Comparative Historical Analysis: Explicating the Historical and Temporal Dynamics in Economic Life

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Universität Duisburg-Essen
Charlotte Röniger
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We live in challenging times that are ready made for comparative historical analysis. (CHA) A failed insurrection in the world’s oldest democracy; a pandemic disrupting global supply chains; China’s ascendancy altering geopolitical dynamics, and global warming potentially disrupting everything. This course provides guidance for scholars interesting in analyzing such macro- historical phenomena and are looking to CHA for methodological advice. Like historians, CHA scholars use the past to formulate research questions, describe complex social processes, and generate new inductive insights. And like social scientists, they compare those patterns to formulate generalizable and testable theories. CHA builds a bridge between the fascinating but disorderly world of history—that historians explore—and the slightly blander but more orderly world of methodology—that social scientists construct to test hypotheses. And CHA builds this bridge between exploration because it recognizes that it is easy to get results but difficult to get answers.

CHA is a broad umbrella term that draws on tools used in literatures as diverse as historical sociology, American political development, IR constructivism, global history, historical institutionalism, comparative political economy, democratization studies and basically any literature interested in temporal dynamics or historical processes. Together, these tools constitute a grammar of time for studying a disorderly and changing world in the most orderly fashion possible. Grammars analyze cultural phenomena—languages—that emerged independently of each other in different places. The same goes for CHA. It established itself in different disciplines independently of each other and therefore subsumes vernaculars that are distinct without being unique. The goal of this module is to introduce you to three key elements of this grammar of time:

Thinking Historical. CHA investigates complex, oftentimes changing, most of the time only dimly understood macro-historical phenomena. It employs historical thinking to understand such phenomena sufficiently enough to formulate relevant questions. Historical thinking helps formulate such questions because it is inductive, unconstrained by theoretical or methodological strictures, and thus capable of exploring.
Thinking Temporally: Macro-historical phenomena are constantly changing—they are objects in motion—that require a specific vocabulary to thinking temporally. CHA distinguishes between two notions of time. Historical time uses the vocabulary of events, dates, periods, directionality to analyze historical continuities and discontinuities—that is patterns of historical change. Physical time, in turn, uses a more clock-like mechanical vocabulary of tempo, duration, timing, sequencing, or stages to capture the more context independent elements of historical change and capture its more general dynamics.
Thinking Abductively: CHA places questions before methods and thus employs a more heterodox methodological tool set to properly align causal inferences with the ontological characteristics of the questions. It pays close attention to none-linear, historical causation that highlights the causal effects of physical time. It also intermingles inductive insights with deductively derived hypothesis in a range of abductive causal inference strategies (i.e. historical explanations, path dependency, process tracing).

These modules draw on my forthcoming book the Grammar of Time: Leveraging the Methodological Riches of History through Comparative Historical Analysis (CUP, Forthcoming) The book offers the first systematic synthesis of the different CHA vernaculars spoken across multiple disciplines and literatures. Thinking historically, temporally and abductively involves a distinct mode of thinking that rests on ontological assumptions that are very different from those informing frequentist, statistical thinking. The course therefore devotes attention not just to these three elements of CHA but also employs exercises to practice them.