Patrik Lindenfors

PhD Zoological Ecology

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Lindenfors P, Jansson F & Sandberg M 2011 The cultural evolution of democracy: saltational changes in a political regime landscape. PLoS ONE 6: e28270. pdf

Democratization is often viewed as a slow process. Now, researchers at Stockholm University have analyzed all transitions to democracy that have ever occurred. This research shows that in reality, democratization is a rapid process. In half of all cases it has taken less than 2.4 years to go from dictatorship to democracy, and in nearly a quarter of the cases the process took place overnight.

To democratize a country may demand dramatic upheavals. Several classic works in political science have earlier stressed the importance of democratic values and slow reform for the process of democratization to be successful. Now three researchers at Stockholm University, Patrik Lindenfors, Fredrik Jansson and Mikael Sandberg, show that democratization is in reality a very rapid process – the median time for a transition from dictatorship to democracy is only 2.4 years. Transitions in the other direction are even faster, usually overnight. The conclusions are drawn from analyzing all transitions between dictatorship and democracy that have ever occurred.

The research team, consisting of a biologist, a mathematician and a political scientist, have utilized an evolutionary approach and studied institutional changes that have taken place in countries across the world. In this way they have revealed an evolutionary landscape of how political systems have changed over history. In this landscape, dictatorships and democracies were stable political systems while other systems either have not emerged or have acted as short term transition systems.

– Most reforms have either been change within dictatorships, or within democracies, while it has been very unusual with reforms that have led to gradual transitions between these. In those cases where transitions actually have occurred between both these stable political systems, these have been very rapid, says Mikael Sandberg, professor of political science.

The results are part of a larger project aimed at understanding societal changes as an evolutionary process.

– There are both interesting differences and interesting similarities between biological evolution and the manner in which culture and societies change over time. Understanding natural selection has revolutionized biology and provided us with tools to understand phenomena that would otherwise have been incomprehensible. The question is whether it is possible to devise a similar theory for cultural change, says Patrik Lindenfors, associate professor of zoology.

Research on cultural evolution is a rapidly growing cross-disciplinary research field. In Sweden, research in the field is conducted at the Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution at Stockholm University. There, biologists, mathematicians, political scientists, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, linguists, sociologists, psychologists and others are working together in an attempt to understand cultural change. The Centre was established in 2007 by the biologist Magnus Enquist and the historian Arne Jarrick.

The results of the study are presented in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.

The evolutionary landscape of regime possibilities:

Two peaks in the evolutionary landscape of political regimes. We noted the source (‘From’) and target (‘To’) polity scores for all historical transitions in polity scores of all nations over all years present in the Polity IV data set. Since we only registered changes, the diagonal (i.e. 10  10, 9  9, 8  8, etc.) contains empty cells that are smoothed over in the graph. As the graph illustrates, changes in regimes tend to occur within autocratic or democratic types of regimes, and only seldom between them, or elsewhere in the space of possible transitions.