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Not Just What, but When: Timing and Sequence in Political Processes

  • Paul Pierson (a1)


Many perceive the clash between those advocating rational choice theory and their critics to be the dominant cleavage in contemporary political science. At least as fundamental, if much less widely discussed, is the divide over the role of historical analysis (or the investigation of temporal processes). Most social scientists take a “snapshot” view of political life. How does the distribution of public opinion affect policy outcomes? How do individual social characteristics influence propensities to vote? How do electoral rules affect the structure of party systems? Disputes among competing theories center on which factors (“variables”) in the current environment generate important political outcomes. Variable-centered analy- ses are based, however, on some questionable assump- tions about how the social world works.For useful discussions see Andrew Abbott, “Transcending General Linear Reality,” Sociological Theory 6 (1988): 169–86; John C. Harsanyi, “Explanation and Comparative Dynamics in the Social Sciences,” Behavioral Science 5 (1960): 136–45; and Charles C. Ragin, The Comparative Method: Moving Beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). The significance of such variables is frequently distorted when they are ripped from their temporal context. There is often a strong case to be made for shifting from snapshots to moving pictures. Placing politics in time systematically situating particular moments (including the present) in a temporal sequence of events and processes can greatly enrich our understanding of complex social dynamics.


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Not Just What, but When: Timing and Sequence in Political Processes

  • Paul Pierson (a1)


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