better if we chose the second method and found some theoretical
argument to justify our thresholds. This second method, however, presupposes
exactly what proponents of the continuum-view try to avoid: mutually exclusive
concepts that can justify why certain values should fall to the left and others to the
right of any cutoff point. These categories can obviously not be generated by the same
empirical data but must be built and justified independently. Conceptually, the gray
zone debate thus boils down to a very simple alternative: Either we want to work with
regime types (and consequently have to give up the continuum-view), or we want to
establish some kind of regime continuum (and consequently cannot classify regimes
into meaningful categories).16
On a logical level, attempts to use the degree to which nondemocratic regimes are
structured by quasi-democratic institutions that dominated the gray zone debate thus
runs into considerable difficulties. At the same time, moreover, such interpretations of
the effects of formal institutions under authoritarian rule are empirically implausible in
the light of a current of authoritarian institutionalist (Malesky & Schuler 2010)
arguments that revolved mainly about the problem of explaining regime stability.
How Do Institutions Matter? The Stability Debate
Starting in the early 2000s, scholars increasingly turned away from the idea of formal
institutions as liberalizing features and started to examine the extent to which such
institutions could perform distinctly authoritarian functions and thus contribute to the
stability of authoritarian regimes. Two interrelated trends combined to refocus the
academic debate. On the one hand, starting in the second half of the 1990s, the
rational choice variant of neo-institutionalism began to be employed more explicitly as
the theoretical backdrop of work on authoritarian politics (see Wintrobe 2007).
Building on the work of Gordon Tullock (1987), scholars such as Robert Wintrobe
(1990, 1998, and 2007), Stephen Haber (2006), or Daron Acemoglu and James
Robinson (2006), developed general formal theories of authoritarian rule, mostly
focusing on the various ways in which dictators cope with threats emanating from
either political elites or from society. Whereas most of these models were too general
in nature to be immediately applicable to empirical research, they were arguably

Note that this immediately follows from Sartoris famous admonition that concept formation precedes
measurement (1970).


influential in helping to give rise to what can now be considered a formal current
within the literature on authoritarian rule that recognizes formal institutions as an
important part of authoritarian regimes (see Carter 2010; Cox 2009; Gandhi 2008;
Gandhi & Przeworski 2006 and 2007; Lust-Okar 2005; Magaloni 2006 and 2008;
Miller 2009; Przeworski 2009).
The second factor that led to a re-appreciation of the role of formal institutions as
distinctly authoritarian institutions came from a more empirically oriented perspective
informed by detailed case studies. Building on earlier work in the Comparative Politics
and area studies literature (see e.g. Harik 1973; Hermet, Rose and Rouqui 1978;
Perlmutter 1981; Dawisha & Zartman 1988), scholars re-examined the role of
imitative institutions (Albrecht & Schlumberger 2004) in the field of incumbentopposition relations, arguing that the existence of opposition actors can have
functional aspects for dictators (see Albrecht 2005, and 2010) and that dictators use
formal institutions to structure their political systems through inclusion and exclusion
(Lust-Okar 2004, 2005, and 2007). Others focused on formal institutions such as
elections and legislatures that were interpreted as mechanisms of co-optation and the
distribution of spoils (Blaydes 2010; Gandhi 2008; Koehler 2008; Lust-Okar 2006), or
analyzed the role of ruling parties in stabilizing elite coalitions in authoritarian contexts
(Brownlee 2007; Langston 2006; Magaloni 2006). These mainly empirically oriented
studies produced important evidence for the fact that formal institutions can serve
important functions under autocracy without necessarily inducing any kind of regime
The main conclusion emerging from this focus on authoritarian institution is
succinctly summarized by Ellen Lust-Okar (2005, 1) who maintains that formal
institutions matter in authoritarian regimes although [t]hey do so independently of
the larger rules of the game that characterize regime types. In the meantime, the
debate on authoritarian institutions and regime stability has crystallized around two
main sub-debates. The first of these debates focuses on the dynamics of authoritarian
elections (see Blaydes 2010; Gandhi & Lust-Okar 2009; Koehler 2008; Lindberg 2009;
Lust 2009; Lust-Okar 2006; Magaloni 2006; Schedler 2006), whereas the second
mainly analyzes the role of dominant or single parties in the context of authoritarian
rule (Brownlee 2007; Kricheli & Magaloni 2010; Langston 2006; Magaloni 2008).
Taken together, the current conceptual state of the art in authoritarianism studies is
characterized by two different research agendas that, a common focus on formal
institutions notwithstanding, produce rather incompatible results. We will return to
this problem in the next section. Before we discuss this issue, however, we will briefly
summarize what we think are the most important components of the current state of
the art.

Authoritarianism Studies: The State of the Art

One of the most striking features of the overall debate is the gap between first- and
second-wave scholarship on authoritarian rule. While classical conceptions of

authoritarian rule were primarily interested in the socio-economic conditions leading

to different forms of authoritarian regimes, more recent work tends to adopt an
institutionalist focus in accordance with the general neo-institutionalist turn in
Comparative Politics. At the same time, first-wave scholarship mainly analyzed the
emergence of authoritarian rule, whereas the second-wave of authoritarianism studies
inherited a focus on regime breakdown and stability from the democratization debate.
It is thus surprising to see that despite these striking differences, there has been little
change in terms of developing our general conceptual understanding of
authoritarianism as a regime type. Rather, Juan Linzs classical definition remains the
only broadly accepted characterization. According to this definition, authoritarian
regimes are political systems with limited, not responsible political pluralism, without
an elaborate and guiding ideology, but with distinctive mentalities, without extensive
nor intensive political mobilization, except at some points in their development, and
in which a leader or occasionally a small group exercise power within formally illdefined limits but actually quite predictable ones (Linz 1964, 255, cited in Linz 2000:
159). Conceptually, the state of the art in authoritarianism studies has barely moved
beyond this definition.
On an empirical level, however, there is a growing sense of unease among many
analysts concerning the applicability of this concept to a number gray zone regimes.
Rather than explicitly rejecting the notion, however, analysts of hybrid regimes and
new authoritarianisms presuppose (often implicitly) a form of full-scale
authoritarianism (Levitsky & Way 2002), full authoritarian control (Schedler 2002),
closed regimes (Howard & Roessler 2006), or closed autocracies (Schedler 2006)
against which the more liberal variants in the gray zone can and should be
The starting point for this contrast between fully closed variants of authoritarianism
and more liberal (and thus somehow less authoritarian) regimes is the presence of
ostensibly democratic institutions such as elections, parties, or legislatures. These
institutions are seen as possessing an inherent democratic quality and thus as
inevitably moving such regimes closer towards democracy on an imagined continuum
between the two poles of fully closed authoritarian regimes (lacking any of these
formal institutions) and liberal democracy. Thus, as Staffan Lindberg pointedly puts it,
the underlying assumption is the more elections, the more democratic the regime and
society in general (Lindberg 2009, 9).
As we argued above, this idea of inherently liberal institutions provoked yet another
turn in the scholarly literature, namely the debate revolving around authoritarian
institutions and regime stability. Empirically, this debate has produced a number of
hypotheses about the effects of formal institutions under autocracy that are at least
partly at odds with the perspective advanced under the assumptions of the gray zone
debate. Thus, more institutionalized authoritarian regimes have been found to be
more long-lived than less institutionalized variants (Gandhi & Przeworski 2007;
Geddes 2003; Magaloni 2008), to be more successful economically (Gandhi 2008), and
to experience violent leadership turnover less frequently (Cox 2009). These

hypotheses cannot easily be reconciled with the gray zone perspective that more
institutions mean more democracy, but rather suggest that the relationship between
institutionalization and authoritarian rule is not as uniform as maintained by these
As our brief review of the debate on formal institutions under authoritarianism has
shown, one of the main conclusions of this current of literature is that formal
institutions can be integral parts of authoritarian regimes. Whereas this conclusion
should not come as a surprise in the case of such institutions as authoritarian single
parties (Kricheli & Magaloni 2010; Magaloni 2006 and 2008; Smith 2005), it has also
been shown to be true for less obvious cases such as opposition parties (Albrecht
2005; Dawisha & Zartman 1988), legislatures (Gandhi 2008), and elections (Koehler
2008; Lust-Okar 2006 and 2009; Magaloni 2006). If these arguments are indeed valid,
they raise considerable doubts concerning one of the fundamental assumptions
involved in the gray zone-debate. If the formal institutions on which analysts of
hybrid regimes and new authoritarianisms focus in their efforts to determine degrees
of competitiveness do not function as democratic institutions in the first place, why
should we then classify nondemocratic regimes along the dimension of the degree to
which these institutions produce dynamics that resemble those found in democratic
systems (such as electoral results)? In other words, if it cannot be taken for granted
that the presence of formal party systems, elections, or parliaments will automatically
increase the degree of competitiveness, using these features as the basis for
classification will be of little value. Rather, formal institutions seem to work under
some circumstances, while they fail to do so under others (see for example Howard &
Roessler 2006; Smith 2005). Classifying gray zone regimes along the very dimension of
formal institutional competitiveness prevents us from asking under what kind of
regime these formal institutional effects arise in the first place.

Authoritarianism Studies and the Arab Spring: Challenging the State of the Art
So far, we arguably dealt with the easier part of the exercise. Criticizing conceptual
frameworks on the basis of logical and methodological arguments, although an
important part of coming to terms with conceptual confusion, can only be the first
step. Which constructive lessons can we learn from the conceptual confusion in
authoritarianism studies? Is there a way of getting the concepts right? Obviously, and
maybe disappointingly, we cannot offer a full fledged classificatory system that would
overcome the problems we identified in the existing conceptual tools. What we will
do, however, is to offer some thoughts on the direction in which such an endeavor
should lead.
In order to illustrate these ideas, we confront the state of the art in authoritarianism
studies reviewed in the preceding pages with empirical evidence of different regime
trajectories in the Arab Spring. Our main concern is to show that an understanding of
these trajectories presupposes going beyond institutionalist regime categories and
hypotheses and integrating some of the issues emphasized by first wave approaches.

Given both the ongoing nature of regime change in the Arab world and our mainly
conceptual concerns in this paper, we naturally do not aim to give an account of the
Arab Spring as such, but rather want to point out how understanding these
developments requires us to go beyond the existing state of the art by linking existing
institutionalist notions of authoritarian regimes back to their social origins. In other
words, we urge scholars to look beyond institutional effects and to take the noninstitutional origins of institutions seriously as factors conditioning institutional effects
(see Heydeman 1999; Levitsky & Murillo 2009; Smith 2005; Waldner 1999).
The Arab Spring saw mass mobilization in most countries of the Middle Eastern and
North African (MENA) region outside the Gulf,17 yet only a handful of regimes either
broke down or exhibited strong signs of instability.18 A more complete explanation for
the emergence of and differences between protest movements in different cases
certainly has to await both more empirical research and at least a relative stabilization
of the situation. Why, for example, is it that the Egyptian uprising was concentrated in
population centers such as Alexandria, Cairo, and Port Said and left rural areas
(especially in Upper Egypt) relatively untouched, while protests in Syria and Tunisia
spread from the periphery to the cities (Anderson 2011; Hibou 2011)? What accounts
for the very different role played by political parties, trade unions, and other formal
political organizations in different cases? What, if anything, can such differences tell us
about likely post-Arab Spring developments?
Despite the fact that the situation is far from settled in many countries and that an
attempt to answer most of these questions would thus be premature, some interesting
differences in regime trajectories are nevertheless already apparent. Most importantly
at the time of writing only two Arab dictators, Zine al-Abidine bin Ali of Tunisia and
Husni Mubarak of Egypt, had definitely been forced out of office. In other cases,
large scale mobilization led to protracted crises in which concessions, negotiations,
repression, and continued mobilization interacted. This last trajectory is exemplified
by Syria and Yemen, with Libya forming a somewhat special case due to foreign
intervention. Lastly, there are cases of regime stability in the presence of mass protests
as in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, and Morocco, and cases without major protest events
such as Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf monarchies. Table 1 summarizes these
differences. What we want to do here is not so much to empirically explain these
differences, but to show how such an empirical explanation requires us to go beyond
current institutionalist approaches focusing on the effects of institutions.


And even the Gulf did not remain completely untouched with mass demonstrations in Bahrain.
One of the best sources on the dynamics of protest in different countries is a series of reports by the
International Crisis Group, covering protests in Egypt (I), Yemen (II), Bahrain (III), Tunisia (IV), Libya
(V), and Syria (VI and VII). We largely draw on these sources which we cite as ICG 2011 followed by the
Roman numeral referring to the specific report.


Table 1: Regime Trajectories in the Arab Spring

Protracted Crisis

Stability despite protests

Stability without protests

Saudi Arabia
United Arab Emirates

To begin with, it is immediately clear that current institutionalist regime typologies do

not offer much explanatory leverage for regime trajectories in the Arab Spring beyond
the apparent connection between monarchical rule and regime stability. There is no
case of regime breakdown in a monarchy despite massive protests in some cases,
notably Bahrain, Jordan, and Morocco, and limited mobilization even in such unlikely
cases as Oman and Saudi Arabia. Algeria is the only non-monarchical case to manage
mass mobilization without experiencing regime breakdown or entering into a major
regime crisis. Since monarchies have been treated with relative neglect in the recent
literature, there is little in the institutionalist literature we could start from by way of
hypotheses on causal mechanisms, however.19 Nevertheless, the connection seems to
be strong enough to warrant further research.
Secondly, turning to the different regime trajectories among non-monarchical cases,
institutionalist regime typologies offer little leverage. In Gandhis typology, for
example, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Yemen are all classified as military
regimes based on the fact that all six presidents all held military titles (Gandhi 2008).
Even if such a classification was not utterly unconvincing empirically (especially for
the Libyan, Tunisian, and Yemeni cases), it does not offer us any way of accounting
why supposedly similar regimes reacted differently to similar challenges. Geddes
(1999 and 2003) typology fares slightly better by classifying both Egypt and Syria as

Geddes (1999 and 2003) excludes monarchies from her regime typology and only later versions of her dataset
(Smith 2005 and Brownlee 2007) contain monarchical cases. Gandhi (2008), by contrast, sees monarchies
as a separate regime category but offers little in terms of discussing what exactly makes monarchies
different (beyond the chief executives title). Richards and Waterbury (1996) and Lust-Okar and Jamal
(2002) both offer interesting discussions of monarchs preference for tactics of divide and rule over
strategies of central control that they attribute to the fact that monarchs draw legitimacy from sources
outside the political system (religion, tradition), while presidents have to legitimate themselves within the
political arena.


regimes combining military, single party, and personalist elements, while considering
Algeria after 1997 a military regime, Tunisia a single party regime (thus, in contrast to
Gandhi [2008] taking into account the marginal role of the Tunisian military), and
both Libya and Yemen personalist regimes. While it remains unclear how exactly these
differences are measured empirically, regime trajectories still cut across regime type
categories. Finally, the third major regime typology developed by Hadenius and
Teorell (2007) classifies Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen as limited multiparty regimes,
while Algeria is categorized as a military multiparty and Syria as a military one-party
regime. Libya in this system falls into the other-category. Again, it is difficult to see
how such classifications are arrived at empirically and the regime trajectories cut
across regime types.
While it is not surprising that regime typologies can easily be criticized on the basis of
individual cases, what is more striking is the degree of disagreement among the three
most wide-spread classificatory systems. This fact which to our knowledge went
unnoticed (or at least un-discussed) in the literature raises serious doubts as to
whether quantitative findings based on different typologies can be easily be compared
or even integrated.20
Beyond the rather crude instrument of regime typologies, we might turn to specific
hypotheses about authoritarian institutions to account for the different regime
trajectories. Two such hypotheses immediately come to mind: The rather wellcorroborated idea that ruling parties contribute to regime stability (Blaydes 2010;
Brownlee 2007; Geddes 1999; Levitsky & Way 2010; Magaloni 2006 and 2008; Smith
2005), and the less well-researched hypothesis that different authoritarian regimes are
more or less vulnerable to mass protests (Ulfelder 2005).
The basic idea behind the hypothesis of ruling party effects is that as soon as dictators
transfer some of their discretionary power to the institutional processes of a party
organization, political elites have good reasons to expect that they might profit from
continued loyalty to the regime. By lengthening actors time horizons, ruling parties
allow elites to trade off current losses against expected benefits and thus increase their
incentives to remain loyal (see Brownlee 2007; Magaloni 2006 and 2008). Jay Ulfelder

This is not an effect of our cases. I merged the Gandhis and Geddes datasets to compare the two typological
systems on the basis of the set of country-year observations in which they overlap (Gandhis dataset
includes all dictatorships between 1946 and 2002, whereas Geddes data [in the version of Smith 2005]
run from 1930 through 2000). A bivariate correlation between the country-years classified as military
regimes in both datasets yields a coefficient of 0.28, indicating that there is substantial disagreement as to
which regimes should be classified as military dictatorships. This is due to the fact that of the 2,475
country-year observations common to both datasets, Gandhis typology classifies 44 percent as military
dictatorships, whereas Geddes coding rules produce only 7 percent. The picture changes if we collapse all
regimes with military involvement from Geddess typology (military regimes, military/personalist regimes,
and military/personalist/single-party regimes) into a single category. The correlation coefficient then is
0.52, and the percentages are 44 (Gandhi) and 19 percent (Geddes), respectively. The differences are not
as pronounced for the monarchy type. The correlation coefficient is 0.86 and the percentage is 11
(Gandhi) and 10 percent (Geddes). The remaining regime categories (civilian dictatorship and single-party
regime or personalist regime) are not directly comparable. Nevertheless, these differences suggest that the
results based on these two classificatory systems cannot be easily compared or integrated because they are
using very different categories despite employing partially the same terminology.


(2005), on the other hand, has argued that single party regimes (in Geddes sense)
should be most vulnerable to mass protests because they draw legitimacy from mass
Both hypotheses are certainly plausible and more or less well-corroborated by crossnational quantitative evidence (see Magaloni 2008; Ulfelder 2005; Smith 2005).
Neither of them, however, allows us to differentiate between regime trajectories
among the non-monarchical cases Arab cases. Both cases of regime breakdown
(Egypt and Tunisia) had hegemonic party organizations, as do two cases of protracted
crisis (Syria and Yemen), while one case (Libya) does not have a ruling party. The
presence or absence of ruling parties thus does not seem to hold much explanatory
potential in the Arab Spring. Neither did party regimes proof more stable as expected
by the ruling party effects hypothesis, nor did they proof generally prone to regime
breakdown in the face of mass protest as expected by Ulfelders (2005) theory. Rather,
some party regimes broke down while others entered protracted crises, but none
remained stable.
The evidence concerning other institutionalist hypotheses is similarly mixed: The
Middle East and North Africa with its history of competitive clientelist electoral
politics does not accord well either with Lindbergs (2007 and 2009) theory of
democratization by elections, or with Brownlees (2009a and 2009b) or Hadenius and
Teorells (2007) ideas about the positive relation between the degree of
competitiveness and democratization. At the same time, at least at first sight a
linkage/leverage type of explanation following Levitskys and Ways excellent study of
competitive authoritarianism (2010) does not seem to hold too much potential either.
In short, the state of the art after the second wave of authoritarianism studies does not
seem to offer conceptual tools that could help us to understand the events of the Arab
We hold that this is not coincidental, but rather the effect of two interrelated
problems in institutionalist studies of authoritarian rule. The first problem has been
discussed in the general institutionalist literature as the problem of functionalism
(Pierson 2000) but has barely found its way into the debates of authoritarian
institutionalism (but see Gandhi & Lust 2009). This problem basically refers to the
fact that many institutionalist scholars of authoritarianism do not sufficiently
differentiate between describing the function of institutions and explaining their
existence. Rather, they tend to conclude that institutions exist because they perform
specific functions, an argument that is both difficult to maintain on a logical level and
historically unconvincing (Little 1991).
The second problem is what we call a formalism problem (see also Levitsky & Murillo
2009). With this we refer to the fact that institutional form has received ample
attention in recent debates whereas institutional strength or effectiveness has not (see
Levitsky & Way 2010; Smith 2005 for exceptions). It should certainly not come as a
surprise to students of institutions that institutional strength is an important
intervening variable. Despite the rather consensual nature of this proposition,
however, the question of institutional strength has rarely been examined by scholars

of authoritarianism. In other words, we do not know under which conditions

authoritarian institutions are or are not effective.
We suggest that both problems can be solved by complementing existing
institutionalist accounts with what David Waldner (1999) has referred to as the noninstitutional origins of institutions. This argument is anything but revolutionary. There
is a reach tradition of comparative historical research examining the emergence of
political regimes and other institutions that stretches back to Max Weber and
Barrington Moore and comprises such more recent works as the Colliers Shaping the
Political Arena (1991) and Rueschemeyers, Stephens and Stephens Capitalist
Development and Democracy (1992). What these works and studies with a more limited
scope (see Angrist 2004 and 2006; Heydemann 1999; Smith 2005; Waldner 1999) have
in common is to understand institutions and institutional configurations such as
political regimes as contingent upon the distribution of power among social actors,
whether characterized as classes or in other terms. Although it is a characteristic
feature of institutions to not immediately adapt to changes in such underlying
conditions (see March & Olsen 1989), recent institutional scholarship in comparative
authoritarianism lost sight of the social roots of institutions.
This produced the twin problems of functionalism and formalism: Since institutional
configurations were taken as given, the only explanation that could be provided for
their existence were the functions they performed. At the same time the form of
institutional configurations took precedence over their actual reach. Since the
connection between institutions and their social bases went almost completely
unresearched, we just simply do not know under which conditions ruling parties are
effective instruments of elite management and support mobilization, which
legislatures actually can be used to co-opt opposition groups, or when elections
actually legitimate authoritarian rule.
What does this mean in more concrete terms for the Arab Spring? We hold that what
must be examined to understand different regime trajectories in the region is the
relation between institutional structures and their social bases. This, in a way, leads us
back to questions asked in the first wave of authoritarianism studies. From such a
perspective, Egypt and Tunisia are not (only) hegemonic party regimes, but rather
post-populist regimes that underwent massive changes in their strategies of support
building but did not adapt their institutional structures to the same extent. In Syria, on
the other hand, the populist arrangements underpinning the rule of the Bath party are
still in effect while in Yemen the ruling party never played the role of popular sector
mobilization typical of the early stages of populist regimes. We thus suggest to look
for the difference among these cases not in the institutional structures as such, but
rather in the interaction between institutional structures and the changing
constellations of forces supporting or opposing authoritarian rule in each country.


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