Three Arguments That Affected Me

Via Scott Wolford, I come across this interesting time waster question about what three arguments or concepts have had the most impact on me as a political scientist.

Q: Of all the arguments/findings/concepts you’ve learned in political science, which one has had the greatest impact on how you think about the world in your daily life?

I’ll go with the concept of the counterfactual, embedded within the broader Neyman-Rubin causal model. There is hardly an hour that goes by without me thinking about some sort of counterfactual thought experiment to interpret some aspect of current events. Did the stimulus work? You can’t hope to answer that without some sort of counterfactual hypothesis of what the U.S. economy would have looked like without the stimulus. It seems so obvious when you lay it out that way, but we know for sure that most people don’t think in terms of counterfactual thought experiments when forming opinions. Just ask most critics of the stimulus.

As an extension, most critiques of naive counterfactual reasoning (treatment versus selection, endogeneity, extreme counterfactuals, etc.) are just as foundational for how I think. I had an argument not one hour ago with my father-in-law about whether we should think that the action of kicking a soccer ball has a “handedness” in the same way that throwing a baseball or writing does. He appealed to the fact that most right-hand throwers are right-foot kickers, and my first response was to wonder “treatment versus selection???”

Q: Of all the arguments/findings/concepts you’ve learned in political science, which one has had the greatest impact on your own research?

Here are two ideas that are different, but both have affected my work in the same way: The Riker Objection and Polanyi’s Embeddedness. The Riker Objection refers to William Riker’s critique of institutional analysis in which a scholar takes institutions as exogenous and then looks for their effects on behavior or outcomes. Riker’s point was that political institutions are themselves always and everywhere the outcomes of political conflict. So they are very likely shaped by the same factors that shape the outcomes that they are supposed to explain. So, to take a made-up example, the weakness of civil society in country A might explain why there is a strong executive in country A, and it might also explain why that executive can enact illiberal policies. For Riker, we shouldn’t simply infer from that that strong executives cause illiberal policies. You need to start with the weakness of civil society. (Bracket for now the idea that illiberal policies or strong executives might themselves weaken civil society–see, here’s that counterfactual thinking coming back at me.)

Embeddedness is, on its face, very different: it refers to the idea that all forms of economic relations cannot be understood outside of the broader social and political context in which they are formed. Karl Polanyi raised this to explain the formation of modern market economies, which, he argued, only could emerge in the context of the modern state. Market economies are socially dislocating, and you need the modern state to manage that kind of dislocation. The point for Polanyi is that you cannot separate economic exchange from social context and political power.

I’m not saying that Polanyi or Riker were “correct.” I’m saying that these insights, taken together, are critical for how I do research. From Riker, I am always suspicious that “political institutions” are the most important factors that explain any outcome that political scientists care about. (As an extension, I’m deeply skeptical in most forms of institutional engineering.) Instead, from Polanyi, I take the insight that we need to care instead about the social and economic structure that surround the strategic behavior of voters, peasants, elites, groups, classes, etc.

Q: Of all the arguments/findings/concepts you’ve learned in political science, which one did you most underestimate at first?

There’s a lot of stuff that’s more profound than I originally had anticipated (after all, I’m not that profound). Forced to choose…I would say methodological individualism. This is a concept which goes, if I’m not mistaken, back to Jeremy Bentham, and holds that the basis for any explanation for any social phenomenon must start with the individual and his/her motivations. “Classes” and “societies” or “countries” and other collectives do not have agency. They do not act. We (scholars and citizens alike) impute agency to collectives such as these as a short-hand for the more complex and difficult to observe interactions of large numbers of individuals.

To me, this idea holds an intuitive appeal. I am a methodological individualist. But I routinely underestimate the challenges of adhering to this standard in my work. A strict methodological individualism would render most theories that I work with intractable. It is awfully hard to develop testable hypotheses about the things that most political scientists care about–revolutions, economic crises, ethnic conflict–when you insist that your explanation be derived from the individual and his/her beliefs and motivations. The discipline that has gone the furthest in applying a strict methodological individualism is economics. Doing so has consumed the majority of the past five decades of economic research, with what I would call mixed results.


Altogether, some interesting food for thought.