Measuring Democracy: Approaches and Challenges Associated With Developing Democratic Indices

Publication Date: 
30 Sep 2007

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The wave of democratization around the world in recent decades brought about a rising need for a means to assess, to compare and to explain democratic progress cross country, cross region and over time. A number of composite indices were developed to measure democracy. Coupled with the advancement of statistical methods, democratic indices became powerful tools of social science research and an important factor of political decision-making. This essay provides a critical overview of existing approaches to measuring democratic performance. 

Why we need to measure democracy

Initially, the idea of democratic indices came from the academic community. Social scientists were interested in using cross-national data for testing causal relationships between democracy and various political and economic outcomes. To prove statistically that these relationships were universal, scholars built their models to include as many observations as possible. As autocracy and democracy were considered to be on the same continuum scholars needed a universal tool to measure and to rate both types of regimes. Various democratic indices were designed to fulfill this task.

The use of democratic indices has spurred several productive lines of research such as determinants of democracy (Lipset 1959, Dahl 1971), liberal inter-state peace (Ray 1955, Russet and Oneal 2001), domestic civil peace (Hegre et al. 2001), economic development and democracy (Cutright 1963; Coppedge 1997), democracy and economic development (Barro 1998) and democratic transitions (Przeworski 1986, Karl 1990). These studies laid the foundations for dynamic research agendas that have dominated political science for over 50 years.

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