Truly Comparative Politics

In the academic subfield of comparative politics studies often take the form of side-by-side comparisons, wherein the majority of a scholar’s attention is devoted to understanding and documenting individual instances of a phenomenon, and less time is spent on comparison across cases. There are good reasons for this imbalance, as the solid understanding of any single case study is not an easy feat. Moreover, the better one understands any single case, the more difficult it becomes to resist the challenges of nuance and make comparisons across complex, ultimately dissimilar cases.

As one makes one’s way through the Six Books, what becomes clear is that on one level Bodin is involved in comparative politics. In so doing, he is once again engaging with Aristotle, who organized his treatises mainly around topics and drew on a multitude of examples. Although Bodin’s sources are sometimes questionable by today’s standards, they are far richer than Aristotle’s and represent a much broader array of political practices, as Bodin also had access to detailed accounts of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean islands.

Methodologically, the choice to begin a section with a definition is often risky, since that definition could become a stumbling block for someone who disagreed with it. Yet, Bodin’s quick deployment of examples generally works to draw the reader in, and the result is often an opportunity to sharpen one’s understanding of the definition in question, by considering the similarities and differences of practices and institutions from a wide range of states. For instance, terms are sometimes so closely associated with specific institutions or practices (e.g., “senate” with the Roman Senate) that both the definition (of a senate) and one’s understanding of the specific institution (in this case, the Roman Senate) become too narrow. Bodin is well-aware of the controversy surrounding some of his choices (e.g., to emphasize that a senate is an advisory body without power), but he makes a strong argument in almost every case, not least because he examines specific topics in depth and ventures beyond well-trodden examples.

Bodin’s risky focus on the definition pays off insofar as the examples and case studies do not become the main attraction, but are rather examined in relation to the phenomenon he is studying. Moreover, Bodin’s often iconoclastic approach to definitions broadens the scope of potentially relevant information. Thus, for instance, advisory political bodies of all kinds, rather than just ones called “senate,” become eligible for consideration as he works his way towards a more precise definition of a senate. While in many cases the reader would have to work hard to assemble information about a specific state or people, given that it is arranged thematically across the entire treatise, within individual thematic sections the Six Books is a work of truly comparative politics.