Stein Rokkan Research Paper

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Stein Rokkan was one of the world’s leading social scientists after World War II. He played a unique role in organizing international social science cooperation in the 1960s and 1970s, and was the driving force in the development of infrastructure services for comparative research. But he was also a prolific writer, and it was the combination of all his contributions to comparative research, international cooperation, and infrastructure development that made him the comparativist of his time.

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1. Stein Rokkan, The Norwegian

Rokkan was born July 4, 1921 in Vagan on the Lofoten Islands, on the northern periphery of Norway, and grew up in Narvik. Between 1938 and 1948 he attended the University of Oslo, where he first studied philology and then political philosophy, in which he received his doctorate with a dissertation on David Hume. From 1948 to 1951 Rokkan continued his studies in the USA and England: at Columbia University, where his work with Paul Lazersfeld acquainted him with the methods of modern social research, and at the London School of Economics, where he met T. H. Marshall, whose historical-sociological research profoundly influenced his own.

Rokkan’s educational career already contained the seeds of a rare combination of highly diverse talents: above all his great openness towards the ‘new’ social sciences while maintaining a firm grounding in the ‘old’ cultural sciences. His extensive linguistic, philosophical, and historical studies gave him a keen eye for the significance of cultural differences in international comparison, and thus for the often misleading simplicity of purely quantitative approaches. At the same time he recognized the potential of such approaches in comparative research and became one of their most important supporters. Rokkan’s thought was interdisciplinary from early on. His scholarly interests included the entire spectrum of the social sciences, and this characterized his core scientific work: a political sociology in the tradition of classic macrosociology, the historical-comparative analysis of whole societies and polities.

From the very beginning, Rokkan combined a genuine international orientation with a deep devotion to his homeland that shaped his comparative approach. From his intimate knowledge of Norway he developed concepts (e.g., the center–periphery dichotomy) and questions (e.g., on the interaction of mass movements and institutional change) that he then applied to comparative research. This made him aware of the complexity of each single ‘case’ and led him to assess realistically the possibilities and limits of international comparisons.

Rokkan developed his system of thought, which was rooted in his origin and education, systematically throughout his entire scholarly career until his early death on July 22, 1979 in Bergen. From 1951 to 1958 he worked at the Institute of Social Research in Oslo, where he soon became engaged in various comparative research projects. In the same period he initiated, together with Henry Valen, the Norwegian Program of Electoral Research which was oriented on the work of the Survey Research Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but already showed Rokkan’s signature in its emphasis on context variables.

In 1958 Rokkan became research professor at the Christian Michelsen Institute in Bergen, where in 1966 he was awarded a university chair and founded a new department of comparative politics. During this time he was also engaged in efforts to increase cooperation between the Scandinavian countries, which resulted in the publication of Scandinavian Political Studies since 1966, and in the founding of the Nordic Political Science Association in 1975.

2. Rokkan And The Internationalization Of The Social Sciences

Rokkan was active at the international level from the very beginning of his professional career. Developing international research programs, organizing international projects and conferences, and building institutions and infrastructures for comparative research became the focus of his activities from the early 1960s. Three contexts of these activities can be distinguished: UNESCO and the International Social Science Council, the International Committee on Political Sociology, and the European Consortium for Political Research.

Rokkan, then Secretary-General of the International Sociological Association, participated in the founding of the International Social Science Council (ISSC) by UNESCO in 1952. In 1961, he proposed to the ISSC a broad program in cross-national and cross-cultural research which he then directed for over 15 years. He became a member of the Executive Committee of the ISSC in 1965 and served as president of the ISSC from 1973 to 1977.

The 1961 program led to a broad spectrum of activities to develop infrastructure services for comparative research and to promote concerted interdisciplinary research. Whole series of conferences were organized on comparative survey research and aggregate statistical comparisons of nations in the first half of the 1960s. Some of the further work was channeled into the European Coordination Centre for Research and Documentation in Social Sciences, set up in Vienna in 1963; other activities were headed up by two ISSC standing committees for data archives and comparative research established in 1966–7. Rokkan remained the driving force behind most of the subsequent activities, which in the 1970s also included summer schools and workbooks for training on comparative analysis and the promotion of an International Federation of Data Organization.

In the late 1960s, with the support of UNESCO Rokkan launched another series of conferences on national developments, asking what conclusions could be drawn from the early European experiences of state formation and nation-building for developmental processes outside Europe. Rokkan here developed his basic ideas about a macromodel of European political development. This work was also linked to the International Committee on Political Sociology that Rokkan, together with Shmuel Eisenstadt, Morris Janowitz, and Martin Lipset, had founded in 1960 and for which he served as Secretary from 1960 to 1970. Originally affiliated only with the International Sociological Association, in which Rokkan was vicepresident from 1966 to 1970, it became a joint ISA IPSA committee in 1970 when Rokkan was elected president of the International Political Science Association. During the 1960s the committee was an exclusive group of international scholars with a common interest in studying major historical changes. It was in this second context that Rokkan developed his ideas on democratization, cleavage structures, and party systems.

The third context was the European Consortium for Political Research. Rokkan was one of its founders and its first Chair from 1970 to 1976. Here too he pursued his central goals of developing joint research programs and improving infrastructure in the broadest sense: from bibliographic tools, research documentation, and data archives to computer applications (including cartography), and the training of the next generation of social scientists.

Rokkan’s decisive role in the internationalization of the social sciences and the promotion of comparative research resulted from a congruence of personality and historical situation. In the 1960s the social sciences were expanding rapidly in Western Europe, but they suffered from national fragmentation. International cooperation was needed, and succeeded first via the USA. Only later did a genuine ‘Europeanization’ begin. Rokkan’s broad education and international orientation proved invaluable in building bridges between the USA and Europe and reconciling different European traditions. His enormous talent for combining personal networking and institution-building was a crucial asset in this start-up phase and the close linkage he saw between programmatic conceptualization, cooperative organization, and infrastructurebuilding gave this endeavor a cohesiveness that seems to be lacking today.

Rokkan’s historical role has somewhat overshadowed his scientific contributions, apart from a few famous single hypotheses and typologies. His lasting contribution will be his attempt to develop a macro-model of the political development of Europe. In particular, his comparative studies on the structuring of European mass democracies, and his analyses of the processes of state formation and nation-building in Europe, but also his general approach to comparative research.

3. The Structuring Of Mass Politics In Western Europe

Rokkan’s work on the democratization of the European nation-states concentrated on the institutional and organizational variations in the structuring of mass politics up to World War II. Here he developed his well-known ideas of four institutional thresholds of democratization and of historical cleavage structures which in the process of democratization are transformed into party systems via the formation of alliances and oppositions.

In institutional terms, democratization for Rokkan meant the successive lowering or removal of four thresholds: the threshold to political opposition (legitimation), to political participation (incorporation), to access to parliament (representation), and to participation in government (executive power).

The lowering of the first two thresholds, through the recognition of civic rights and the extension of suffrage, ushered in the age of mass politics with mass parties and mass election campaigns. For Rokkan, an unbroken tradition of representation, a history of continuous center building, and a Protestant nationalization of territorial culture were the main factors favoring an earlier, more gradual, and stable democratization.

The lowering of the third threshold implied a transition from majoritarian to proportional representation, easing the access of minorities to representation in the legislature. In his view, the pressures for proportional representation were higher in the ethnically and/or religiously heterogeneous countries, and in general in the smaller nations with their greater international dependence.

The introduction of universal (male) suffrage in all Western European countries at the end of World War I and the transition to proportional representation in most of them tended to stabilize the party systems of the 1920s for a long time, in most cases until the 1960s (Rokkan’s famous ‘freezing’ thesis). In Rokkan’s view, the party systems of the 1920s reflected older cleavages that had emerged in the earlier processes of state formation and nation-building and became politicized and organized in the process of democratization.

Cleavages are understood as strong and enduring conflicts that tend to polarize a political system. Rokkan distinguished between four or five basic cleavages that emerged at different critical junctures in European history. The National Revolution (1789 and after) produced two cleavages, with even older roots in the early state formation processes and the Reformation:

(a) the center–periphery cleavage: conflicts between the central nation-building culture and ethnically linguistically distinct subject populations in the peripheries;

(b) the state–church cleavage: conflicts between the aspirations of the centralizing, standardizing, and mobilizing nation-state and the corporate claims of the church.

Two further cleavages were produced by the Indus- trial Revolution in the nineteenth century:

(c) the land–industry cleavage: conflicts between the landed interests and the rising class of commercial industrial/entrepreneurs; and

(d) the worker–employer cleavage: conflicts between Owners/employers and tenants /workers.

The class cleavage was overlaid by a fifth cleavage between proletarian internationalism and nation-accepting socialism as a result of the International Revolution (1917 and after).

According to Rokkan, the differences between the European party systems largely were produced by the first three cleavages, reflected in the presence or absence of regional, Christian, or agrarian parties. Whereas Christian parties emerged mainly in the religiously mixed and some of the Catholic countries, agrarian parties are found only in Protestant areas. The class cleavage, by contrast, produced working- class parties in every country, but their strength and unity differed greatly due to the socialist–communist split.

4. State Formation And Nation-Building In Europe

In analyzing the historical development of the different cleavage structures, Rokkan took a decisive step beyond traditional comparative research: he no longer regarded the units of comparison, the nation-states, as given, but rather thematized their development itself. In these later works, Rokkan was influenced greatly by Hirschman’s concepts of exit, voice, and loyalty, which he used in his analyses of the development of the nation-state in terms of boundary-building, internal structuring, and system-building.

Rokkan distinguished between four basic processes of loyalty-producing system-building: state formation and nation-building; two processes mainly of boundary-building and two processes of mainly restructuring, the establishing of political citizenship by equalizing the rights to participation and the establishing of social citizenship by redistributing resources and benefits. In the older countries these processes tended to follow each other in time, whereas in the newer countries the problems associated with them often cumulated.

In the European context, according to Rokkan, these processes were influenced by six givens: first, the heritage of the Roman Empire (law and citizenship); second, the tradition of the Germanic kingdoms (legislative judicial assemblies); third, the crucial role of the supraterritorial Catholic Church; fourth, the growth of a central city belt; fifth, the development of feudal and manorial agrarian structures; and sixth, the emergence of literatures in vernacular languages.

The European world of states and nations emerged from the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire, after centuries of territorial fragmentation and retrenchment, followed by processes of expansion and reorganization. For Rokkan, ‘the alphabet and the city decided the fate of Europe’ (Rokkan 1999) in these processes. As a result of various waves of migration, a new ‘ethnic-linguistic infrastructure’ arose in the Middle Ages. The alphabet made it possible to turn spoken into written standards of communication, and this vernacularization provided a basis for the later nation-building.

The city belt in turn was a decisive factor in center formation and early state building. The revival of trade between the Orient, the Mediterranean, and the North Sea had produced a belt of independent cities from Italy to Flanders. The polycephality of the citystate Europe either delayed state formation (Germany, Italy) or led to confederations (The Netherlands, Switzerland). By contrast, monocephalic city structures conducive to centralized state development formed at the western and later also at the eastern end of the city belt. The rise of Atlantic capitalism, however, brought with it a European division of labor that strengthened the Western states, while the Eastern states largely became incorporated into empires.

The variations in city structure and thus the tripartite division of Europe into a Western Europe of unitary, centralized nation-states, a federalist Central Europe, and an Eastern Europe of multi-ethnic empires constitute the ‘west–east axis’ in Rokkan’s well-known typological–topological model or conceptual map of Europe. It helps to explain the great paradox of European development: that the strongest and most durable systems emerged at the periphery of the city belt and the old Empire.

While the ‘west–east axis’ defines differences in economic conditions of state formation, the ‘south– north axis’ denotes differences in cultural conditions of nation building, depending on the geopolitical distance northward from Rome. Rokkan interpreted the Reformation as the first major step in defining territorial nations in Northern Europe, whereas in Catholic Europe the Church remained supraterritorial.

The conditions for successful center-building and territorial consolidation as well as for cultural standardization and identity-building, therefore, varied across Europe in a typical and topological way. The easier these processes of territorial and cultural boundary-building, Rokkan generalized, the more gradual and less violent were the internal restructuring of the nation-states through the establishment of citizenship rights.

Towards the end of his life Rokkan attempted to integrate his comparative studies into a comprehensive model of Europe spanning the entire history of state formation, nation-building, and mass politics in Europe and identifying the crucial variables in the long and complex process that led up to the current constellations of territories, economies, and systems of political alignment. This macro-model remained a sketch exemplifying the nature of most of Rokkan’s studies, which were essentially research programs.

5. Rokkan’s Comparative Approach

Rokkan defined the decisive challenge of cross-cultural, cross-societal, and cross-national research as follows: ‘We propose to direct our attention to one single, central set of issues: the possibilities of translating ‘‘grand theory’’ into empirically workable ‘‘typologies of macro-settings’’ for variations in human behaviour, and the consequences of such typologies for decisions on the cultural and the geographical range of comparisons at the level of communities, households, and individuals’ (Rokkan 1970b).

From this fundamental orientation, Rokkan developed a series of basic elements that characterize his comparative approach: the need for context-specific comparisons, the multi-dimensionality of contexts, the twin concepts of structuring and boundary-building, the dynamics of freezing and unfreezing at critical junctures, and finally the method of retrospective diachronics.

For Rokkan model-building always had to be context-specific: ‘No single explanatory or intervening variable can be linked up with a dependent variable in isolation from the context, whether across systems or across stages’ (Rokkan 1999). Because such macrocontexts are comparable only to a certain degree, Rokkan was skeptical of universalizing comparisons and instead preferred region and period-specific models, particularly in his cleavage model and his conceptual map of Europe.

The macrocontexts are in principle multidimensional, since for Rokkan they always resulted from interactions between three different systems, the political, economic, and cultural systems. Due to their relative autonomy, he started in his macromodel from configurations, rather than hierarchies of factors: ‘There is no economic determinism in the model, nor a geopolitical, nor a cultural: in this sense it seeks to combine the traditions of Karl Marx with those of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim.’

While all three systems have a territorial dimension, only the political system is ultimately capable of controlling territory. Territory is a crucial concept in Rokkan’s comparative analysis of political systems. It is a starting point for his most basic twin concepts of structuring and boundary-building in the formation of territorial systems. Such systems essentially are structured through the formation of political, economic, and cultural centers and the incorporation of peripheries. Their consolidation presupposes a process of political, economic, and cultural boundary-building which in turn contributes to the emergence of territory wide cleavages. Center–periphery relations and cleavage structures are the two dimensions that for Rokkan underlay the institutional and organizational structuring of political systems.

With his twin concepts, Rokkan went beyond traditional comparative research that was limited to comparing structures and focused on the formation of systems as a process of structuring and boundarybuilding. In this historical process critical junctures are crucial. This concept of Rokkan’s refers to political, economic, and cultural ‘Revolutions,’ historical events and processes which he used to distinguish between periods: between ‘critical junctures’ when basic new decisions are taken, structures are ‘unfrozen’ and boundaries are ‘opened,’ and periods in which the institutional and organizational structures remain ‘frozen’ and the boundaries ‘closed.’ This attempt at periodization underlies Rokkan’s basic method of retrospective diachronic analysis which addresses the question: ‘given an observed contrast in the values of variables at time ti, what combinations of variables for earlier phases ti–t, ti– , and so on, can best account for these differences?’ (Rokkan 1999).

In this way, Rokkan attempted to explain systematically current structural differences between the European societies and polities as arising from their long-term development. In many cases, his efforts to do so took the form of research programs. With his contributions to developing a social science infrastructure, he wished to create a basis for carrying out these programs. In both respects, Rokkan has left us an important legacy.


  1. Lipset S, Rokkan S (eds.) 1967 Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-national Perspectives. Free Press, New York
  2. Rokkan S 1970a Citizens, Elections, Parties. Approaches to the Comparative Study of the Processes of Development. Universitetsforlaget, Oslo, Norway
  3. Rokkan S 1970b Cross-cultural, cross-societal and cross-national research. In: UNESCO, Main Trends of Research in the Social and Human Sciences. Mouton, Paris, p. 1
  4. Rokkan S 1999 State Formation, Nation-building, and Mass Politics in Europe. The Theory of Stein Rokkan. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  5. Rokkan S et al (eds.)1987 Centre–Periphery Structures in Europe: An ISSC Workbook in Comparative Analysis. Campus, Frankfurt, Germany
  6. Rokkan S, Dogan M (eds.) 1969 Quantitative Ecological Analysis in the Social Sciences. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
  7. Rokkan S, Eisenstadt S (eds.) 1973 Building States and Nations, 2 Vols. Sage, Beverly Hills, CA
  8. Rokkan S, Merritt R (eds.) 1966 Comparing Nations. The Use of Quantitative Data in Cross-national Research. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  9. Saelen K 1981 Stein Rokkan: A Bibliography:. In: Torsvik P (ed.) Mobilization, Center–Periphery Structures and Nation-building. Universitetsforlaget, Bergen, Norway
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