History and Historians, Ivory Towers

Shake and Bake History

Drive Chain...ge

Or, Driving Changes

Not so long ago*, Kieran Healy over at OrgTheory did some interesting riffing on an idea in Jon Elster’s new book about Alexis de Tocqueville. He put together a list of different innovations in social theory, grouping them by how they characterize the relationships between different basic elements. His recipe is as follows:

Take a few basic kinds of institutions, structures or practices that can be identified across many different social contexts. There are markets, say, and there is politics. There is ritual. There are hierarchies. There are networks. There is culture. And so on. (Not all of these are the same sort of thing; that doesn’t matter at the moment.) Identify the basic features of each. Now, pick one of these and show it underpinning a setting usually taken as governed by one the others.

For example, you can say Politics is really Markets. This is Public Choice Theory. Because the market form is such a dominant feature of contemporary societies and of talk about them, applying the “x is really a market” trick to any given x is by now ubiquitous not just in theory but also often as a matter of common interpretation and even public policy, facts on the ground notwithstanding.

Healy goes on to spin out a half dozen or so such formulations, with reference to the works of particular sociologists or schools of thought, e.g. Markets are really Politics; Markets are really Culture; Organizations are really Ritual; Markets are really Hierarchies; etc.

Now, I think Healy means this partly as a dig at the vagueness of most social theory, but also as a pragmatic method for developing research heuristics, insofar as you can generate new approaches by substituting terms. I think a similar kind of simplified grouping could be pretty easily done for historical works; and switching around the basic elements might prove similarly useful.

The middle sign in the equation, though, isn’t “is” — it’s “drives change.”** The first term is the agent, the second term (implicitly) what you consider to be the main object of historical work.

For example, one way to characterize the debate between the two recent synthetic works in my field (Howe and Wilentz) is to say that Howe thinks Culture drives change in Politics while Wilentz thinks Politics drives change in Culture. Likewise Mark Noll’s book on the Civil War would be Religion drives change in Politics.

This approach would work well for sub-literatures too — you could probably subdivide the vast literature on the history of capitalism into different categories of Capitalism drives change in x, y, z.

While this is all certainly reductive — and no doubt, unfair to all the nuance in the works I’ve just name-checked — I think it pays off especially well when you’re trying to decide what debates matter to you, and what camp(s) your own work falls into.*** For myself, I think I used to be in the Economics drives change in Politics, but now I’m the Ideas drive change in Politics camp, much to my chagrin.

What about you? Or does this scheme not work well for a quasi-untheoretical discipline like history?


*Er, I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while.

** Or, you know, some kind of less clunky formulation. Suggestions welcome.

*** Though, to be a bit defensive, I think historians’ oft-repeated claims of “nuance” are more performative than an actual barrier to useful reductions. Everyone has a favorite driver of change, even if you think other ones come to bear. If you don’t, you’re writing an list of facts, not a history.


Image cite: KitLKat, “Drive chain of steam lorry…” Flickr, CC License

Apologies for the poor visual pun.