Measuring democracy in 400 ways

Wallenberg Academy Fellow Staffan I. Lindberg is one of four research leaders in an international project entitled Varieties of Democracy. A database containing millions of items will be used to reveal the nature of democracy.

Staffan I Lindberg

Professor of Political Science

Wallenberg Academy Fellow 2013

University of Gothenburg

Research field:
Democracy and democratization processes

It began at a dinner in Chile after a conference. Two social scientists were sitting discussing how to measure democracy. They did not think that current methods were good enough – something should be done. Just over ten years later they have done it. The result is a database on 173 countries containing just over 16 million items of democracy-related data.

Staffan was one of those two social scientists in Chile. He now works at the University of Gothenburg. Together with a fellow researcher in Lund and two others in the U.S., he is leading the Varieties of Democracy project.

“We first spent some two years selecting indicators – what we would be measuring. Now we have a list of over 350 of them; together they form a measure of how democratic a country is. Behind each indicator, which needs to be weighed up to some extent, there are five independent experts per country,” Staffan explains.

“Becoming a Wallenberg Academy Fellow feels like a responsibility. I want to remain successful and make good use of this opportunity. I also get to belong to a tremendously stimulating network of other researchers. I have already learnt a lot from this.”

Not everything can be objectively measured

Just under half of the indicators are purely factual, and can be obtained either from international sources or on the spot in the country: the nature of the electoral system, the number of political parties, and the number of referenda. But 60 percent of the indicators are not available from any existing sources. These are matters that cannot always be measured objectively. Is there freedom of information, for instance? Freedom of the press?

“If a country is truly a democracy there must be alternative sources of information, not just the state. But how can we know whether there are journalists who write freely and critically?”

Staffan explains: Someone counting the number of journalists each year who are thrown into prison for criticizing the regime would record a figure of zero in Sweden. But the result would be the same in North Korea, where no-one even attempts critical journalism. Change would also be difficult to interpret. If the figure were to rise in Sweden, it would be bad for democracy, but if it rose in North Korea, it would be a step closer to democracy, suggesting that more journalists were starting to challenge the powers that be.

“But we have to know. This is an extremely important item of information. So our way of measuring is that five country experts use a five-point scale to decide the likelihood of a journalist writing critically about the regime ending up in prison. Five experts, a question, a scale. And so it goes on – item after item.”

Good and bad sequences for democracy

The database covers nearly every country in the world, and will be freely available on the internet in late 2015.

Staffan himself wants to use it to study what he calls “sequences in democratization”: the order in which things happen when a democracy is developing.

“If, for instance, we want to support democracy development in Egypt, should we focus our efforts on the media? The party system? Strengthen legal powers? And when things improve, how should we continue? There are sequences that are more favorable for democracy, and some that are less so – some might even cause a collapse, as we saw in some of the states involved in the Arab Spring.”

Help from biologists and mathematicians

Staffan works not only with social scientists when he analyzes the material; he is also assisted by an evolution biologist and a mathematician, among others. Evolutionary models may help in understanding developments. It might be possible to use models for economic cycles, and find the same patterns in democracy development.

“No-one has tried this in democracy research before, so it is a high-risk project. But it may also pay high dividends.”

Staffan is convinced that the database will be of practical importance. For example, the UN, foreign aid organizations and international organizations supporting democracy may gain pointers about what seems to work and what does not before they begin initiatives.

Surprised at the impact of research

Staffan has an unusual background for a professor. In the early 1990’s he was one of two assistant directors on the set of a Swedish children’s Christmas series. He also doubled as chauffeur, as one of the main actors did not have a driver’s license.

“I had to hunch down in the car so the actor could climb over me when he had to get out while the scene was being filmed – it was crazy…”

But although Staffan enjoyed working in the world of film and theater, he had a growing desire to do something that would have more of an impact on the world. He decided to study political science so he would be able “to get out in the world and work”. It was only when he began his studies that he realized just what an impact research can have.

“Since then I have researched into freedom of the individual, democracy, and factors that constrain democracy. Varieties of Democracy will increase our knowledge many times over, and greatly improve the prospects of supporting democracies. So this is something of the jewel in the crown for me, you might say.”

Text: Lisa Kirsebom
Translation: Maxwell Arding
Photo: Magnus Bergström