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Must Historians Regress? An Answer to Lee Benson

Kousser, J. Morgan (1985) Must Historians Regress? An Answer to Lee Benson. Social Science Working Paper, 580. California Institute of Technology , Pasadena, CA. (Unpublished)

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In a recent symposium published in Historical Methods, Lee Beneon, once a forceful proponent of more systematic methods and models in history, announced that it had all been a mistake. Applied to human affairs, Occam's Razor merely result a in useless carnage. Women are too complex and contradictory to fit in to any simple theories, much less laws, and any attempt to formulate or test any such statements merely misleads. To redeem social science and save the world, we should abandon the attempt to postulate abstract, value-free, and often mathematicized hypotheses and to validate them through the use of sophisticated statistical techniques. Instead, we should return to a Marxism cleansed of the notion of class conflict, and to a combination of easy arithmetic methods that everyone can understand and careful analysis of qualitative data. In his 1961 Concept of Jacksonian Democracy, Benson now claims, he was wrong to adopt the ideas of voting cycles from economics, because the polity is more complicated than the economy, and to pretend that he had arrived at this conclusions on the basis of "hard" data, when he had used a mixture of qualitative and quantitative information. That historians have been wrong to adopt regression analysis to relate aggregate voting to socioeconomic indices he attempts to demonstrate by commenting on one table from my Shaping of Southern Politics. None of Benson's contention s except his mea culpa will stand up to rigorous examination. His conception of science is distorted, the economy is more complex than he imagines, and an extensive analysis of his scattershot critique of my table and of regression analysis reveals that he is wrong in every p articular. His charges of scholarly irresponsibility collapse when set against his own practice. Indeed, it seems possible that he found no evidence of a class basis for political divisions in Concept because he used a poor measure of it and performed no systematic multivariate tests. Benson's general anti-scientific stance would force historians and social scientists to abjure the use of powerful methods and theories, would make generalizations and the replication of results impossible, and would cause history needlessly to regress to a pre-scientific stage. The fallacy has not been in our mistransference of scientific modes of thought and analysis, but in his own misunderstanding, misconceptions, and mistaken arguments.

Item Type:Report or Paper (Working Paper)
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Additional Information:Several friends were kind enough to read an earlier version of this paper, and to save me from errors or offer advice and assistance: Robert H. Bates, Stanley L. Engerman, Robert William Fogel, David Grether, D. Roderick Kiewiet, Paul Kleppner, Allan J. Lichtman, and R. Douglas Rivers. My favorite gravestone epitaph reads: “She did what she could.” So did these readers. They are therefore beyond further blame. Published as Kousser, J. Morgan. "Must Historians Regress? An Answer to Lee Benson." Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History 19.2 (1986): 62-81.
Group:Social Science Working Papers
Series Name:Social Science Working Paper
Issue or Number:580
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20170914-165402310
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Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:81471
Deposited By: Jacquelyn Bussone
Deposited On:15 Sep 2017 16:58
Last Modified:03 Oct 2019 18:43

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