Comparative politics, also called comparative government, describes a method of scientific study in the political science field. As the name suggests, comparative politics compares two or more countries and attempts to draw conclusions based on those comparisons. Political scientists may compare one or several aspects, such as economic prosperity, level of education and employment. The comparative method is similar to the scientific method in the physical sciences because it seeks to establish empirical relationships between variables.
Social and political sciences differ from the physical sciences in the methods of testing available to them. In the physical sciences, researchers can perform controlled studies in laboratories where the variables of the study can be manipulated. In contrast, social science relies on observation and interpretation of the available social and governmental data; no direct manipulation of variables is possible.
Comparative politics describes the method of testing a hypothesis by setting dependent and independent variables, similar to the scientific method of the physical sciences. By observing correlations, political scientists then attempt to confirm or rule out a cause-and-effect relationship, depending on whether the available data supports or contradicts the hypothesis. Like the physical sciences, the results of one study will often raise new hypotheses to be studied.
The most familiar examples of the comparative method involve comparing different forms of government in different countries, and how effective they are in particular areas of social or economic development. For example, a scientist might want to test the hypothesis "Countries with democratic forms of government have a more highly-educated population than countries run by monarchies." The scientist would compile data on two or more countries, setting up the form of government as the independent variable, and the level of education among the population as the dependent variable. The hypothesis would then be evaluated and confirmed or rejected, based on whether the hard data supports the hypothesis or contradicts it. While this example is extremely simplistic, it illustrates the basic scientific process of the comparative politics method.
Social scientists and philosophers have been using variations of the comparative method of study throughout history. Aristotle compared and contrasted different types of government in his work called The Politics. Alexis de Toqueville also employed comparative political study in his work Democracy in America, which examined the nuances of the United States' government at the time of its conception, and compared it to British and French governments. Other social scientists that have made significant contributions to the field of comparative politics include Anthony Downs, Max Weber, and Giovanni Sartori.