Rachel A. May, Andrew K. Milton, eds. (Un)Civil Societies: Human Rights and Democratic Transitions in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005. xvi + 299 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7391-0580-1.
Reviewed by D. CHRISTOPHER BROOKS (Department of Political Science, St. Olaf College)
Published on H-LatAm (August, 2005)
Transitology versus Area Studies: Bridging the Gap?
The 1989 revolutions of Eastern Europe breathed new life into the study of democratic transitions, but also generated one of the most divisive arguments in comparative politics in recent memory. Transitologists (scholars of political transition) were excited by the expansion of the number of diverse cases against which existing theories could be tested and for which new ones would be formulated. Area studies specialists saw the collapse of communism as the opportunity to employ their expertise to explain the cultural particularities and to defend the political uniqueness of the transitions in their region. In the decade since this debate emerged, little progress has been made to resolve the fundamental crisis of theorizing democratic transitions it posed. Rachel May and Andrew Milton's (Un)Civil Societies is one of the few book-length works that is daring enough to attempt to bridge the area studies/transitology gap.
May and Milton claim to situate their volume at the intersection of literature on democratic transitions, human rights, and civil society, the relationships of which are discussed in the initial theoretical chapters. Using social movements and their organizations as proxies for civil society, May provides an overview of "how the evolution of the popular struggle can be seen as integral to the contemporary process of democratization" in chapter 1 (p. 2). In the following chapter, Milton offers a dense and theoretically rich treatment of the precarious relationship between democratization and the development of civil society organizations, institutions, and practices. Together, these theoretical chapters establish the backdrop against which the subsequent sections are set.
The remainder of the book is organized into five sections, each of which is based on a topic related to the process of democratization: the politics of ethnicity and identity, the role of violence in transitional societies, the implications of the transition for the media, the issue of transitional justice, and the formation of party systems. For each issue, regional specialists with particular theoretical expertise on the respective subjects offer pairs of chapters that alternate in focus between Eastern European post-communist and Latin American post-dictatorial transitions. In structuring the book thusly, the editors aim to create a volume in which some of the most important theoretical issues related to transitions from non-democratic regimes are systematically compared in a cross-regional context. Despite efforts to split the difference between the divergent methodologies, approaches, and definitions employed by students of democratic transitions, the editors' attempts fall well short of their mark for two basic reasons.
First, although the editors' observations regarding the connections between democratic transitions, civil society, and human rights in the preface are generally acceptable on the surface, the theoretical connections between these important concepts are lacking in substantive and systematic development. Both Milton and May offer generally succinct, although significantly dated, overviews of the literature related to the relationships of civil society and human rights to democratization, respectively. However, neither advances a synthetic or systematic framework in which theoretically informed, cross-regional comparisons on various dimensions of democratization might be conducted, an explicitly stated goal of this collection.
Second, a dearth of theoretical development leaves the reader wondering how each of the topical divisions was selected and what instructions were imparted to the contributors of this volume. In relation to the former point, while students of democratization might make readily and intuitively the connections between, for example, civil society and the media or human rights and violence, there is no justification for their inclusion over other theoretically important issues such as civil and political rights, constitution making, or political trust. Furthermore, lacking a cogent theoretical roadmap at the beginning of book, readers expecting and wanting a set of concluding remarks to help them corral general lessons from the conglomeration of essays they have just completed will be disappointed at the absence of such a chapter. On the latter point, there is no evidence of coordination and discussion between the authors responsible for the various regionally paired chapters to synthesize their approaches, topics, or findings into complementary treatments of Latin America and Eastern Europe. With the exception of the initial chapters, explicit and rigorous comparisons that might produce innovative theorizing and generalized findings across the two regions is simply absent, leaving the impression that the essays were not written expressly for this volume.
Although this collection of essays does not succeed in bridging the theoretical gap between Eastern European and Latin American democratization, the value of (Un)Civil Societies lies in the importance and quality of its individual components. Authored by senior and emerging scholars in their respected fields, the substantive chapters offer excellent reviews of their relevant bodies of literature while advancing incisive and engaging arguments of their own. For example, Marc Belanger presents an excellent primer to the range and impact of Latin American social movements on the democratization process. Andrzej Korbonski advances the compelling (and controversial) argument that the legacies of the interwar period are largely responsible for the manifestation of violence in some Eastern European revolutions. Elke Fein's demonstration of the effectiveness of lustration policies against former communists in Eastern Europe raises serious normative issues regarding their compatibility with liberal democratic values. The reinforcement of financial, political, and professional limitations on Latin American media, identified by Chappell Lawson and Sallie Hughes, suggests that a robust free press lies only in the distant future. And against conventional wisdom, Arthur Miller and Thomas Klobucar provide ample evidence that a socially grounded and interest-based party system is emerging in Russia and the Ukraine. With the addition of the regional complements to these chapters, this book provides ample opportunity for upper-division students to begin exploring the problems of conceptual traveling across disparate regions.
The debates between area studies specialists and transitologists have contributed greatly to sensitizing members of both camps to their respective shortcomings and to improving the overall quality of research on the subject. However, more can and should be done by comparativists to encourage mid-level theorizing that is theoretically informed and contextually bound. To this end, May and Milton are correct absolutely in their recognition that "a more sophisticated understanding of the processes of substantive democratization will require a dialogue among and between area specialists, comparativists, and theorists" (p. xii). Unfortunately, the apparent lack of dialogic engagement among the contributors to this volume is an indication that the final product merely reinforces the dichotomy evidenced by the transitology versus area studies debate.
. The most famous of these debates was carried out in the pages of Slavic Review between Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl, who defended the transitologists' position, and Valerie Bunce, who took up the area studies specialists' argument. The full debate can be found in the following: Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl, "The Conceptual Travels of Transitologists and Consolidologists: How Far to the East Should They Attempt to Go?" Slavic Review 53.1 (1994): pp. 173-185; Valerie Bunce, "Should Transitologists Be Grounded?" Slavic Review 54.1 (1995): pp. 111-127; Terry Lynn Karl and Philippe C. Schmitter, "From an Iron Curtain to a Paper Curtain: Grounding Transitologists or Students of Post-Communism?" Slavic Review 54.4 (1995): pp. 965-978; Valerie Bunce, "Paper Curtains or Paper Tigers," Slavic Review 54.4 (1995): pp. 979-986.
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D. CHRISTOPHER BROOKS. Review of May, Rachel A.; Milton, Andrew K., eds., (Un)Civil Societies: Human Rights and Democratic Transitions in Eastern Europe and Latin America.
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