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Alexis de Tocqueville: the First Social Scientist.

Alexis de Tocqueville: the First Social Scientist. Jon Elster. Cambridge University Press. [pounds sterling]40.00 (US$80.00). x + 202 pages. ISBN 978-0-521-74007-4. In this study of Tocqueville Prof. Elster argues that Tocqueville, as seen in his most famous work, Democracy in America, should be seen not as an historian or political analyst, but as a social scientist. This is because the work is 'filled to (he brim ... with small and medium-sized causal mechanisms and highly sophisticated methodological insights'. While these do not, he argues further, 'add up to the grand theory to which he aspired' they still have 'lasting value', a value still largely unappreciated today. One sees Tocqueville's role as a social scientist if one substitutes 'mechanisms' for 'laws' in his text: one then realises that what he is describing is something that has universal relevance. Prof. Elster further argues that Tocqueville was the first social scientist. He virtually formulated the Game Theory and understood the nature of Assurance Game. In his Ancient Regime he likewise described, even if he did not specifically formulate, a host of 'exportable causal mechanisms'. There is much ingenuity in the arguments put forward here and a refreshing newness of approach: time will tell if they change our perceptions of Tocqueville's varied achievements. (M.J.A.)

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Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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