Day By Day

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Cliodynamics -- The Latest Attempt to Model History

Ever since the Enlightenment scholars have sought to create a "science" of history -- that is, to use scientific methodology to discover deep structural changes in the human condition over time and to use these to formulate "laws" of history. I personally worked in this field for about two decades. At the time it was called "cliometrics" and it sought to take advantage of advances in computer technology to examine vast amounts of data in hopes that regularities would appear that could then be formulated as scientific laws of human development. It was a worthwhile enterprise in that it exposed many previously unseen or poorly understood aspects of the American and, more generally, the Western experience, but in the end [as Charles Tilly has noted] the endeavor established only one really important new understanding -- that past populations in the Atlantic world were far more mobile, both politically and socially, than had previously been appreciated. They were, in Stephen Thernstrom's words, "Men [and Women] in Motion." At the time we assumed that, as computer technology became more powerful and as more and more information was reduced to machine readable form, our understanding of the past would improve to the point where a true science of history would be achievable.

Well, it didn't pan out, and most of us engaged in the work moved on to other fields of inquiry. In my own case my interests came to center on the functional relationship between institutional development and culture formation. But the centuries-old dream didn't die and it has once again emerged under a new name -- "Cliodynamics". Laura Spinney interviewed some of today's practitioners for Nature here. These new number crunchers argue that they have discovered a hidden dynamic of American history that produces major periods of social instability every fifty years. Well, actually they only seem to have three data points [the 1870s, the 1920s, and the 1970s] and are ignoring the huge peak in violence and social disruption that attended the onset of the Civil War ["Bleeding" Kansas, New York Draft Riots, etc]. I am also unimpressed with their use of proxy variables [like income inequality and life expectancy] to model dynamic social structures. Too, their explanation of the variables underlying the supposed cycles they identify doesn't seem to take into account major periods of social and political repression that accompanied WWI, WWII and the early years of the Cold War. One might posit an alternative explanation for the period they are studying -- when the government draws millions of young men out of civil society and into the military, often shipping them out of the country, the level of civil disorder declines. I would also want to look at regional variations. Whatever, I am not convinced by what is reported of their conclusions.

There is really nothing new here. The Cliodynamics scholars are doing pretty much what the Cliometricians of nearly half a century ago were doing with one exception -- they have better equipment [the early researchers used note cards and shoe boxes to organize their observations, by my time we had advanced to punch cards and mainframe computers, today they have wonderful shiny, glittery new machines sitting on their desks]. Conceptually and methodologically I see no real difference. I expect that a couple of decades down the road they will come to the same conclusion that earlier generations of scholars reached, an appreciation that in human affairs contingency rules. What they are doing is not history -- it is a negation of history.

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