The open texture of the social world

What is involved in arriving at scientific knowledge about the social world? The position I have consistently taken emphasizes contingency and heterogeneity of the social: the social world is a mixture of diverse processes and structures; it is constituted by socially constituted and socially situated actors, leading to ineliminable features of contingency and heterogeneity; and …

Skocpol on the 1979 revolution in Iran

  An earlier post reviewed Theda Skocpol's effort in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China to provide a comparative, structural account of the occurrence of social revolutions. There I suggested that the account is too deterministic and too abstract. It gives the impression, perhaps undeserved, that there are only …

The West and the East

Ian Morris has written a pair of books that are intended to contribute to a particularly important set of disagreements in comparative economic history: what accounts for the advantage in economic development that seems to be enjoyed by Western Europe at various points in history? The key arguments are presented in  Why the West Rules--for …

Who invented the totalitarian state?

  The world has known ruthless, violent, and murderous rulers for centuries.  Queen Elizabeth ran a secret service that ruthlessly pursued her enemies in the Catholic underground.  Isabella and Ferdinand persecuted and expelled the Jews of Spain.  And the French government was perfectly ready to use deadly force against workers and rebels in Paris in …

Comparative history

One of Marc Bloch's most important contributions was to reinvigorate the idea of "comparative history."  Bloch believed that we could understand French feudalism better by putting it into the context of European legal and property regimes; and more broadly, he believed that the careful comparison of agrarian regimes across time and space could be an …

Variation as a social fundamental

Over 700 historians, sociologists, demographers, and political scientists enjoyed a splendid program of panels at the Social Science History Association in Long Beach this week (link). There were panels on recent historical demography, comparative historical analysis, and social mobilization research, as well as a pair of great panels on the work of Charles Tilly. There …

MacIntyre and Taylor on the human sciences

There is a conception of social explanation that provides a common starting point for quite a few theories and approaches in a range of the social sciences. I'll call it the "rational, material, structural" paradigm. It looks at the task of social science as the discovery of explanations of social outcomes; and it brings an …

Contingent historical development

Here's a relatively limited historical puzzle to solve. A powerful new technology -- the railroad -- was developed in the first part of the nineteenth century. The nature and characteristics of the technology were essentially homogeneous across the national settings in which it appeared in Europe and North America. However, it was introduced and built …

How the calendar matters

It is interesting to consider how the timing of a routine social event can have a major effect on outcomes. Malcolm Gladwell observes that the most talented Canadian hockey players in the NHL are disproportionately likely to have birthdays in the months of January or February in his recent book, Outliers: The Story of Success. …

Social science history and historical social science

Social science methods and historical explanation seem to come together in several different ways; what can we say about the differences of approach between “history using the tools of the social sciences” and “social science research that pays close attention to history”? E. P. Thompson treats the making of the English working class. His work …

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