Liberty Round Table Essay

Liberty Round Table Essay-67
Political scientists generally do it quite differently.Regardless of whether they use case studies or statistical data (what are known as large-N studies), they generally use the comparative method to get at causation.

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IMPORTANCE OF CHRONOLOGYThe passage of time is central to history and so it is not surprising that most historical studies are built around chronology.

This is not to say that these accounts simply put one thing after another, but that understanding how positions develop and change and how relations evolve or unfold through time is central to the historian’s task.

But for all the debate, everyone agrees both that facts do not speak for themselves and that not all interpretations have equal claims on our beliefs. Political scientists generally seek theories of some generality and in pursuit of them the field has provided license to do some but not unlimited injustice to facts and individual cases.

There is no easy way to sum up community norms here, and I will just say that while political scientists cannot give the facts the third degree to get them to tell us what we need for our theories, we can rough them up a bit.

But a minor point may be worth making at the start.

It seems to many of us in political science that historians are gluttons for punishment, and we marvel at their linguistic competence and ability to penetrate and synthesize enormous amounts of material.Years ago, I was talking to my good friend Bob Dallek about whether he was going to take a break now that he had finished the enormous effort of producing his two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson.He said he had originally planned to, “but I just learned that they are opening a million new pages of material on Kennedy, and I just can’t resist.” Most of us in political science would have a quite a different reaction, but we are very glad that Bob and his colleague produce such books.I do not entirely disagree, but would reply that although we have differences in our stance towards facts and generalizations, political scientists want to develop theories that are not only parsimonious and rooted in general social science, but that shed light on (i.e., explain at least in part) events and patterns in international history.There are important differences in style, aesthetics, and approaches, and my brief remarks can hardly do justice to all of them.Statistical fixes can be deployed, there is quite a bit of work on learning, and some political scientists have stressed the importance of “path-dependence”—the way in which choices and events can set enduring patterns.But it is nevertheless the case that the comparative method is drilled into them in graduate school (or perhaps it is an affinity with this approach that has drawn them to the discipline), and chronology is rarely the backbone of their analysis.Later I will discuss the virtues of the comparative method that historians sometimes miss, but here want to note problems with comparisons of which historians are fully aware.Political scientists try to look at cases that are the same except for a difference on one dimension whose significance they wish to probe, and large-N studies essentially do the same thing with sophisticated statistical methods designed to measure the influence of each factor.The basic epistemology follows John Stuart Mill in trying to determine the effect of a variable (a term that puts most historians’ teeth on edge) by comparing cases (another term that historians dislike—they are studying people, processes, and events in themselves, not as cases) in which it is present or has assumed one value with cases in which it is absent or different.The treatment of cases themselves may be chronological, but the exercise is in service of comparisons to other cases.


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