How Reducible is Global Politics?

About a week ago, Kevin Fogg posted a provocative statement about the superiority of area studies versus global history.

in the wake of global history sweeping through and trying to fit local phenomena into some kind of externally dictated pattern, Area Studies experts are left trying to defend their local region’s relevance if (or more likely when) it does not conform to or feed or facilitate some global pattern. Area Studies scholars, who have the skills and the methods to accurately capture what is going on in any given place and time, are instead dancing around, squandering these skills responding to interests and patterns and narratives introduced from outside the region—i.e., not arising from real local situations. In this way, Global History is not only wasting the time of global historians (one can imagine parallels to Marx’s non-productive capitalist class, who merely push around the fruits of other men’s labour), but it is causing hard-working Area Studies scholars to waste their time by asking them to respond to or engage in debates that are not relevant to their areas.

Kevin is clear in that post that his goal is to be provocative to highlight the terms of an important debate among historians, and that he does not actually believe that area studies is actually superior to global history. He believes, instead, of a plurality of ways of doing history, some global in orientation and some local in orientation. His is a pragmatic and tolerant view, one that is widely shared.

I have thought a lot about this argument over the past several days, because it resonates with debates found elsewhere in the social sciences about ontology, aggregation, simplification, and the levels of analysis problem. I think that it is possible to argue that Kevin’s argument about the priority of area studies over global history is not just provocative, he is actually correct in one specific sense—and as a consequence that the pragmatic and tolerant view is slightly harder to sustain.

My thinking is inspired by reflections on microfoundations and emergence by Daniel Little. Specifically, the relationship between complex systems and their constituent parts. The common argument against reductionism—in this case, against area studies and in favor of global history, but the same is true for any individual vs. any social system—is the observation that complex systems are not exhaustively describable with reference to their constituent parts. This argument is valid if the global history is something more than the sum of many local histories, it consists of “something more,” the result of their interactions or some other essence. This is what Little terms weak or strong emergence, and I consider the point to be generally valid. It has analogues in the social sciences more widely, such as when scholars of international relations describe systemic theories of international relations (and more broadly than just IR; see e.g. Jervis on System Effects).

But is the reverse true? Is it possible to describe areas without reference to the global system? Here it is important to distinguish between two positions, one causal and one ontological. We may hold that system-level factors have causal influence over their constituent parts, but at the same time that those units may be described without reference to the system. Translating that into the area studies-global history dichotomy, this claim amounts to a position that area studies exists separately from global history, but that global history does not exist separately from the histories of areas and their interactions.

In Southeast Asian studies, this debate is old, as Smail’s reflections on the “autonomous history” of Southeast Asia will attest. And the distinction between causal and ontological claims can be a tricky one. Consider, for example, these statements.

1. the Thai state is the product of global forces (“globe causes Thailand”)
2. the international system consists of Thailand in interaction with other entities (“globe is Thailand plus-and-with others”)
3. Thailand is not comprised of anything but Thailand (“Thailand is Thailand” but not “Thailand is globe”)

These three statements can all be true. Of course, one may to disaggregate further, to the constituent elements of Thailand.

4. Thailand is comprised of the people who live in a particular area plus the geographic features of that area (“Thailand is Thai people plus-and-with…”)

It follows from this line of thinking that there is an asymmetry between making causal statements about the relations between systems and their parts, and ontological claims about systems and their parts. This is not (repeat is not) an argument in favor of ignoring system effects or system-level causal processes. It is an argument that one may not describe global phenomena without reference to or assumptions about their parts, a claim that does not hold in reverse.