Independent Variables in Historical Methodology

One of the unfortunate aspects of Colin Woodard’s American Nations is its constant focus on the “dominant culture” within each of his self-defined nations. Whether analyzing Yankeedom, Tidewater, the Midlands, or the Deep South, little room is left within Woodard’s analysis for inter-nation conflict, contradiction, or dissent. Since the book covers more than 400 years of North American history in less than 300 pages of text, Woodard forces himself to make sweeping generalizations about North American cultural history that leave out a great deal of people and their stories. African Americans, for example, are largely absent from Woodard’s story even though they constituted the majority of the population in several parts of the Deep South. Meanwhile, Southern Florida is completely removed from any of Woodard’s eleven nations for reasons unknown, to which an op-ed in the Miami New Times responded with a colorful adjective: mierda.

The biggest reason Woodard is willing to make sweeping generalizations about the “dominant culture” in each of his eleven nations, I would argue, is that Woodard isn’t as interested in understanding the past as much as he wants to develop theories for explaining the behaviors of North Americans in contemporary society, even going to the point of predicting future outcomes (a topic to which I’ll return to in a future post). To develop theories about North America in the present, Woodard attempts to uncover independent variables for explaining past behaviors, variables that somehow transcend time and have an explainable relevance to us today. Hence, as I pointed out in my last post, Woodard argues that an independent variable (New Netherland culture) was responsible for the establishment of a Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution, reflecting the influence of Dutch cultural values such as freedom of the press and the right to assemble on the entire country.

Generalizations, theories, commentaries on contemporary society, and independent variables: each tool is used frequently by social scientists in their scholarship (including Woodard), but are they used by historians? My answer would be yes to the first two, rarely to the third, and never to the fourth. In mapping out the differences between social science and historical methodology, Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis distinguishes between reductionist and ecological views of reality. To wit:

I take reductionism to be the belief that you can best understand reality by breaking it up into its various parts. In mathematical terms, you seek the variable within an equation that determines the value of all the others. Or, more broadly, you search for the element whose removal from a causal chain would alter the outcome. It’s critical to reductionism that causes be ranked hierarchically. To invoke a democracy of causes—to suggest that an event may have had many antecedents [as historians frequently conclude]—is considered to be, well, mushy.

Reductionism implies, therefore, that there are indeed independent variables, and that we can know what they are. But when you’re accounting for the evolution of life forms, or the drifting of continents, or the formation of galaxies, you can hardly break things up into their component parts, because so much depends upon so much else. [An ecological view of reality] considers how components interact to become systems whose nature can’t be defined merely by calculating the sum of their parts. It allows for fundamental particles, but it seeks to place them within an equally fundamental universe. The ecological viewpoint is inclusive, even as the reductionist perspective is exclusive (54-55).

While historians use generalizations and theories for establishing their arguments in a cogent manner, they do not embrace the social scientist’s desire to find predictive models and independent variables in explaining past behaviors. Historians acknowledge that past events occurred in messy systems with interacting parts, systems that consist of interdependent—not independent—variables. The Bill of Rights was shaped by many interdependent variables—the American Revolution, the failed Articles of Confederation, Shay’s Rebellion, tensions between Federalists and Antifederalists, and concerns about the economy and foreign policy—and it’s nearly impossible to isolate one independent variable greater than the sum of its parts.

In my opinion, scholars put themselves in a good position to address the problems of history through generalization and theory when they look for context, complexity, and a sense of the “foreignness” of the past compared to our circumstances today. This inclusive ecological approach is better than taking a reductionist perspective that aims to explain past human behaviors through describable “rules” that allegedly explain contemporary behaviors and, oftentimes, attempt to forecast future outcomes.

In 2000, the historian Gordon Wood reviewed a book on Abraham Lincoln by the late John Patrick Diggins for The New Republic. In On Hallowed Ground, Diggins argues that “to study history is to study events in order to understand how similar conditions lead to similar effects.” Wood attacked this approach, arguing that Diggins “does not have a historian’s feel for the complexity, the nuances, the contexts, and the differentness of the past. He thinks of history as a social scientist might think of it: as a source for generalizations about human behavior that transcend time and place . . . But in reality, historians seek to study past events not to make transhistorical generalizations about human behavior but to understand those events as they actually were, in all their peculiar contexts and circumstances.” Later, in The Purpose of the Past, Wood remarked that “Diggins is one of many scholars who are deeply involved in the past without being devoted to an accurate reconstruction of it. Instead, Diggins is primarily interested in using history to criticize our present-day culture . . . [and] change the present” (276).

As I’ve attempted to demonstrate with my recent posts (and will continue to do so for the near future), I believe Woodard’s focus on finding independent variables and connections to present day culture supersedes his interest in understanding the particularities of the past. So it goes.