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A developmental approach to historical causal inference

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Abstract

Empirical historical research typically falls into one of three categories: the study of major historical events; the use of “history as data” to test general theories; and the study of the legacies of historical processes. We argue that because of data sparsity and dynamically unfolding processes, the study of major historical events is less well suited to design-based inference than other types of historical research. Drawing examples from our own work, we propose a set of research procedures for designing causally oriented work, and argue that the construction of a “timeline of relevant counterfactual nodes” can facilitate the organization of a research project investigating complex historical processes. The researcher can focus on relevant counterfactual moments as potential episodes of change using either statistical or qualitative techniques as appropriate, moving forward through the timeline and updating their beliefs about a hypothesized cause’s importance across the process.

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Notes

  1. On the historical turn, see Capoccia and Ziblatt (2010); on the relationship between American political development and historical approaches to comparative politics, see Morgan (2016).

  2. We thank Scott Abramson for sharing a related categorization at the historical political economy working group meeting, APSA 2017.

  3. As Kathleen Thelen (1999, p. 371) and others have argued, a key difference between historical institutionalism (HI) and rational choice institutionalism (RCI) lies in how hypotheses are formulated. Whereas HI proceeds from an interest in historical empirical puzzles, RCI is more concerned with how institutions deviate from deductively derived theories of politics.

  4. We address the relevance of our approach for contemporary research in Sect. 3.

  5. McCammon et al. (2001), for example, found that expedience-type arguments were more successful and may have accounted for early western extensions. Although during the course of my work I had asked McCammon to share her data, she was not able or willing to do so.

  6. To be sure, the boundaries between the approaches are permeable. In many cases, as in the work of Weaver (2019) and Paglayan (2019), interest in a general theoretical question can lead to projects whose answers can emerge only from deep dives into historical records; the opposite also is true, as an interest in a specific event leads researchers to frame their projects as testing a more generalizable body of theory. We believe scholars can and should do more to usefully leverage the different advantages of each approach across their research projects. For example, those who seek to explain a single event rarely present so idiosyncratic a story that no generalizable mechanisms could not usefully be substantiated with contemporary data or newly designed experiments.

  7. As Kocher and Monteiro (2016) have noted, the historical work necessary to justify the identifying assumptions is at least as important to generating confidence in the analysis as any of the actual modeling decisions. Historically oriented scholars who stumble on a potential instrument still have to undertake an extensive engagement with relevant historical work and possibly even their own qualitative process-tracing.

  8. See, for example, the discussion of the work on English medieval villages in Carus and Ogilvie (2009).

  9. As Ragin (2004, p. 126) notes with respect to the “well-reasoned” argument that new or refined theories can be tested only on newly collected data, such a conclusion effectively “puts an end to most case-oriented research” when “the number of relevant cases is limited by the historical record to a mere handful” (Ragin 2004, p. 126).

  10. In the first test, the researcher asks whether all conditions defined by a particular hypothesis as necessary for an outcome’s occurrence are observable in the historical record, or whether the “auxiliary traces” of a theoretically relevant latent concept are present. In the second test, the researcher asks whether a given hypothesis being true is a necessary condition for the presence of a particular phenomenon in the historical record.

  11. That is partly why Robert Vitalis (2006) argues that “the past is another country”. Just as we expect students of comparative politics to develop competence in the requisite language and methodological tools necessary for fieldwork or engagement with a particular site, historical researchers must go to the archives and, just as critically, develop more than a passing familiarity with the relevant historical work on the period. In short, they must pay as close attention as historians do to the process by which their data were generated and to how its potential meaning might be altered by its historical specificity. For example, it is a safe assumption that most contemporary members of Congress desire reelection, and so information about retirement rates can be leveraged to tell us something about the competitive environment or voting records about constituency interests. It is not obvious that the same assumption should travel to the early Republic, and it only has been through high-quality historical work that have we been able to identify the timing and conditions of the emergence of an electoral connection and a more careerist posture toward elected office (Carson and Sievert 2018; Carson and Engstrom 2005). Similar discrepancies exist regarding the very basic act of voting, which looks nothing today like what it did in the nineteenth century, suggesting the real possibility that the types of information data on voting conveys do not translate easily between the two eras (Bensel 2004). A similar argument has been made for the studies of presidential vetoes, which changed with contextual shifts in the electorate that altered the veto’s audience and, thus, the incentives and meaning of doing so (McCarty 2009).

  12. For example, upper chambers have to pass the law, referendums often are required, and presidents or governors might veto. Lower chambers can vote yes, but the reform nevertheless may stall. In many American states, suffrage extensions required a constitutional amendment, which often needed to be passed by two successive legislatures and then sent to the public for ratification.

  13. Scholars have developed promising avenues for disciplined evaluations of qualitative findings (Fairfield and Charman 2019), as well as case-selection strategies (Plümper et al. 2019), within or at least compatible with a potential-outcomes framework. While it is possible that those and other frameworks could be adapted for the task of aggregating evidence from sequential counterfactual tests, we suggest that it is an area where considerable work remains to be done.

  14. Narratives aimed at a causal interpretation should, we argue, be as explicit and deliberate as possible in explaining the ordering, drawing the connections between them, and justifying the focus of the content relative to other possibilities so as to generate a constrained evaluation of counterfactual alternatives (Griffin 1993; Hawthorn 1991; Kelemen and Capoccia 2007; Weber 1949).

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Acknowledgements

We thank Tatiana Alfonso, Maria Paula Saffon, Boris Heersink, Didi Kuo, Alexandra Cirone, Michael Weaver, Agustina Paglayan, Jeff Jenkins, Nolan McCarty and Joshua Simon for their helpful comments.

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Bateman, D.A., Teele, D.L. A developmental approach to historical causal inference. Public Choice 185, 253–279 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-019-00713-4

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