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Uneven and Combined Development: Challenging the Dominant Wisdom

by Jamie Jordan on September 9, 2016
Marxism Reading Group

WestIn How the West Came to Rule, Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu aim ‘to subvert, and [they] hope displace, the dominant wisdom’ of analyses that focus on the historical origins of capitalist development. Stating that the dominant wisdom is so far ‘an unmistakably Eurocentric history’ they take aim at the three ‘core’ foundations upon which such historical analysis is constructed. These include, ‘methodological internalism’, ‘historical priority’, and ‘linear developmentalism’. I will focus on the first of these. This is because it is not only a feature of accounts which focus on the transition to capitalism, but, as the authors correctly point out, is more widely a feature of the ‘classical sociology tradition as a whole’. Given that the issue of ‘methodological internalism’ is so prevalent in the social sciences the aim to move past it – an aim that is also an aim in parts of my own research – raises methodological issues that require further discussion. Of primary concern is the issue of providing causal explanation, and supporting the claims made. My intervention into this discussion is therefore not one of criticism as such. Instead, this intervention aims: 1) to clarify what is currently the taken-for-granted ‘dominant wisdom’ methodologically; and 2) to use the excellent platform provided by the text to ask questions that generate further discussion that can support a shared endeavour to move beyond such limits.

Methodological Internalism, the Comparative Method, and Causality

Let’s start with defining what ‘methodological internalism’ is. Lucia Pradella offers a useful summary when she states that it is a commitment ‘that conflates the society with the state and national territory, and takes it as the unit of analysis.’ In this definition there is an indication of the dominant analytical unit which features in studies of the social sciences, namely the nation-state. This is the reason why ‘methodological internalism’ is also widely known as ‘methodological nationalism.’ This is particularly dominant in a number of fields that we can relate How the West Came to Rule to. These fields include International Relations (IR), International Political Economy (IPE) and International Historical Sociology (IHS).

The definition offered above indicates how ‘methodologically internalist’ accounts of socio-historical development, at their foundation, make an important (and often implicit) ontological commitment. This commitment is then central to shaping the scope of proceeding analysis in important ways. Charles Gore clearly outlines four features of such analyses, and the way their scope is delimited by a commitment to ‘methodological internalism.’ These include: 1) explaining ‘economic and social trends in countries, basically by reference to facts about the countries themselves’; 2) focusing on theorising political economic or social development, abstracted from wider dynamics for the purpose of cross-country comparison; 3) creating a division between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ factors in effecting such development, with the emphasis on the constituting factors of change placed upon the former; and 4) isolating and separating ‘the influence of internal factors from external factors.’

The ability to offer a causal explanation of socio-historical development within each unit is then generally supported by the adoption of the ‘comparative method.’ This method does not require that the above ontological commitment is brought into question and neither the scope of our analysis built upon this foundation. The adoption of this method then usually proceeds upon the basis of a ‘most-similar’ design. This design takes ‘a range of countries that appear similar in as many ways as possible in order to control for ‘concomitant variation’’ (Peters 2013). Therefore, ‘common systemic characteristics are conceived of as “controlled for”, whereas inter-systemic differences are viewed as explanatory variables’ (Przeworski & Teune 1970). In other words, ‘any variable that does differentiate the systems is equally likely to be the source of the observed variation among them’ (Peters 2013). These various steps then create a situation in which the causal claims being made about socio-historical development are easily discernible from the methodological framework employed, supporting the ‘scientific’ veracity of the analysis.

Incorporating ‘the International’ into Socio-Historical Development

The above outline of the primary features of ‘methodological internalism’ and the causal analyses derived from them is important as I feel this is ultimately what Anievas and Nisancioglu are identifying as the ‘dominant wisdom’ within the social sciences. This is because, as they argue, ‘the origins and history of capitalism can only be properly understood in international or geopolitical terms’. In fact, the authors go on to state that ‘this very ‘internationality’ is constitutive of capitalism’. It is argued that the theory of uneven and combined development is capable of overcoming the type of methodological commitments outlined above, being able to support the aim of incorporating ‘the international’ into our analysis of socio-historical development. This is because the theory ‘uniquely interpolates an international dimension of causality as an intrinsic aspect of sociohistorical development’, moving beyond ‘‘internalist’ and ‘externalist’ theories of modal transitions’.

The authors’ use of uneven and combined development therefore directly challenges a dominant strand of the social sciences in how it conceives of causal explanation. Whilst at times in the text there is still a focus on particular national political economies/states – such as in Chapters 6 & 7 focusing on the Netherlands and Britain, respectively – there is no ontological or epistemological closure placed on, or automatic analytical priority given to, how we causally explain change to that analytical unit. Such a point is highlighted by Anievas and Nisancioglu themselves when they state that the:

internal relations of any given society are determined by their interactive relations with other developmentally differentiated societies, while the very interactivity of these relations produces amalgamated socio-political institutions, socio-economic systems, ideologies and material practices melding the native and foreign, the ‘advanced’ and ‘backward.’

The use of uneven and combined development is therefore a welcome theoretical addition to the fields of IR, IPE, and IHS and its use in this text is one of the finest examples of its efficacy.

However, the use of uneven and combined development in How the West Came to Rule also requires that we ask some challenging questions of ourselves. If we are to dismantle the methodological apparatus of the ‘dominant wisdom’ that has been such a central feature of the social sciences over the course of its modern history, what are we to replace it with? This is not to get bogged down into philosophical principles and/or formal methods in the belief that they automatically ensure the veracity of our analysis. Instead, it is to deepen our enquiry into what the terms employed in the text mean and how they support the aim of incorporating ‘the international’ into our causal explanations.

This requirement is evident from the scattering of terms such as ‘causal chains’ or ‘necessary but not sufficient’ throughout the text as there is little elucidation of what purpose they serve, or how they can be differentiated from the ‘dominant wisdom’, to overcome the limitations identified. Whilst then I think we all understand that publishers are not looking for such a discussion as it is hardly likely to help in the pursuit of selling books, I feel that it is important in fora such as this to explore questions like: what do we mean by causality?; how can we support our causal claims?; are there alternative (comparative) methods which we can employ? I hope that by asking such questions, and other relevant ones, we can not only offer superior accounts of socio-historical development, but also develop the tools necessary to secure the veracity of the claims we make, which in turn would directly challenge some of the problematic foundations which the social sciences rest upon. No pressure then!

Jamie Jordan

Jamie is an Irish Research Council Post-Doctoral Fellow in European Integration and Employment Relations at University College Dublin. He is involved in the European Research Council funded project European Unions: Labour Politics and the EU’s New European Economic Governance Regime. Prior to this he was an Economic and Social Research Council Doctoral Student at the University of Nottingham, completing his thesis in 2017. His research focused on the international and comparative political economy of the eurozone crisis, specifically analysing the origins of, and responses to, this in Greece and Portugal. Work from this has been published in the European Journal of International Relations. Jamie has held teaching positions at the University of Nottingham (2013-2017) and De Montfort University, Leicester (2013-2014). He is also a Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at the University of Nottingham.

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