Sunday, September 5, 2010

Why History Matters

Political scientist Sven Steinmo has a pretty concise list:

"There are at least three important ways in which history matters.  First, political events happen within a historical context, which has a direct consequence for the decisions or events.  An early example of this is the seminal work of Alexander Gershenkron who argued that when a country industrializes necessarily affects how it industrializes.  He shows us why late-comers cannot go through the same long trial-and-error process followed by early developers.  In other words the process of industrialization is essentially different for late developers than for early developers.  This is a huge insight that is easily missed in large-scale quantitative, cross-national comparisons, which very often pool data across continents and time periods and treat the time/place as inconsequential (or assume that it will 'wash out' of the analysis)."  

"The second reason history matters is that actors or agents can learn from experience.  Historical institutionalists understand that behavior, attitudes and strategic choices take place inside a particular social, political, economic and even cultural contexts.  Rather than treating all political action as if fundamentally the same irrespective of time, place or context, historical institutionalists explicitly and intentionally attempt to situate their variables in the appropriate context."

"Finally ... expectations are also moulded by the past.  While some might point to America's adventure in Iraq as a simple product of power politics and/or the demand for oil, a historical institutionalist would more likely look to the patterns of past wars for an understanding of why this country reacted in the way it did to the 9/11 bombings.  Certainly they were mistaken, but there should be little doubt that America's past successes in Germany and Japan -- to say nothing of their perceived victory over Communism at century's end -- led policy-makers in the Administration to believe that they could assert American power and bring successful capitalism and democracy to a former dictatorship."

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