Political science as a historical science

Is history a testing ground or a foreign country?

(Note: This is a companion piece to last week’s comparison of the social sciences and was actually written before that one.)

Most political science research focuses on politics in the present day. A number of recent initiatives, however, have encouraged political scientists to explore historical data. Typically, the justification is to provide new data for testing our theories. I suggest here that history can also show that current theories and assumptions have little traction in the past as suggested by Joe Henrich’s recent work on the WEIRDest people in the world. The study of historical politics may show us that modern politics follows distinctive and historically contingent patterns that apply in other times.

Recency bias in political science

I recall reading once that Oxford or Cambridge had distinguished their Politics and History Departments by assigning the post-1945 years to Politics and pre-1945 to History. Apparently, the dividing line was later moved to 1956. This may be apocryphal as I can’t seem to find any reference to it online. Nevertheless, it contains some truth. It will surprise exactly no one that political scientists tend to study the near present, while historians focus on the deeper past. 

To give a sense of the recency bias in political science, I compiled the start and end dates of the evidentiary sources of the articles in the 2020 volume of the American Political Science Review.

  • The median start date for the 55 empirical articles was 2005.

  • The median end date was 2016.

  • The median article had 8.5 years of data.

  • Exactly 60% of the papers use data entirely from the 2000s.

  • 91% of articles (all but five) use data entirely from the postwar era.

Only Ahmed and Stasavage’s article on the historical roots of democracy goes back much further than that (it looks at democracy before 1500 AD). This might change if I considered other journals and years, but I doubt it would shift much. Some fields like political psychology and public opinion might be more contemporaneous, while others like American political development or war might be more historical.

There are reasons for this. The sort of data that political scientists use tends to be concentrated in the recent past - things like public opinion polls, election results, roll-call votes, and many economic indicators, not to mention interviews with political actors. And some methods like lab and field experiments necessarily take place in the present. Historians, by contrast, have primarily focused on archival materials that only become available after a time delay.

The move to a historical perspective

The line has blurred a bit recently (or maybe was always blurred). I am thinking of historians of the present like Adam Tooze or Timothy Garton Ash or more to the point the movement in political science to work with historical data as exemplified by the Broadstreet blog or the new Journal of Historical Political Economy. Meanwhile, the APSA section on “Politics and History” was founded in 1989 and the “International History and Politics” section dates to 1999.

What is the point of a more historical approach to political science? Most of the justifications I have seen emphasize the past as an additional source of data that allows us to better test our theories. Jeffrey Tulis introduced the Politics and History section of APSA in this way: 

Among us are social scientists who turned to history to expand the number of cases of phenomena of interest. For others, long-standing historical puzzles are appropriate foils for demonstrating the explanatory power of particular theories. Still others seek the deep structure or contours of contemporary political problems. 

A recent symposium in the Comparative Politics Newsletter (Finkel et al. 2019) highlighted the value of historical analysis in finding old solutions to emerging problems, the exploration of path dependent outcomes to identify root causes, and new data generation. A quick read of the Broadstreet blog confirms this image. The pieces that I read mostly used history as a testing ground for theories or as an opportunity to explain important events.

Another view of history

An alternative vision of historical political science, however, would treat the past more as a foreign country than as a testing ground or source of puzzles. It could be a place where political actors have different motivations and psychology than contemporary actors and as a result politics follows different rules and is explained by different theories. The value of historical analysis would be not just adjudicating between theories of the present, but expanding the range of the possible. (Some work does this, but mainly looking at historically distinct institutions - e.g., Cirone on lotteries or work on the Ottoman millet system - but less on historically distinct motives.)

My inspiration for this vision is a recent piece by Muthukrishna, Henrich, and Slingerland (2020) entitled “Psychology as a Historical Science”. Their argument is that human psychology has changed over time, but that psychology ignores this because just about all psychological theories are based on data both from the present and from the US in particular.

In particular, they focus on the different psychology of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) peoples compared to the rest of human history. They claim that looking at past societies (and to an extent non-Western societies) shows us a very different psychology based more on kinship groups and holism as opposed to our current individualistic, analytic psychology. These groups differ in such ways as how they solve divide the dollar or ultimatum games or even their perceptions of the environment.

Henrich’s (2020) new book further argues that psychological changes that took place in the medieval era enabled modern economic growth, not to mention modern democracies. The psychology of kin-based societies could not support either.

We could make a similar case for political science as a historical science in this sense. In fact, unlike psychology, political science does often study non-Western and poor societies and as a result it already has some theories that emphasize alternative psychologies that are connected to political outcomes.

The most famous might be modernization theory. Banfield’s (1967) conception of amoral familism is similar to Henrich’s own view of non-WEIRD psychology. Political scientists like Putnam (1994) have used Banfield’s conception to motivate their understanding of democracy. Inglehart and Welzel’s (2005, 2010) recasting of modernization theory in terms of survival versus self-expression values and traditional versus rational-secular values can be seen as something similar and again they link these values (psychologies?) to development outcomes.

These views have been somewhat relegated to the sidelines of political science (despite the fame of Putnam and Inglehart). They are usually included in the subfield of political culture which tends not to receive a lot of attention in the top journals. Modernization theory, especially in its cultural variant, is often regarded as a patronizing relic of colonial attitudes. To be sure, I am not advocating a return of high modernization theory that certainly suffered from these sins. But ignoring political culture would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I could imagine a number of places where a historical approach might reveal that political actors behaved or thought differently in the past. The circumstances of earlier societies with their Malthusian economies and frequent warfare might produce different adaptations (maybe even greater rationality given the costs of calculating wrongly). There are claims that in earlier eras political leaders had different motivations like glory and dignity rather than just power and wealth.

I can’t say that I have much evidence on these points. I am revising another post on political quotations and proverbs. I was curious whether famous quotations about politics have been confirmed or disconfirmed by the latest research. One thing I noticed is that quotations from previous eras encapsulated a very different wisdom about politics. They tended to be quite skeptical of democracy and more attuned to the role of fear and hatred in politics. Would we still say, following Machiavelli, that it is better for a ruler to be feared than loved? Or is that wisdom for a different world?

So far it is just speculation on my part that in politics the past may be a foreign country that functioned according to very different rules. (For an even more radical view of different psychologies, see this review of Julian Jaynes’s book on the origin of consciousness. I imagine that there is work out there on this point, particularly given the importance of the Greeks and Romans to political thought. I am probably just missing it. If it’s not there, then a new historical political science might focus on whether political actors behaved very differently in the past than they do today.

  • Banfield, Edward. 1967. The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. Free Press.

  • Finkel, Eugene, Adria Lawrence, and Andrew Mertha. 2019. “From the Editors: Comparative Politics and History”, Comparative Politics Newsletter. 

  • Henrich, Joseph. 2020. The weirdest people in the world: How the west became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

  • Inglehart, Ronald, and Christian Welzel. 2005. Modernization, cultural change, and democracy: The human development sequence. Cambridge University Press.

  • Inglehart, Ronald, and Christian Welzel. 2010. "Changing mass priorities: The link between modernization and democracy." Perspectives on politics: 551-567.

  • Muthukrishna, Michael, Joseph Henrich, and Edward Slingerland. 2020. “Psychology as a historical science.” Annual Review of Psychology, 72.

  • Putnam, Robert D., Robert Leonardi, and Raffaella Y. Nanetti. 1994. Making democracy work. Princeton University Press.