Stein Rokkan’s comparative historical account of party system formation in Western Europe has proved enormously influential due to the appeal of tying individual political behaviour to large-scale historical transformations. This article reviews the literature that has studied the genesis of cleavage-based party systems, as well as theoretical and empirical assessments of the degree to which they have remained “frozen”. If it is adapted to allow for a more dynamic perspective, the cleavage approach also helps us to make sense of recent transformations of Western European party systems by pointing to new “critical junctures” that are likely to have a lasting impact on party competition and on individual political behaviour.
In the second part of this review, I discuss applications of the approach outside Western Europe, focusing above all on Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe. If it is modified according to the specific historical trajectories of these countries, the cleavage concept helps us understand both how party systems become institutionalized in new democracies, as well as the type of conflicts they are likely to reflect. Furthermore, criticisms of social structural determinism have resulted in a new generation of scholarship that insists in paying more attention to the interplay of structure and agency in forging long-term bonds between parties and voters.