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5 - The Delphi Syndrome: Using History in the Social Sciences

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 December 2022

Richard Bourke
University of Cambridge
Quentin Skinner
Queen Mary University of London
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We discuss how three social science disciplines, economics, sociology, and political science approach history and we contrast them to history as practiced by historians. We find that the drive to identify broadly generalizable causal effects, driven by the desire to predict and shape the future (the “Delphi syndrome”), frequently prompts social scientists to use history in a way that neglects the historians’ valuable insights. At the same time, the recent methodological developments in econometric techniques that have spread through the three disciplines place enormous, often unrealistic, historical demands on social scientists. We illustrate these issues by discussing several examples and we conclude by arguing that a way ahead consists in approaching the relation between idiographic and nomothetic research principles as one that approximates a continuum rather than a dichotomy.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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