Paul Pierson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Transformation of American Politics: Conversation with Paul Pierson, Avice Saint Chair in Public Policy, Department of Political Science, U.C. Berkeley; December 1, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

Page 3 of 5

Time and History

Your second book is called Politics in Time. I'm going to show that book to our audience. It's very lucid and clearly written, and it strikes me that in the debate between quantitative methods and looking at the history and society in time, so to speak, you come down strongly in seeing the complexity of institutions, and that's what you're arguing about. book coverTalk a little about why time is important. At one point, you say if you were analyzing a particular policy or political event, it's an argument about a snapshot versus a moving picture. What did you mean by that?

This was a book of social theory. It's not a book about any particular thing that's going on in the world, but more about the way the social scientists try to make sense of what's going on in the world. It was my effort to wrestle with what I see, and many others see, as a long-term trend towards marginalizing the role of historical analysis in the way that social science is conducted.

One sees that probably most clearly in the case of certain branches of economics that have spilled over into disciplines like political science and sociology, sometimes called rational choice theory, which uses game theory and the strategic interaction among particular individuals or particular groups as the basic raw material for studying social phenomena. Some of that also shows up, as you say, in quantitative analysis where scholars measure indicators of particular units at a particular moment in time and run them through a statistical analysis to come to some kind of conclusion about what is going on.

The argument that I develop in the book is that both these approaches, at least if they're not done very carefully, tend to produce what I call a snapshot rather than a moving picture view of the social world, when in fact, all social processes [and] historical processes are processes that take place in time and through time. If we ignore that and just take a snapshot in many cases, we'll get quite a distorted view of what's going on.

In the conclusion to that book you say, "Because the lack of explaining institutional outcomes is better framed as an issue of institutional development rather than one of institutional selection," -- and again, this is the idea that it's not just that somebody picks democracy but how have institutions developed over time to make democracy possible -- "institutional development in turn cannot be adequately treated without attending to issues incorporating an extended time frame" -- the historical context -- "including the role of time horizons, unintended consequences, learning and competitive selection, and path dependence."

Right. I started that chapter with a quote from Charles Tilly, a wonderful sociologist who says that the building of democracy should be seen more like the construction of a village than the execution of a blueprint of a single building. Some of this is echoed in current events: the kind of thinking about how societies operate and how one changes them, [including] some of the thinking that went into current events in Iraq, reflect a very short-term view that simply says, "Okay, you can go in and sweep things away pretty quickly and you put a clever design in place, and everything else will fall into place."

If we think about something like the American Constitution, to take it as a contrast, well, yes, there were founders, there were framers, and they wrote this document which profoundly affected the structure of the political system that we operate in; but the building of American democracy has been a two-century-long process. I think if the framers came back today, there's a lot that they wouldn't recognize and they wouldn't be able to easily make sense of from the structure that they put in place two centuries ago.

Sean Wilentz has a new book out on the construction of American democracy which very nicely makes this point, that it is a centuries-long process, not something that can be understood by looking at a particular moment.

Is this a particularly American disease of ahistoricism, or it a more general phenomenon in the social sciences?

That's a good question. I have found European audiences to be very receptive ...

To what you're saying?

... to the kinds of arguments that I make. So, I think there's something to that, though I think it's also a feature of what I would call a technocratic turn in modern social science, which you see especially in the U.S. but in other places too, where, as I mentioned earlier, game theory and complex statistical analyses has become seen as the most scientific, the most modern way to study social phenomena. Both of these techniques [can] lend themselves to an ahistorical view of society. I'm not saying that they necessarily do. That's something that I spent a lot of time wrestling with in the book, because I'm actually a great admirer of statistical analysis and of game theory properly employed, but I think they do have these tendencies if people are not thinking about the processes they're studying as being historical processes.

Next page: Setting the Stage for the Erosion of American Democracy

© Copyright 2006, Regents of the University of California