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Political Contingency

Studying the Unexpected, the Accidental, and the Unforeseen

Ian Shapiro, Sonu Bedi

Publication Year: 2009

History is replete with instances of what might, or might not, have been. By calling something contingent, at a minimum we are saying that it did not have to be as it is. Things could have been otherwise, and they would have been otherwise if something had happened differently. This collection of original essays examines the significance of contingency in the study of politics. That is, how to study unexpected, accidental, or unknowable political phenomena in a systematic fashion. Yitzhak Rabin is assassinated. Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait. Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans. How might history be different had these events not happened? How should social scientists interpret the significance of these events and can such unexpected outcomes be accounted for in a systematic way or by theoretical models? Can these unpredictable events be predicted for? Political Contingency addresses these and other related questions, providing theoretical and historical perspectives on the topic, empirical case studies, and the methodological challenges that the fact of contingency poses for the study of politics.

Contributors: Sonu Bedi, Traci Burch, Jennifer L. Hochschild, Gregory A. Huber, Courtney Jung, David R. Mayhew, Philip Pettit, Andreas Schedler, Mark R. Shulman, Robert G. Shulman, Ian Shapiro, Susan Stokes, Elisabeth Jean Wood, and David Wootton

Published by: NYU Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction: Contingency’s Challenge to Political Science

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pp. 1-18

At its starkest, contingency challenges the very possibility of science. By calling something contingent, at a minimum we are saying that it did not have to be as it is. Things could have been otherwise, and they would have been otherwise if something had happened differently. Science is usually...

Part I: Roots of Contingency

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1. From Fortune to Feedback: Contingency and the Birth of Modern Political Science

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pp. 21-53

This chapter is about a curiously elusive subject: the idea of contingency in early modern thought. It is not that the subject does not exist, for the concept of contingency was clearly understood. But early modern thinkers, with a few striking exceptions, found it almost impossible to focus on...

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2. Mapping Contingency

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pp. 54-78

Political science, striving to uncover the regularities of political life, has paid scarce attention to its contingencies. As any discussion of contingency is contingent on the conception of contingency it embraces, we have to understand first of all the conceptual morphology of contingency, before we...

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3. Resilience as the Explanandum of Social Theory

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pp. 79-96

The notion of the resilience is of the first importance, I believe, for an understanding of some of the major styles of social explanation. This is because the resilience of various social phenomena is the best candidate for the explanandum of much social science. Here, drawing on earlier work...

Part II. Contingency’s Challenge

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4. Events as Causes: The Case of American Politics

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pp. 99-137

In explaining American politics, political scientists tend to follow a path that is normal for social scientists:1 We reach for causes that are seen to be basic, underlying, or long-term rather than ones that are proximate, contingent, or short-term. Institutions, social forces, and enduring incentives...

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5. Contingent Public Policies and Racial Hierarchy: Lessons from Immigration and Census Policies

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pp. 138-170

Individually or in combination, two federal policies have the potential to transform the American racial and ethnic hierarchy more than any other policy changes since the civil rights movement.1 They are the Immigration Act of 1965 and the introduction of the “mark one or more” instruction in...

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6. Region, Contingency, and Democratization

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pp. 171-202

Recently,1 Robert Dahl noted that the challenges facing the world’s roughly 200 countries vary, from the transition to democracy in non-democracies, to the strengthening or consolidation of democracy in newly democratized countries, to the deepening of democracy in older democracies.2 As we...

Part III. What Is to Be Done?

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7. Contingency, Politics, and the Nature of Inquiry: Why Non-Events Matter

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pp. 205-221

Contingent events are probabilistic.1 They manifest or do not manifest because of some uncertainty about the future that is unknown or unknowable to human participants. A simple toss of a coin, for example, will produce an observed outcome of “tails” about half of the time. The contingent outcome...

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8. Modeling Contingency

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pp. 222-245

Political assassinations are the quintessential examples of contingent events, events that could well have not occurred yet may have significant causal effects.1 The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of World War I is the canonical example. Similarly, many think...

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9. When Democracy Complicates Peace: How Democratic Contingencies Affect Negotiated Settlements

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pp. 246-265

In the 1970s, the political conflicts in South Africa, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East were widely viewed as among the world’s most intractable.1 Based on profound racial, ethnic, or religious animosities, they were reinforced by cultural and economic differences and solidified by decades...

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10. Contingency in Biophysical Research

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pp. 266-278

The 2002 meeting in this series asked whether social scientists should select questions that their most reliable methods can answer or should they address the most important questions, sacrificing reliability. Should they focus on methods or problems? The disrupting consequences of contingency...


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pp. 279-282


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pp. 283-296

E-ISBN-13: 9780814708828
E-ISBN-10: 081470882X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814740965
Print-ISBN-10: 0814740960

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 194299706
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Political Contingency

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Subject Headings

  • Political science -- Methodology.
  • Causation -- Political aspects.
  • World politics -- 1989-.
  • Imaginary histories.
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