Natural experiments in history

An interesting post from Nicolas Baumard (with a great quote on large N vs. small n studies):

On the Use of Natural Experiments in Anthropology

Jared Diamond and Harvard Economist James Robinson have just edited a book on Natural experiments in history. This book reviews eight comparative studies drawn from history, archaeology, economics, economic history, geography, and political science. The studies cover a spectrum of approaches, ranging from a non-quantitative narrative style in the early chapters to quantitative statistical analyses in the later chapters. (…) The conclusion of the book struck me, as I had the feeling that it could have been written for students of culture.

Every field of scholarship, not just human history, experiences tension between narrowly focused case studies and broader synthesis or generalization. Practitioners of the case study method tend to decry syntheses as superficial, coarse-grained, and absurdly oversimplified; practitioners of syntheses tend to decry the case studies as merely descriptive, devoid of explanatory power, and unable to illuminate anything except one particular case study. Eventually, scholars in mature fields come to realize that scholarly understanding required both approaches. Without reliable case studies, generalists have nothing to synthesize; without sound syntheses, specialist lack a framework within which to place their case studies. (…)

Some specialist historians would respond with an implicit objection (…). An example of this objection could be phrased as follows: “I have devoted forty years of my professional life to studying the American Civil War, and I still don’t fully understand it. How could I dare to discuss civil wars in general, or even just compare the American Civil War with the Spanish Civil war, to which I have not devoted forty years of study? And worse yet, isn’t it outrageous that some scholar of the Spanish Civil War dares to trespass on my turf and to say something about the American Civil War?” Yes, if you study an event for a long time, that does give you one type of advantage. But you gain a different type of advantage by taking a fresh look at an event, and by applying to it the experience and insights that you have gained by studying other events. We hope that this book will offer useful guidelines to historians and social scientists desiring to exploit that advantage.

El contenido del libro no tiene desperdicio:

  • Prologue: Natural Experiments of History
    Jared Diamond and James A. Robinson
  1. Controlled Comparison and Polynesian Cultural Evolution
    Patrick V. Kirch
  2. Exploding Wests: Boom and Bust in Nineteenth-Century Settler Societies
    James Belich
  3. Politics, Banking, and Economic Development: Evidence from New World Economies
    Stephen Haber
  4. Intra-Island and Inter-Island Comparisons
    Jared Diamond
  5. Shackled to the Past: The Causes and Consequences of Africa’s Slave Trades
    Nathan Nunn
  6. Colonial Land Tenure, Electoral Competition, and Public Goods in India
    Abhijit Banerjee and Lakshmi Iyer
  7. From Ancien Régime to Capitalism: The Spread of the French Revolution as a Natural Experiment
    Daron Acemoglu, Davide Cantoni, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson
  • Afterword: Using Comparative Methods in Studies of Human History
    Jared Diamond and James A. Robinson


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