by Matthew Charles Wilson, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of South Carolina and Carl Henrik Knutsen, Professor of Political Science at the University of Oslo.

Political scientists often endeavor to make general claims about how politics works and explanations that concern global phenomena or encompass a variety of countries. However, our recent research shows that the empirical basis that political scientists draw from is often concentrated on a modest number of countries, mostly located in North America and Western Europe. Many countries in other regions of the world do not receive much attention by political scientists.  As a result, causal explanations, descriptive claims, and theories of political phenomena that purport to be general may inadequately reflect the situations in these countries, but strongly reflect the situation of wealthy, democratic Western countries.

Scholars have long suspected that the research conducted by political scientists on different topics has had unequal geographical coverage and that this skewness may affect both what we know of the world and our ability to accurately describe it. For example, much of our knowledge of political parties builds on Western European experiences, and several theories in international relations draw heavily on experiences from the United States. Yet the exact extent of this issue is not well known.

In “Geographical Coverage in Political Science Research,” forthcoming in Perspectives on Politics on 05 October (, we describe different patterns and trends over time concerning country references in eight major political science journals. We provide a broad summary of the areas of the world and particular countries that have received more and less attention and how that has changed over time.  In addition to surveying these patterns, we also introduce a free online tool that allows users to search the data for specific keywords by journal and graph or download the results.

The data that we draw on include the titles and abstracts from 27,690 publications in eight major political science journals from their inception to 2019.  The specific journals are the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, British Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, Comparative Politics, International Organization, Journal of Politics, and World Politics.  The sample covers more than a century of research in generalist political science journals, as well as major outlets in comparative politics and the top subfield journal in IR.

Analyzing country references in the abstracts and titles shows that political science was historically concentrated on a limited number of countries in North America and Western Europe and that it has become increasingly global in scope over the last few decades. Still, North America and Western Europe have been consistently more referenced than other regions in every year since 1906.  Unsurprisingly, the generalist and IR-focused journals are much more discrepant in their coverage of the United States and United Kingdom. References to the United States, in particular, vastly outnumber those of other countries, including major ones such as China and India (Figure 1). The top subfield journals in comparative politics show more equitable country coverage but still focus on more developed and Western nations.

Figure 1. References in titles or abstracts as a proportion of total publications across 1906–2019, for the 15 most-referenced countries.
(Please note that the scale is truncated to fit the United States.)

Some small countries, such as Ireland and Israel, have received relatively much attention, whereas some large countries, such as Indonesia and Ethiopia, have received relatively little. There are also discrepancies within regions (Figure 2). Research on Latin America has steadily increased relative to other regions over time, whereas Eastern Europe received a boost in attention right after the end of the Cold War. Despite a recent increase in attention, Asia remains an “under-studied” continent relative to its population size. Notably, 21 independent nations have never been specifically mentioned in a title or abstract of the eight major journals, including The Gambia, Oman and Turkmenistan.

Figure 2. References in titles or abstracts to countries in region (and the region) as proportion of total publications, by year and region

We discuss reasons that may drive such differences in coverage, including that rich and democratic countries may benefit from more political scientists located within their borders and studying their home countries. Democratic countries and countries with a major world language may provide better access to data and source material, while autocratic countries with ongoing conflicts may be difficult places for conducting field work. Using regression models, we examine potential correlates of country coverage and show that income, population size, and democracy level are significantly related to country references among citations in the major journals. Even when accounting for region-fixed effects, the major languages spoken and several other factors, wealthier and more democratic countries are much more likely to receive the attention of political scientists. Autocratic and poorer countries are less frequently studied, everything else equal.

The patterns that we describe do not upend conventional beliefs about the discipline but offer a fuller view of the extent to which potential “geographical biases” exist and indications of what the potential drivers may be.  The findings reinforce and help to unite the conclusions of similar studies that have focused on geographical coverage in international relations and specific comparative politics journals.  This is important for understanding the “scope conditions” of accumulated knowledge in political science and the more or less accepted (purportedly general) conclusions about characteristics of different political processes.  Although political science research is currently becoming more diverse in terms of its empirical focus, the continued geographical skew can affect the applicability of descriptive and causal claims and the development of theories in political science.



Matthew Charles Wilson ( is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of South Carolina. His research is focused on institutions in nondemocracies and their relationship to regime change and conflict outcomes.  He has published in journals such as the American Journal of Political Science, British Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, Democratization, International Interactions, and Political Science Research and Methods.


Carl Henrik Knutsen ( is Professor of Political Science at the University of Oslo. His research interests include the economic effects of political institutions, the determinants of regime change, and the measurement of democracy. He has published his work in journals such as the American Journal of Political Science, British Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, Journal of Politics, Word Development, and World Politics. Knutsen currently leads an ERC Consolidator Grant project on the “Emergence, Life, and Demise of Autocratic Regimes”.