Why the Third Wave? Huntington, Democracy, and the Nature of Objectivity and Social Science

by Howard Fienberg

for Professor Andreas Pickel: January 23, 1996

The second chapter of Samuel Huntington's the Third Wave presents the reader with a myriad of explanations to attempt to explain what Huntington has identified as the third major wave of democratization, that beginning with Portugal in 1974, and lacks a definite end. To be more specific, as stated in the title of the chapter, the focus is why this wave of transitions occurred, and why it happened in some countries and not in others. Two issues require highlighting within Huntington's work: Huntington's definition of a democracy and the dilemma of quantitative versus qualitative social science.

Huntington's definition of democracy is problematic because it is simplistic. He narrows his definition for his study to a state wherein the "most powerful collective decision makers" are chosen in "fair, honest, and periodic elections," with "virtually" the whole of the adult population eligible to participate. (7) Democracy is often cast in much wider terms, encompassing such issues as liberty and freedom.

Huntington outlines the difference by referring to the Schumpeterian model of democracy, which is where he claims to have extrapolated his own from. Schumpeter distinguishes his own theory from that group of theorists which preceded him, and what he terms the 'classical theory of democracy.' He claims that the 'classical' approach was concerned primarily with the sources of authority and the purpose of government. This approach as such saw the source of authority of democracy as popular consent, with the purpose being that which could be termed the collective good. Such terminology is difficult, because it can be deemed too normative. By focusing instead on the procedural, a more objective approach is possible, according to Schumpeter and Huntington.

Huntington notes a debate between the classical and the procedural camps within the discipline, and claims that the procedural had won out by the 1970's, with normative approaches to democracy in sharp decline. However, the idea of objectivity itself is invalid from certain perspectives. The radical perspective in particular finds all approaches normative. According to this set, theorists who claim objectivity are merely ignoring their own bias. This bias will tend to be one in favor of the status-quo, or in the interest of the dominant class.

Huntington's bias seems evident, since he qualifies the winning of the debate by specificating it to the US. (7) He does mention what can be considered the nature of this bias when, in his fourth point on the list of changes which may be seen to have caused the third wave, he focuses on the changing foreign policies of the United States and the European Community. Huntington, from the radical perspective, may be seen as an apologist for American foreign policy, allowing justification for American global activity. With a scientific approach to democracy, it was possible to ignore the human factor. People do not matter, only institutions, trends, and elite interests, in this case those of the US.

External forces were important in many cases in explaining why democratic transition occurred, and Huntington does address this point. Eastern Europe is an important example, since the stability of the communist regimes was based on enforcement from the Soviet Union. When that support was retracted, the legitimacy of the regimes was shown to be non-existent, and they fell. These countries were designed after W.W.I as democracies, but only Czechoslovakia actually achieved such status. For the most part, extraneous ideologies have difficulty taking root in fresh soil. Huntington also addresses this side of the coin, for he examines not only the transitions, but the consolidation. America may at times 'impose' democracy on a country, but the only area where the US truly deserves criticism is in its support for non-democratic regimes.

What serves America's interests is arguable, but stability is cited most often. However, Huntington does not take the rightist line on the matter, that of justifying the support of authoritarian regimes as stable ones. Nor does he fit the model of Jean Kirkpatrick, who, as ambassador to the UN under Ronald Reagan, declared that US foreign policy would take a structuralist approach, and support authoritarian regimes with the expectation that they would evolve over time from economic freedoms to political freedoms. Huntington finds democracies more stable than authoritarian regimes. They are found to be less politically violent, and less repressive of their citizens. Also, through effective channels of communication, and periodic direct communication via voting, regimes maintain legitimacy and stability.

Radicals should not be excused for taking their too far. Far from hoping to legitimate US foreign policy, Huntington's aim is to streamline the definition of democracy in order to make it more workable on a practical basis. By reducing the definition to a simplistic procedure, Huntington is better able to examine democracy on a global scale, rather than on a simple case basis, or even sub-national basis. Huntington trades "sophistication in conceptualizing critical variables for breadth of comparison." (Kitschelt 1034) A social scientist such as Putnam, in his Making Democracy Work , can have a more broad-based conception of democracy, since he is working on a minute scale by comparison to Huntington. As well, Putnam's conception of civic culture is non-existent in most of the countries studied by Huntington, and since that is Putnam's main focus, a similar approach on those lines would not prove overly useful.

Utility being the motivator, simplicity must be the watchword. This brings the student to the second point of one's exploration, that of quantitative study as opposed to qualitative. This is interesting not only when examined through Huntington, but within Trent University as well.

Huntington's purpose is to develop a general understanding and theory on the democratic transitions and lack thereof which occurred in the third wave. Certainly, this study should be seen as a positive attempt at trying to make some order of global regime change. He chooses a quantitative approach to his study, because that is the only feasible one. Students of political science at Trent would be rightly put off by his works for precisely this reason. The fault lies merely in the style of their education.

The modern conception of the Western liberal university is one which is a proving ground for students' intelligence, and serves to develop their ability to reason, relate, and understand, not only themselves, but their ancestors and the rest of society. This is done through the utilization of all knowledge; science, art, social science, and the humanities, all combine to form a maelstrom of reason and intelligence for the individual. While each person leaves the university with different outlooks, they should all share the ability to think and reason. In theory, they should leave as enlightened citizens.

Recently, however, the implementation of the concept has changed. A student trained in the modern liberal arts is overendowed with an intellectual sense of suspicion. What would normally be used to qualify one's studies has become the guiding principle by which science is carelessly deconstructed and discarded. Through the performance of intellectual demolition, science has been shaken as both doctrine and discourse; it has fallen prey to absolute relativism.

Following two destructive world wars, the West was keen on educating its youth in Enlightenment virtues, with the hopes that blind ideological conflicts and monstrous power struggles would be averted in the future. Which angle to take on this was never clear, because theoretically 'objective' science was what had driven the Nazi ideology and xenophobia, and it was Clausewitze's 'positivist' approach to war which drove the politicians and generals straight into the first world war. Science was to be studied, but taken with a dose of salt.

The same radical perspective that calls Huntington's motives into question is the one which regards the positivist movement in general as a hoax which fails to recognize its own biased angle. Social science can be distinguished from the humanities to some extent by its positivist approach, and modern radicalism eschews scientific method as biased, thus rejecting the discipline in good measure.

Education at Trent University stresses the qualitative over the quantitative in most respects, particularly in the social sciences, and this is most evident in student reaction to works such as Huntington. Numbers, calculations, formulas, and the like are shunned as sterile and antiseptic. Perhaps a greater attempt to balance the two approaches would achieve more favorable results among the students, but one thing may be for certain in this case. Huntington's work could not be taken seriously if it were not quantitative. Quantitative studies can be more freely discussed and critiqued and will reach a wider audience.

If Huntington is more interested in how democracy is achieved and consolidated as opposed to its quality, he should be excused from accusations of inhumanity due to his attempt to broaden one's understanding of democracy as a whole. The Third Wave should be read and discussed instead of criticized and ignored.

Works Cited


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