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Social Science History 24.4 (2000) 669-676



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Commentary

Theory Tackles History

Theda Skocpol


Five Smart People in Search of a Mission would be an ideal title for this provocative collection. Analytic Narratives has overblown methodological and theoretical pretensions, yet it is interesting all the same. Not only is each chapter valuable on its own; the book as a whole reveals much about the strengths and pitfalls of rational choice theorizing in comparative politics.

Political scientists Robert Bates, Margaret Levi, and Barry Weingast and economists Avner Greif and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal are scholars who work [End Page 669] somewhat against the grain of rational choice in the social sciences today. Rational choice scholars are often more preoccupied with elaborating models than with solving empirical puzzles. And in political science many “rats” (as they are affectionately called by colleagues of other persuasions) model strategic interactions within well-bounded formal institutions such as legislatures or electoral systems. These five authors do not play it so safe, however. Ranging across time and space from medieval Genoa and early modern France and England to the nineteenth-century United States and the twentieth-century world economy, they grapple with interrelations between politics and economics, with intersections of transnational and local processes, and with messy maneuvers about the emergence, persistence, and transformation of institutional arrangements. These authors have spent years discussing their projects with one another, but they go beyond mutual edification. In comparative politics, this is the Era of Manifestos, as clashing camps of scholars maneuver for students, positions, resources, and academic prestige. So Bates, Greif, Levi, Rosenthal, and Weingast decided to excerpt their various book-length projects for one coauthored book that would make the case for rational choice modeling in historical research and promote what they claim is a new methodology for comparative politics.

On the methodological front, there is actually little here that is new. In an introductory pronouncement similar to others throughout the book, the authors declare that the “phrase analytic narrative captures our conviction that theory linked to data is more powerful than either theory or data alone” (3). Well, yes, that’s true. But how many social scientists would doubt it? These authors pat themselves on the back for in-depth engagement with specific cases, for moving back and forth between history and abstract models. “Our approach is narrative; it pays close attention to stories, accounts, and context. It is analytic in that it extracts explicit and formal lines of reasoning, which facilitate both exposition and explanation” (10). Actually, few “lines of reasoning” are extracted from cases. Instead, the standard tool kit of formal game theory is carried to each site, where the author deploys the particular modeling tool or tools he or she thinks will illuminate parts of the historical case at hand.

An approach stressing the value of moving back and forth between contexts and models is surely to be welcomed as a useful antidote to the wrongheaded notion that social scientists should deduce propositions before confronting [End Page 670] rich empirical data. But the word narrative is used loosely. Even when specific puzzles lend themselves to dramatic posing as stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, not everyone in this book uses chronological narratives to pose questions or tease out explanations. The best uses of narrative appear in the chapters by Greif, who recounts the emergence, persistence, and eclipse of the Genoan podesteria, and by Bates, who tells of the rise and fall of the International Coffee Organization. But for the most part, these authors simply shift back and forth between selectively described vignettes and exercises in modeling applied to the slices of each case that best fit the tools at hand.

Throughout this volume, transitions from description to modeling are awkwardly executed. Chapters read more like working papers than finished products. The reader cannot always grasp the historical story or understand why elaborate diagrams are presented. At their best, historical social scientists find more elegant ways to display models, develop hypotheses, and present critical tests. These authors, however, highlight their working approach, moving back and forth between models and historical vignettes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-8034
Print ISSN
0145-5532
Pages
pp. 669-676
Launched on MUSE
2000-11-01
Open Access
No
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