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Manuscript Submission Deadline 30 November 2023

Legitimacy and legitimation are among the core topics of Political Science in general, as well as in the subfield of Comparative Politics. They relate to core questions of politics, polity and policy – the relation between rulers and ruled, the properties of a political system, its democratic quality, the ...

Legitimacy and legitimation are among the core topics of Political Science in general, as well as in the subfield of Comparative Politics. They relate to core questions of politics, polity and policy – the relation between rulers and ruled, the properties of a political system, its democratic quality, the rule of law, and its policy output, only to name a few. Moreover, the concept of legitimacy refers to normative and theoretical as well as empirical dimensions of research. After one or two decades in which the topic seemed to be rather marginalised, academic discussions on legitimacy is on the rise in recent years. However, no consensus has evolved on the conceptual and empirical core of legitimacy. What is more, the concept of legitimacy is not only contested, it also has to be considered as multidimensional. These aspects are often raised, but so far not elaborated upon in the literature.

Based on these novel and emerging discussions on legitimacy and legitimation, this Research Topic in Frontiers in Political Science focuses on legitimacy and legitimation, and discusses theoretical, conceptual, methodical and empirical questions. This collection will contain cutting edge research articles drawing on both theoretical and methodological questions and empirical applications which also open up new perspectives in the empirically oriented comparative research on political legitimacy and legitimation.

This Research Topic is based on the idea that legitimacy is an essentially contested concept. It is, however, possible to spell out a number of features and dimensions that are used in any kind of definition of legitimacy.

Departing from the notion that legitimacy is the “worthiness of a political order to be recognised as such” we distinguish three dimensions of legitimacy:

1) The input dimension refers to a) the principle of popular sovereignty and the popular election of political leaders and b) the relation between those governing and those governed.

2) The throughput or system dimension refers to a) the rule of law and the democratic quality of the political system and its institutions as well as b) the political process.

3) The output dimension refers to a) a system’s policy output, b) the effectiveness and efficiency of its policies which is c) one of the prerequisites of support by the governed.

All three dimensions can be examined either in a normative or empirical perspective. In addition, we can also examine legitimation, or the processes through which legitimacy is acquired and reproduced. In sum, research on political legitimacy and legitimation blends normative and empirical approaches which take input, throughput and output of political systems into consideration.

Given these considerations, this Research Topic will present perspectives on studying legitimacy and legitimation in a comparative perspective, and will contribute to linking these different but related approaches. The main focus of the Research Topic will be on unresolved conceptual and methodological questions as well as on recent developments in the field of comparative empirical research on political legitimacy. Article will endeavour to address different conceptualisations and operationalisations of legitimacy and legitimation, aboard different research methods and their potential connections, and reflect both theoretical and conceptual discussions.

This collection of articles will therefore help address important gaps in the literature on political legitimacy: first, the lack of current works linking classical approaches to political legitimacy with more recent research on new developments in the field; second, the lack of works that aboard the consequences of legitimacy being an essentially contested concept, i.e., the fact that theories, operationalisations and methods in legitimacy research differ decisively; and, most importantly, the lack of a thorough discussion of the advantages, added values and blank spots of different methodologies in legitimacy research.

This Research Topic will be organised around three major themes (outlined further down):

1) theoretical, conceptual and methodological issues,

2) quantitative research on legitimacy, and

3) qualitative and mixed methods approaches to legitimacy.

In particular, since quantitative and qualitative approaches are rarely linked to legitimacy research, we aim at discussing both strands of the debate and their respective added value and blank spots in the proposed special issue. Furthermore, we will present approaches that indicate how qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods research on legitimacy can be developed further. These themes will be discussed in relation to established democracies and the EU’s multilevel system. Contributions to this topic should cover one or two of the three perspectives sketched below:

1) Different theoretically driven and conceptual approaches to research on legitimacy share a number of similarities but also differ in important aspects. More precisely, they all emphasise a political system’s “worthiness to be recognised” but differ with respect to the consequences of this claim. A fundamental concern draws on the question of whether legitimacy should be conceptualised as well (or even primarily) as a normative concept or whether it has to be (solely) analysed as a concept that can be measured and operationalised empirically. In other words, is legitimacy value-loaded or value-neutral? Today, there seems to be widespread agreement that the concept is both value-loaded and needs to be empirically operationalised.

2) Quantitative research on legitimacy is mainly based on Easton’s concept of regime support developed in the mid-1960s. Conceptually, support is understood as a continuum ranging from diffuse (regime) support to specific support for individual institutions and actors. Satisfaction with democracy (SWD) has become a standard item in legitimacy research. However, Linde and Ekman (2003) have rightfully pointed out that legitimacy is a multidimensional phenomenon and that the focus on the one aspect covered by SWD hence bears difficulties. According to Linde and Ekman, legitimacy contains at least the fundamental support of democracy as a norm and the claim of being the best form of government, but also a positive evaluation of system performance. As Linde and Ekman show, SWD taps into the performance dimension but neglects support of democracy as a normative ideal. We can therefore conclude that there is an obvious need for development and research in this area. In particular, satisfaction with democracy is a highly problematic concept when it comes to the evaluation of non-democratic regimes by their citizens. About thirty years after Easton, his concept therefore has been substantially changed by Pippa Norris who focuses on the individual citizens’ orientations towards their polity.

3) Qualitative and mixed-methods approaches to political legitimacy have progressively attracted scholarly attention in the last few years. While legitimacy so far is mostly analysed using quantitative approaches, qualitative methods are mostly used to study legitimation processes. The legitimacy of governments, states or regimes is always linked to certain specific meanings (e.g. prosperity, democracy, size, etc...) that are both actively constructed and received by political elites, intermediate actors such as the media, and the citizens. Research concentrates on the construction of these patterns of meaning associated to legitimacy by the citizens and/ or via discursive processes of legitimation. Both can be analysed using different qualitative or mixed-methods approaches, in particular cognitive interviews, focus group discussions, text and document analysis, discourse analysis and approaches like the repertory grid.

Keywords: political legitimacy, political process, rule of law, popular sovereignty, policy output, legitimation


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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