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Let’s not conflate APD with political history, and other reflections on “Causal Inference and American Political Development”

Abstract

American political development (APD) is a distinctive field of research that should not be conflated with, or flattened into a caricature of, historical research that uses historical data to make flawed causal inferences. It is a problem-driven inquiry into the dynamics of American politics, a substantive and theoretical exploration of how American politics has changed over time. APD research uses diverse types of data from a wide range of sources and employs multiple methodologies and analytical approaches, as appropriate. Because APD is a substantive and theoretical inquiry and not a method per se, there is no a priori reason to think that design-based causal inference cannot play a valuable role in studies of America’s political development, just as advanced quantitative methods have. However, while APD research does often seek to explain outcomes and establish causal relationships, that is not its only goal, and its orientation toward causality, causes, and theory tends to differ from much of the work in the causal inference tradition. This essay endeavors to clear up some of the confusion by offering the author’s perspective on what APD does well and how it does it. It also suggests how experimental research and APD research might be brought into more fruitful intellectual exchange and concludes with some thoughts on the value of methodological and intellectual pluralism.

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Notes

  1. Caughey and Chatfield (2019) evocatively describe that path as the route through which APD becomes the “mere handmaiden of causal inference, serving merely as a historical storehouse of natural experiments and a source of evidence in support of identification assumptions.”

  2. To be clear, Wawro and Katznelson (2019) ascribe that view to “some advocates of stricter causal inference standards”, presumably including those who also exhibit “a distorting tendency to claim too much about the superiority of some rigorous causal approaches”. Similarly, Gordon and Simpson note that “some of the more zealous advocates of the PO (potential outcomes) framework may view historical research as beside the point”. Wawro and Katznelson “happily” report, however, that “this extreme view is not characteristic”.

  3. Note that a number of political historians and political sociologists, experts in their own fields and methods, also self-identify as APD scholars. As they should! My aim here is to discuss the place of APD within political science, but I do not mean to exclude scholars in other disciplines who have made, and will continue to make, important contributions to our understanding of America’s political development. Indeed, the rich diversity of approaches, methods, and perspectives scholars bring to the study of APD is one of its greatest strengths, as I discuss below.

  4. As Bateman and Teele (2019) write, “The value of causal inference is enormous; but identifying a cause is only a subset of the more common practice of making a case, and not all cases rest on a dispositive identification of a causal effect.”

  5. For more on the relationship between APD and qualitative methods, see Galvin (2016b).

  6. That said, a fair amount of APD research also is concerned with the interplay between structure and agency, using historical investigations to develop insights into the dynamics of strategic action and decision-making, modes of political entrepreneurship, and patterns of behavior under certain conditions. See, for example, Carpenter (2001), Sheingate (2003) and Galvin (2010). For more on concept development, hypothesis formulation, and theory-building in APD research, see the next section below.

  7. In recent years, methodologists have also offered helpful practical tips for integrating experiments and case studies in multi-method research cycles (Seawright 2016; Gerring 2006; Gerring and McDermott 2007; Steinmo 2016).

  8. Wawro and Katznelson (2019) call for more “productive dialogue” between APD and CI-focused scholars. Specifically, they exhort APD scholars to “confront the challenges posed by heightened concerns about identification head-on”, “engage with such work on its own terms”, “respond with careful, reasoned arguments as to why certain approaches are, or are not, suitable for the analyses they conduct”, and help “develop more explicit guidelines for designing historical studies and assessing their causal claims.” Interested APD scholars definitely should do this. But dialogue is a two-way street, and surely we should also encourage a “spirit of exploration” among “causalists” as well—urging our more CI-focused colleagues to engage with different kinds of research on its own terms, identify the value it brings to our common pursuits, nurture methodological and intellectual pluralism, and take pride in the great diversity of approaches to inquiry and explanation that have long characterized the discipline of political science.

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Galvin, D.J. Let’s not conflate APD with political history, and other reflections on “Causal Inference and American Political Development”. Public Choice 185, 485–500 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-019-00695-3

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Keywords

  • American political development
  • Causal inference
  • Historical research
  • Intellectual pluralism

JEL Classification

  • Y80
  • C1
  • B52