Book Review | Political Order in Changing Societies

Huntington, S. P. (2006). Political order in changing societies. Yale University Press.

Samuel Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies is a remarkable example of non-ideological scholarship that was published during the height of the Cold War. It is also, as Francis Fukuyama points out in the updated preface (xvii), one of the last serious efforts to produce a grand theory of political change. Yet these two features ultimately restrict Huntington’s analytical framework, particularly with regard to how he conceptualizes the idea of political order and stability, and this is most evident in how Huntington’s work approaches the political system of the Soviet Union.

Political order is the thread that runs through Huntington’s book, but it is only passingly (and broadly) defined as the level of “authority, effectiveness, and legitimacy” of the government (4). The concept is central to Huntington’s thesis, which maintains that only through political institution-building can developing countries escape from the negative effects of the modernization process, where traditional societies (or societies where political participation is limited to a very small group) transition to modern ones (societies where political participation is expansive) (36). Thus, political order is linked to stability, which leads to the possibility of economic development, and a lack of political order (or low levels of institutionalization in complex societies) is linked to violence in the form of insurgency, coups, and conventional wars (4).

Political Order in Changing Societies’ treatment of the Soviet Union is noteworthy in light of it being published in 1968, when Washington and Moscow were promoting competing and fiercely ideological visions of political and economic development around the world. The book’s theoretical framework classifies the Soviet Union similarly to the United States and United Kingdom, as a state with high levels of institutionalization and participation (80), and thus a high level of political order, because, as Huntington puts it “the government governs” (1). For the Soviet Union, this high level of political order results in part from the high priority that revolutionary parties place on expanding political participation (308), going so far as to call this form of “modern government based on widespread mass participation” the distinctive achievement of communist parties in the USSR and elsewhere (335).

The above classification of the Soviet Union illuminates one of the ways in which Huntington’s framework is problematic. For one, if a lack of political order is defined by the presence of violence in society, then how does one assess the widespread, intra-state violence perpetrated by the Soviet regime, which is classified as a stable political order? The same question could be asked of the Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution, two mass upheavals that were both violent and deeply destabilizing in China’s supposedly stable political order. Such questions highlight the lack of attention paid by Huntington to the policy behaviours and power-dynamics of internal actors and groups, instead focusing on more amoral aspects of overall political structure. This kind of attention to detail is ultimately a victim of Huntington’s methodology, which adopts a deductive approach that tests its hypotheses against an extremely diverse field of developing countries on every continent. Here a selective overlooking of what “political order” actually means to the people of a given society is presumably the cost of creating a theory that can be applied to any political system in any cultural or historical context.

A similar lack of nuance can be seen in the concept of political participation. Huntington argues that expanded political participation – a byproduct of the modernization process – must be matched with greater institutionalization in order to achieve a stable political order (79). In a high participant society like the Soviet Union, elites, the middle-class, and the wider population are all “participating” in highly sophisticated and complex political institutions (78). From the point-of-view of Huntington’s theoretical framework, such participation is treated the same in a qualitative sense between societies like the United States and the Soviet Union despite their obvious political differences; however, elsewhere in the text the author does note that: “Broadened participation in politics may enhance control of the people by the government, as in totalitarian states, or it may enhance control of the government by the people, as in some democratic ones” (34-35).

Thus, from a systemic point of view, the act of social forces “participating” is treated the same way across democratic and authoritarian systems, despite this participation producing different political effects according to Huntington. The exact nature of this participation is somewhat vague in the text. It is never specifically defined. In a broad sense, expanded participation is presented as social forces that were previously excluded from politics entering into the political sphere due to new social awareness and aspirations caused by the modernization process (55). Here the strength of the communist system would be obvious in theory, given the priority that communist parties give to mass organization (400). But how can the nature of this participation be the same in a totalitarian system (where citizen participation “enhances control of the government”) and a democratic one (where it “enhances control of the government”)? Even under Huntington’s loose definition of political order as the level of “authority, effectiveness, and legitimacy,” a contradiction is obvious: How can a government that’s controlling you be considered equally legitimate as a government you believe you control? Such concerns are in the end obscured however by Huntington’s central point that political institutionalization, driven by widening participation, produces strong and stable political orders.

To a certain degree, this is again a consequence of Huntington’s methodology, which tends to be very quantitative: it turns political order into a matter of numbers. Consider how Huntington approaches the political power of a system, which is expanded by the number of groups being “assimilated” into it (144). Which specific groups are being assimilated, their cultural identities and potential historical grudges against other groups (and which groups are left outside of the system), along with the nature of how political power effects these assimilated groups (143) – these are items that fall outside of Huntington’s analytical framework.

Such considerations give insight into another way that Political Order in Changing Societies is problematic with regard to the Soviet Union: It failed to predict or account for the USSR’s eventual collapse. In fact, it did the exact opposite by assigning the Soviet Union the same degree of stability as democratic political systems that persist to this day. Perhaps the reason that Huntington’s framework failed to predict the sudden and total collapse of this “modern” political system is its oversimplification of the idea of political participation, which is fundamental to its conception of political order. Another possibility is that, despite the book’s role in debunking modernization theory, Huntington’s work shares some of modernization theory’s normative bias (xii). The secular and modern political party is classified as “the distinctive institution of the modern polity,” (89), even though one-party systems can involve the same kind of top-down control by narrow cliques characteristic of traditional oligarchies (179). The main difference, going by the Huntington framework, is that the “modern” single party carries with it the idea of a national and secular political community (397) and that the party involves a wider degree of political participation (though the quality of this participation remains unclear). Yet in the end, the fall of the Soviet Union has sometimes been understood in the same way as the breakdown of traditional authorities in the modernization process (56); that is, that the political system could no longer keep up with the growing economic and social complexity of the people it ruled over.

Political Order in Changing Societies represented a positive step toward cleansing development studies and policy of its ideological content during the Cold War. However, in advancing an analytical framework that could equally be applied to democratic and authoritarian countries alike, and on every continent of the world, it risked overlooking or oversimplifying certain dynamics that are essential to understanding political stability and change, a fact that seems to have been proven by the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.


實話說寫critical review essay對於一個研究生來說其實沒什麼難的,不過這是我第一次被要求只能基於一本書的內容來寫。儘管以前就讀過這本書,也有各種課堂討論,然實際要寫成一篇critical review essay且只能使用書本內容而非任何外部參考文章來討論還不能有自己的立場 —— 出這作業的教授真的很煩 —— 比直接寫一篇Book Review還要麻煩許多。

要是我反對作者觀點,在不能使用外部參考文章的狀態下,只能憑著我的知識在書中挑骨頭批評,這難免又會顯示出自己的立場,而教授已經再三表明他不想看到學生自己的立場;要是我贊成作者的觀點,在書中擷取認同的內文,弄不好又成了內文摘要,當然,在critical review essay裡摘要內文是大忌。

簡言之,寫critical review essay應該要有一個論點(argument),將文本裡的關鍵概念至於某種語境(contextualize)然後進行分析和論證。因此從小範圍著手很重要,在一篇1500字上下的短篇essay裡,你不可能談到作者全部的觀點,也不需要對作者提出的大概念和大理論提出全面的評價,而是選定一、兩個你認為最重要的概念,例如作者對某些特定概念(concept)的使用、作者將論點應用於文本中的不同案例和場景、作者選擇使用的研究方法……等等,試著以作者自己的論點和研究方法來進行批評,切記為了顯示自己的critical,毫無根據的給予否定的評價。

大概是這樣。老實說這篇文章從大方向來說我做得不錯(自己說),不過當我批評作者對於蘇聯的政權本質時,還是充滿個人評價 —— 雖然沒什麼人會否定這些看法,不過的確不是從內容汲取的。




Torontonian, Writer, Researcher, Political scientist in making. 座標多倫多,前半生是靠遊牧客棧和生產文字維生的歐亞大陸流浪漢,現為半路出家的政治學學徒一枚,關注種族、移民、排外、民粹等議題,擅寫生命流水帳。

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