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Reviewed by:
  • Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences
  • Thomas Bender
Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences. Edited by James Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschemeyer ( Cambridge, Eng..: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xix plus 444 pp.).

An appraisal of the accomplishments of "comparative historical analysis" since the publication of Barrington Moore, Jr.'s classic Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (1966), this volume deserves the attention of historians. The contributors are sociologists or political scientists, and they distinguish their work from that of historians by denoting it theory-grounded. But they distinguish it as well from other social scientists, particularly from rational choice/game theorists and those who rely upon aggregate statistical methods. They emphasize the value of a limited number of case-studies in comparative work, what they call the small-N approach. They reject large-N statistical analysis, but their principal target is the universalizing ambition of the rational choice/game theorists who take little or no account of time and place.

The questions they take on are bracing. They implicitly challenge historians who sometimes argue around the edges of the big questions, as in the too long debate over republicanism and liberalism in the American Revolution. Comparative historical analysis as undertaken by these social scientists addresses historical transformations that change the human condition—revolutions, democracy and authoritarianism, the invention of social policy or social welfare. To the extent that historians are satisfied with particular explanations, we are outside of their understanding of comparative history. The contributors to this volume seek general explanations, or theory, which they distinguish from the universalist claims of game theory and rational choice analysis.

These essays are centrally concerned with causal explanation, and this, I think, is their value to historians. Under the influence of Geertzian anthropology and the strong historicism informing recent work in the humanities, historians have largely let go of causal explanation in favor of interpretive understanding of subjective meanings of past actors. This impulse need not have elevated synchronic over diachronic analysis, nor should the quest for subjective meaning have marginalized the issue of causal explanation. But it has done so. This volume is a cue to redirect our attention to causal explanation of historical change.

The book is divided into three sections. The first asks whether work since Moore has developed new knowledge that enriches our understanding of revolution, the conditions of and for democracy, and social policy formation. The second section addresses new analytics: more complex understanding of time and periodization, institutionalism, and network theory. The final section gets into rather technical questions of method, and there is a sort of conclusion by Theda Skocpol, whose presence in these pages is exceeded only by the long shadow of Barrington Moore.

Some essays are better than others, but the best speak in important ways to historians, particularly those by James Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Jack A. Goldstone, Paul Pierson, and Ira Katznelson. The introductory essay by Mahoney and Rueschemeyer is a comprehensive survey of the field and its relations [End Page 1187] to more "scientific" approaches and more historical approaches, including a brief (and distancing) discussion of the "cultural turn" in historical study. At its core is a powerful argument for the quest for generalized, if not universalistic, explanations based on multiple cases. These cases may be widely separated in time and place, though in each instance time and place are seriously considered. What is missed is the impact of earlier revolutions, whether political or industrial, on later developments, sometimes over very long periods of time. For that one needs a greater awareness of real time connections implied by transnational and global approaches. As Zhou Enlai told Henry Kissinger when asked about the French Revolution, "It's too early to tell." For him it was not yet concluded; hence one could not be sure of its outcome.

Jack A. Goldstone's learned and theoretically rich essay argues that recent research, much of it stimulated by Skocpol's States and Social Revolutions (1979), has produced such a proliferation of factors in the study of revolutions that the project of a generalized theory is much in doubt. However, in a neat...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 1187-1189
Launched on MUSE
2006-07-11
Open Access
No
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