The old social history and the new social sciences.
Before examining the various ideas and methods which are currently being discussed in the social sciences today, I should say that I have taken an eclectic approach to some very complex philosophical issues. There is often fundamental disagreement about what is the very object of study. Is it the individual actor, the institutions in which individuals act, or is it the larger entities or systems in which the institutions are embedded? Is causality of change determined primarily by individual decisions, institutions or social interactions, or some mix of all three? There is also much debate about what might constitute the larger systems in which social interactions occur--are they groups, classes, communities, societies, states or some larger entities. There is also a very lively and contentious debate about what even motivates humans to take the decisions and actions they do take and how constrained they may be in their decisions by external institutions, social relations or market conditions. Different schools of thought concentrate on quite different objects of study and often offer opposed models of explanation. That said, I have tried to select those questions and approaches which I personally found most interesting, even if they are sometimes conflictive with each other or not representative of dominant positions. Obviously other historians might find different selections more congenial.
If one were to examine the social sciences today, one of the most interesting approaches is a return to consideration of institutions and their impact on social and economic structures of evolving societies. Every social science is now deeply concerned with how institutions influence everything from law and markets to political systems and individual choices, and how they determine the evolution and final makeup of a given society. The origins, development, evolution and current structures of institutions, which remain central to traditional historical interests, are now basic themes in the other social sciences. Along with this new emphasis on change and structure, there has also been an interest in trying to define the underlying motivation and logic for individual and group decisions within society. Especially among Political Scientists this has evolved into the theory of rational choice. These themes appear in several of the social sciences and are often interrelated. While the new institutional and historical emphasis finally brings the social sciences closer to the traditional concerns of all historians, I would also suggest that the ongoing discussion in the social sciences about human motivation is also of basic interest for social historians.
Rational choice theory, which develops out of the reasoning of traditional neoclassical economic theories of market behavior, tries to explain individual and sometimes group behavior, by arguing that, controlling for all other factors, individuals will make decisions based on maximizing their benefits as much as possible. Their decisions will be "instrumental" and their goals will be to best maximize their benefits by their decisions. The all important contexts and historical conditions and institutions are said to be the constraints within which these goals can be achieved. (2) Although this belief that individuals make decisions rationally, whatever their goals, has worked well for economists in dealing with responses to markets, or political scientists looking at political decision making, rational choice theory itself seems not to be an all inclusive explanation of behavior for decisions which are not seemingly instrumental in nature--at least in terms of simple calculations of benefits--or in which goals and contexts create non-instrumental ends. This does not mean that there cannot be complex arrangement of options which ultimately are based on rational choice, even if they seem counter-intuitive in their original setting--a theme well developed by economists. (3) Nor can one deny that instrumental decisions can often lead to unanticipated consequences and thus, as Charles Tilly has suggested, a necessary second level of corrective interactions by which individuals will correct their decisions based on learned or taught responses provided by other actors, institutions or cultural norms. (4) But in some situations, people's choices may be due to a host of competing beliefs, not all of which will lead to maximizing individual benefits. Some decide to join a revolution even though they could free ride on the participation of others, for reasons other than a calculation of immediate costs or benefits. They may feel peer pressure, or be ideologically committed to a political position at any cost no matter what the negative consequences might be.
But there is little question that motives, goals and contexts--the concerns of rational choice theorists, economists and most social scientists--are worthy of consideration by historians. In pre-modern societies with limited social welfare systems, historians must first factor in these primary calculations when they speak of motivation and decision making. A case in point is the classic question of why masters owned slaves, where the competing interpretations before the work of Conrad and Meyer made any kind of coherent closure to the debate impossible until one first dealt with the question of whether slave holding made rational economic sense. (5) If and only if that could not be proven, then one could argue for race prejudice, psychological needs for sexual domination, sadism, feelings of paternalism, or aristocratic pretension, or a host of other non-economic factors which made whites own black slaves. But clearly historians must first begin with one of the most basic of human motivations in a market driven premodern welfare society, and that is the need to economically survive. If people will make decisions against this economic necessity, then we can examine and explain this "irrationality"--but if it can be shown that they were economically rational in holding slaves, this is sufficient to explain their behavior in most instances. In fact, after economists determined that slave holding made rational economic sense, and that in fact the price of slaves showed masters' assumptions that the institution would survive into the 20th century, there has been no serious return to models of non-economic behavior in terms of slave holding itself. US historians, having finally accepted the economic rationality of the system itself, can then move on to other issues, such as why non-slave holding southern whites would support the slave holders rights when they had no chance to become slave holders themselves, or whether holding slaves in and of itself might lead to different sets of class identity and cohesiveness different from merchants or capitalists in general, or even re-think the rationality of the behavior of the "terrorist" John Brown.
All this is not to say that there are not alternative explanations of behavior and that psychological, cultural or even biological models cannot be applied to questions of decision making. It is just to say that historians must at least consider market responsive behavior as a crucial factor, especially in pre-modern societies and consider it first, given that its explanatory power is quite strong. Thus when people act against this type of instrumental behavior, we are better able to isolate their motives and seek explanations with other possible casual factors. (6) It is true, as the sociologist James Coleman states, that discovering that actions are "rational" is an attractive explanation and leads to very neat models of explanation. (7) But what happens if this explanation does not hold--this is when alternative explanations need to be examined.
Rational Choice theory has made much headway in some of the social sciences in recent years, especially helped by game theoretic modeling. Such modeling can even include historical and cultural value systems. (8) But however sophisticated the various games applied to decisions, and however complex the pattern of rational decision making becomes, there are always the questions about alternative motivations for decisions, and the context in which these occur--that is the initial conditions in which decisions must be made by human actors. All contexts are not always equal, which leads us back inevitably to the constraints that exist for individuals in making their decisions. If one society has more information than another to give decision makers, or some options are available in one society and not another, or even more crucially, if one social system rewards individuals with different gifts than another, people will make quite different calculations even if they are in fact maximizing benefits, and this will lead to different outcomes in different societies.
Historical sociologists and economic historians recently have been stressing institutional constraints on the decision of all actors and even more on how these institutions are created and evolve. As the sociologist Goldstone put it, "general laws" of human behavior are interesting and may offer insight into individual behavior, but offer little help to social scientists seeking to determine historical causality. As he has suggested:</p> <pre> we can take for granted as rational choice theorists would have us do that people seek to maximize their well-being, usually defined in terms of wealth, power, or status, through their interactions with other people and their environment. The problem with such general laws, however, is that they tell us very little about why particular national histories, for example, turn out the way they do.... The answer is that we must trace the action of this particular principle through the action of particular historical actors in particular historical settings ... These "initial conditions" are rather more complex and striking than the "general law" that people seek to increase their power and wealth. (9) </pre> <p>As he noted, there has been growing concern among social scientists with how the initial conditions--that is the historical institutions--influenced later development. This of course, suggests to him and other scholars the idea of "path dependence" that is, that initial factors or institutions profoundly influence later developments. In fact path dependency theory to me looks suspiciously like what historians automatically do when they analyze any given current institution or action--they look at its historical routs to see how these institutions or actions developed from their beginnings to their current state. But even with formal path dependency analysis--as with traditional historical analysis--defining which initial factors are crucial in determining later evolution, has led recently to a highly contentious debate among economists and economic historians, for example, about why poor countries have failed to develop. As Goldstone also noted, path dependence involves not just the idea that outcomes are influenced by initial conditions, but they are also related to "the choices or outcomes of intermediate events between the initial conditions and the outcome." (10)
Equally the economist Mancur Olson has argued that economic growth among nations is profoundly influenced by institutions no matter what the rationality of individual decision making. As he has noted, rational decision making with poor institutions does not lead to optimal outcomes.</p> <pre> Those countries with the best policies and institutions achieve most of their potential, while other countries achieve only a tiny fraction of their potential income. The individuals and firms in these societies may display rationality, and often great ingenuity and perseverance, in eking out a living in extraordinarily difficult
conditions, but this individual achievement does not generate anything
remotely resembling a socially efficient outcome .... the poorer
countries do not have a structure of incentives that brings forth ... productive cooperation ... and the reason they don't have it is that such structures do not emerge automatically as a consequence of individual rationality. The structure of incentives depends not only on what economic policies are chosen in each period, but also on the long run or institutional arrangements: on the legal systems that enforce contracts and protect property rights and on political
structures, constitutional provisions, and the extent of special-
interest lobbies and cartels. (11) </pre> <p>In short, institutions and history matter and are fundamental in explaining comparative rates of growth among countries, a theme elaborated several decades ago by the influential economic historian Douglas North. (12) Although levels of capital, natural resources or labor differ among societies, they do not differ sufficiently to explain different rates of growth and why the poor nations do not move toward reducing the gaps in wealth between rich and poor. Traditional theory suggested that these poor nations should grow more rapidly than advanced ones, but this has not occurred except in a select few countries. (13)
But what institutions are important for growth and what institutions hinder that growth? Clearly the experience of divided countries like China, Germany and Korea after World War II suggests that culture alone is insufficient to explain differences. But is it law, factor endowments, human capital investments, or land distribution which is most important? Or are differences in growth explained by the historical pattern of settlement between so-called settler colonies or conquest ones, or are there different local factor endowments which would influence these outcomes? All these questions have been considered in a lively recent debate among economists, economic historians and political scientists.
Rejecting old historical claims for exogenous and what some have called "embedded" and unchanging institutions such as culture or religion as the explanatory tools, most of these scholars have begun to talk about actual differences in historical experiences with settlement and the social and economic groups which emerged in each society and how these influenced institutional formation. Engerman and Sokoloff have argued that the nature of the resources available in each society within the Americas conditioned their economic institutions. Highly stratified societies with large inequalities of wealth and unbalanced distribution of political power occurred where sugar could be grown and African slaves were imported and where large groups of Amerindians could be conquered and exploited in mining and agriculture. In contrast when such resources were not available, stratification was less pronounced, income inequalities smaller and political power more generously distributed. All of this would foster long term institutions which would diminish the growth capacity of the unequal societies and promote them in more equal nations. (14)
Another group of economists have argued that the initial institutions created by Europeans overseas were influenced by disease and climate and in turn also by relative factor endowments or lack thereof. It is these factors, they argue, which lead to either exploitative or settler colonies, which in turn give rise to institutions which were more or less supportive to long term growth. (15) Finally there is a third group of economists and political scientists that returns in many ways to the idea of relatively immutable exogenous institutions (that is those which are not determined by the contemporary society) which are "embedded" so firmly in a culture that they are unchanging. This essentially ahistorical approach is found in a group of scholars, for example, who claim that legal systems in and of themselves are primary causes for change and influence both current and future economic developments in an unchanging manner. The argument here is that civil-law systems in contrast to common-law ones are inherently inefficient in that they do not properly protect property rights, at least not enough to cause efficient growth. (16) This new school has been challenged by economic historians who have argued that in fact there is little difference between legal systems in protecting property rights or allowing the efficient use of capital. (17) But whatever the set of factors which is stressed, most of the recent work of economists, economic historians and political scientists place great importance on institutions and the need to understand how these institutions develop endogenously within each society. Most of these social scientists also emphasize the evolution and change of these institutions over time and how they create political, legal and government systems, and attitudes and expectations which relate to economic growth.
As these discussions of growth and development show, there is a new interest in economics on the importance of institutions in influencing the economy. In fact most of these debates about growth now actively concern themselves with historical institutions and are part of a whole set of theories in economics which have been given the general name of the "New Institutional Economics." In a recent review of this field, the economist Oliver Williamson has argued for using levels of institutions stratified by their relative "rigidness" and longevity, which have varying levels of impact on the daily structure of decision making and markets. This basic versus more ephemeral structures model looks, if not in content at least in structure, somewhat like the classic Annales school model. He sees long term "embedded" institutions which change infrequently and last centuries (e.g. religion, world view, "culture"), which looks somewhat like the "long duree" factors stressed by the Annales school, followed by what he calls the "Institutional Environment" with its rules of the game and changing state institutions which vary over periods of less than a century, followed by the actual governance institutions--what he calls "the play of the game." These later two factors look a bit like the "conjunctures" and the ephemeral "events" stage of the Annales school, with the events level also including his most immediate continuously changing institutions which he calls the market--or "resource allocation and employment." While obviously not a complete replica of the French model, these levels of institutions defined by their durability and malleability and their mutual influences on each other and local actors all seem to reflect the same logic which dominated French historical writing for many years. The model, while interesting, does suggest that some of these institutional economists are a bit nervous with these durable and long lasting institutions (religions, governments, identities). In contrast, most historians and other social scientists take such institutions as evolving and dynamic entities which have a past as well as a present. In fact, it is Historical Sociologists who have developed what I think are the more nuanced idea of institutions and are providing some interesting hypotheses and methods of research by which to view institutions and historical change.
There has been a theoretical revolution in sociology in the past quarter century as the traditional post WWII structuralist models of explanation with their inherently anti-historical bias have given way slowly to modes of thought which take historical experiences as fundamental for explaining institutions, groups, cultures and even individual behavior. This new Historical Sociology comes in all shapes and kinds. One of its leading practionares, Charles Tilly, breaks down Historical Sociology into some four major fields. There is "metahistorical" analysis which attempts to identify temporal patterns; the "world-systemic" approach represented by Immanuel Wallerstein and his school and is well known to most historians; "macrohistorical" studies which examine "large-scale structures and processes within world-systems"; and "microhistorical" interest which concern "the experiences of individuals and well-defined groups within the limits set by large scale structures and processes." (18) A slightly different breakdown of this school is offered by Theda Skocpol. (19) Although each approach offers different theoretical concerns, one method that is much used by many of these historical sociologists is comparative historical analysis to generate and/or test theoretical models. Though each may use the comparative historical models differently and employ an inductive or deductive model for generating the theories they test, sociologists like Immanuel Wallerstein, Skocpol, Tilly and Barrington Moore among others have cogently suggested both methods and hypotheses which social historians can use to their advantage. (20)
Much of this work explicitly or implicitly relies on the comparative method of analysis which Skocpol and Margaret Somers note are essentially of two forms: what they call the "Method of Agreement" between two societies where the outcome is the same, but most institutions were different, and the "Method of Difference" where all but one of the causal factors or institutions were the same in two societies, and their outcome was different. (21) In the first method one could examine, for example, countries which end up as fascist states but were totally different in terms of their economies and social structures, though both had fascist parties which came to power. The second method might examine why the United States ended up with a two color scheme of Black and White under African slavery and Latin American slave societies ended up with a three color scheme of Black, Mulatto and White. In this case, the use of slaves, their origin, and their relative importance within each society was the same and only a few institutions were different. Despite the fact that most historians adopted the former method and were often content with simple description and little analysis, there was a great deal of fruitful work being done in this area by sociologists.
So what is it that we social historians can gain from this new research and methodology of the social science? To begin with almost all those who are working in historical research, be they economists or sociologists or political scientists, all emphasize the importance of getting the individual institutional histories right and doing the basic empirical research needed to understand each historical experience--even if it means using historians and their work to do it. Thus they validate the basic research methodology of historians and ultimately their world view in terms of the importance of historical causality. Equally vital and more difficult for historians to appreciate is that these social scientists are showing how theory, properly controlled, can be applied to history and how useful macro and micro-historical models can be in understanding the historical experience. Unfortunately historians have fought shy of explicit theorizing, though with the recent interest in cultural historical models that shyness may be disappearing--at least in terms of willingness to use models developed by other scholars even if they are not always adequately tested by those using them. Hopefully the anti-theoretical biases of the older generation of scholars will soften after an immersion in the new social sciences. As Tilly discovered in a debate with the historian Grew on the evolution of political institutions there has traditionally been an inherent tension between historical sociologists and traditional historians:</p> <pre>
... we can stress the obdurate particularity of historical experiences, hoping at most to arrive at rough, useful empirical generalizations through close analysis of specific cases. On the other ... we can use history to build more adequate explanations of politics past and present. Unsurprisingly, this essay recommends the theoretically more ambitious second course, while heartily agreeing with Grew that it requires expert historical knowledge. Not only do all political processes occur in history and therefore call for knowledge of their historical contexts, but also where and when political processes occur influence how they occur. History thus becomes an essential element of sound explanations for political processes. (22) </pre> <p>This same argument can be used for economic, social, cultural, psychological and even biological factors which play out in the historical experience. (23) While I do not expect a wholesale commitment to theoretical modeling by social historians, I do suggest that social scientists are very interested in what we have to say and in turn we can learn to think along some of the paths that they have suggested from their own research as promising areas to examine. Much of the work of the economic historians and historical sociologists rests firmly on the earlier work of traditional social historians and is constantly acknowledged in their work. We can thus go on doing our traditional research on the evolution and origin of institutions, attitudes, belief systems and societal structures in the traditional transparent language accessible to all. This is what we do best and interestingly enough, this is where historians can best contribute to current debates in the social sciences.
Department of History
Stanford, CA 94305-2024
1. Journal of Social History, vol.37, no.4 (Summer 2004).
2. See Edgar Kiser and Michael Hechter, "The Debate on Historical Sociology: Rational Choice Theory and Its Critics," The American Journal of Sociology, vol. 104, no.3 (Nov. 1998), pp. 802-803
3. See for example the well known study of Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action. Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (New York, rev.ed., 1971)
4. Charles Tilly, "Invisible Elbow," Sociological Forum, Vol. 11, no.4 (Dec. 1996), p. 589-601
5. Alfred H. Conrad and John R. Meyer, "The Economics of Slavery in the Ante Bellum South," The Journal of Political Economy, vol. 66, no. 2. (Apr., 1958), pp. 95-130.
6. The sociologist Boudon has provided a useful introduction to the basic postulates of rational choice theory. "RCT can be described by a set of postulate.... The first postulate, P1, states that any social phenomenon is the effect of individual decisions, actions, attitudes, etc., (individualism). A second postulate, P2, states that, in principle at least, an action can be understood (understanding).... P3, states that any action is caused by reasons in the mind of individuals (rationality). A fourth postulate, P4, assumes that these reasons derive from consideration by the actor of the consequences of his or her actions as he or she sees them (consequentialism, instrumentalism). A fifth postulate, P5, states that actors are concerned mainly with the consequences to themselves of their own action (egoism). A sixth postulate, P6, maintains that actors are able to distinguish the costs and benefits of alternative lines of action and that they choose the line of action with the most favorable balance (maximization, optimization)." Raymond Boudon, "Beyond rational choice theory," Annual Review of Sociology vol. 29 (2003), p. 4.
7. James Coleman. Individual Interests and Collective Action: Selected Essays. (Cambridge, 1986), p.1. This position was also maintained by the economist Gary Becker though with some qualifications as being the leading theory among several alternative ones. He wrote that "the extension of the utility-maximizing approach to include endogenous preferences is remarkably useful in unifying a wide class of behavior, including habitual, social and political behavior. I do not believe that any alternative approach--be it founded on 'cultural,' 'biological,' or 'psychological' forces--comes close to providing comparable insights and explanatory power." Gary Becker, Accounting for Tastes (Cambridge, 1996)
8. In fact the economist Avner Greif has shown how specific cultures can influence economic decisions in different cultural contexts. He has compared Genoese and Ginza merchants who operated in the 16th century in overseas trade and how they dealt with the problem of controlling the behavior of overseas non-family agents. Avner Greif, "Cultural Beliefs and the Organization of Society: A Historical and Theoretical Reflection on Collectivist and Individualist Societies," The Journal of Political Economy, vol. 102, no. 5 (Oct., 1994), pp. 912-950.
9. Jack A. Goldstone, "Initial Conditions, General Laws, Path Dependence, and Explanation in Historical Sociology," American Journal of Sociology, vol. 104, no. 3 (Nov. 1998), pp. 833-834.
10. Goldstone, "Initial Conditions," p. 834. My interpretation of path dependency is not the norm for those who accept this as a very specific model of causality. As Tilly has argued "Path dependence is not simply a comment about history's importance; it says that putatively general processes pass through ratchets that a) constrain later stages of those processes and b) make reversals costly, unlikely, or even impossible." (letter of Charles Tilly, 26 Aug 2004). This type of argument has a few supporters among the economists. The often cited case study is that of Paul A. David, "Economic History: A Necessary Though Not Sufficient Condition for an Economist: Clio and the Economics of QWERTY," The American Economic Review, vol. 75, no. 2 (May, 1985), pp. 332-337.
11. Mancur Olson, Jr., "Big Bills Left on the Sidewalk: Why Some Nations are Rich, and Others Poor," The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 10, no. 2 (Spring, 1996), p.6
12. Douglas C. North, Structure and Change in Economic History (New York, 1981) and above all his Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance (New York, 1990).
13. Robert J. Barro, "Economic Growth in a Cross Section of Countries," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 106, no. 2 (May, 1991), pp. 407-443.
14. Stanley L. Engerman and Kenneth L. Sokoloff, "Factor Endowments: Institutions, and Differential Paths of Growth Among New World Economies," in S. H. Haber, ed., How Latin America Fell Behind (Stanford, CA, 1997); "Institutional and Non-Institutional Explanations of Economic Differences (Boston: NBER: Working Papers: w9989, Sep 2003); "Factor Endowments, Inequality, and Paths of Development Among New World Economics," (Boston: NBER: Working Papers, w8512 Oct 2001); "Institutions, Factor Endowments, and Paths of Development in the New World," Journal of Economic Perspectives, XIV (2000), 217-232.
15. See Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James Robinson, "Disease and Development in Historical Perspective," Journal of the European Economic Association (2003); "Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Institutions in the Making of the Modern World Income Distribution," Quarterly Journal of Economics (November 2002) vol. 117, pp. 1231-1294; and "The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation," American Economic Review, vol. 91 (December 2001), pp. 1369-1401.
16. Rafael La Porta, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes, Andrei Schleifer and Robert W. Vishny, "Law and Finance," The Journal of Political Economy, vol. 106, no.6 (Dec. 1998), pp. 1113-1155; and their more general article which also includes religion as a factor "The Quality of Government," Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, vol. 15 (March 1999), pp. 222-79.
17. Naomi R. Lamoreaux and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, "Legal Regime and Business's organizational choice: A comparison of France and the United States during the mid-nineteenth century," (Boston: NBER, Working Paper w10288, February 2004)
18. Charles Tilly, "Future History" Theory and Society, vol. 17, no.5 (September 1988), p. 706; also see his essay "Historical Sociology" International Encyclopedia of the Behavioral and Social Sciences (Amsterdam, 2001). vol. 10, 6753-6757
19. Theda Skocpol, "Social History and Historical Sociology: Contrasts and Compli-mentarities," Social Science History, vol. 11, no. 1 (Spring, 1987), pp. 17-30; and Theda Skocpol and Margaret Somers, "The Uses of Comparative History in Macrosocial Inquiry," Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 22, no. 2 (April 1980), pp. 174-197
20. Even in as quantitative oriented a subfield of sociology as stratification, there has been new work designed to measure the influence of institutions on social mobility. Harry B.G. Ganzeboom, Donald Treiman and Wout C. Utee, "Comparative Intergenerational Stratification Research: Three Generations and Beyond," Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 17 (1991), pp. 277-302.
21. Skocpol and Somers, "The Uses of Comparative History in Macrosocial Inquiry," p. 184.
22. Charles Tilly, "Why and How History Matters," draft chapter for Robert E. Goodin and Charles Tilly, editors Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis, 20 September 2003, p. 3
23. On the use of new genetic research for historical analysis see Herbert S. Klein and Daniel C. Schiffner, "The Current Debate About The Origins of The Paleoindians of America," Journal of Social History, vol. 37, no. 2 (Winter 2003), pp. 483-492.
By Herbert S. Klein
Columbia University & Stanford University
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Klein, Herbert S.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2006|
|Previous Article:||Common ground: integrating social and environmental history.|
|Next Article:||Behavioral history: a brief introduction to a new frontier.|