The analyses show that for transitions initiated before 1900, the median time for democratisation was 56 years, while for those initiated after 1900, the median time was 1.7 years. The researchers also found results indicating that democracy survives longer when transition times have been longer. However, they identified a consolidation period of 12 years; after this period, the amount of time spent on the original transition had no significant impact on the survival of democracy.

Democratising a country may demand dramatic upheavals, as is evident from the “democratic revolutions” in the Islamic world.

“Interestingly, we found no common sequence of reforms that the slowly developing democracies had implemented – all such sequences were unique. Countries that have democratised rapidly usually did so either in one single step or through a chaotic interregnum period. These results thus give no clues as to how democratisation should be carried out, except that democracy seems reachable from a vast array of directions,” says Fredrik Jansson, PhD in mathematics.

Several classical studies in political science have stressed the importance of a democratic culture and incremental reforms in order for the democratisation process to succeed. Now three researchers at the Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution at Stockholm University show that while democratisation has usually been a very rapid process in the past one hundred years, it was much slower in the infancy of modern democracy. The researchers point out that these institutional changes resemble patterns for diffusion of innovations among nations, such as communication technology.

Social change as an evolutionary process

The results are part of a major project on understanding social change as an evolutionary process.

“There are both interesting differences and interesting similarities between biological evolution and how culture and society changes over time. Understanding natural selection has revolutionised biology and provided us with tools for understanding phenomena that would otherwise have been incomprehensible. The question is whether it is possible to formulate a similar theory for cultural change,” says Patrik Lindenfors, associate professor of zoology.

“A feasible way may be to regard cultural change in analogy to innovation generation and diffusion, an established research area with an evolutionary tradition,” says Mikael Sandberg, professor of political science.

The results are presented in the paper “Democratic Revolutions as Institutional Innovation Diffusion: Rapid Adoption and Survival of Democracy” in the scientific journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change.

Link to the paper: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2013.02.002

About the Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution

Cultural evolution is a rapidly growing interdisciplinary 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.

Further information:

Fredrik Jansson (PhD in mathematics), Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution, Stockholm University, phone +46 (0)8 16 39 55, email fredrik.jansson@intercult.su.se

Patrik Lindenfors (associate professor of zoology), Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution, Stockholm University, phone +46 (0)8 559 24 341, email patrik.lindenfors@zoologi.su.se

Mikael Sandberg (professor of political science), Center for Social Analysis, Halmstad University, mobile +46 (0)70 493 66 19, email mikael.sandberg@hh.se