#5PAPERS – Week 3 Day 3

by Nivek K Thompson

  1. Reference to the Article 

Tilly, C., & Goodin, R. E. (2006). It Depends. In R. E. Goodin & C. Tilly (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of CONTEXTUAL Political Analysis (pp. 3-34). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  1. What attracted me to this Article?

At last year’s APSA conference the idea that ‘context matters’ was raised by a number of speakers. I tweeted about it and in response John Parkinson suggested this book. Subsequently one of my supervisors referred me to a recent book about democratic innovations which concluded that their impact was context dependent. So I decided to familiarise myself with the concept of context.

  1. What is it about? (Problem / Purpose / Research Questions)

As the introductory chapter on a handbook about contextual analysis Tilly and Goodin aim to demonstrate that ‘context matters’.

  1. Where does this come from? (Literature / Theoretical Framework)

Their work is based in the theoretical and practical recognition that in considering real world situations we need to look not only at what appears to the at issue but also at ‘the relevance of other contexts: historical, institutional, cultural, demographic, technological, psychological, ideological, ontological, and epistemological.’ p.6

  1. What did they do? (Methodology & Method)

Tilly and Goodin open this chapter with an example of the differing views of the same set of facts from Transylvanian village transitioning from socialist farming to privatised farms, using this as an example of why ‘context matters’, whilst noting that this isn’t the only situation in which context matters.

  1. What did they learn? (Results / Discussion)

Despite, as the chapter title suggests, the answer to all big questions in political science being ‘it depends’ they argue that identifying the context/s is important to building ‘systematic political knowledge. p.6 And whilst context can be seen as messy it an also clarify and improve our understanding, both to describe and explain.

They identify three ‘classes of contextual effects:

  1. On analysts’ understanding of political processes.
  2. On the evidence available for empirical examination of political processes.
  3. On the processes themselves.

And whilst these three interact it can be useful to consider them separately.

They review two different approaches to context: the search for general laws that apply irrespective of context to the other extreme where context itself is the phenomenon to be investigated, with many political scientists aligning themselves with one or the other approach.

The authors perspective is that it is not useful to choose one or the other approach: sometimes there exist clear relationships (laws) and others where what is happening arises explicitly from the how people think and talk about what’s happening (and they note that if the latter is accepted then knowing how this happens is just as important as knowing that it does). Whilst recognising that sometimes one of these extremes can be seen as appropriate they come down on the side of using a mixed strategy.

They review ontologies (holism, methodological individualism, phenomenological individualism, and relational realism), explanatory logic (scepticism, law-seeking accounts, propensity analyses, systemic analyses, and mechanism-based accounts) and mechanisms (environmental, cognitive, and relational) and they distinguish mechanisms from processes – combinations or sequences of mechanisms; and from episodes – combinations of mechanisms and processes.

In setting the scene for the remainder of the Handbook they discuss the importance of how people explain things that happen, the narratives which aim to ‘help make the world intelligible.’ p.17 They identify how political scientists themselves generate ‘explanatory stories’, usually when framing their research and in explaining their conclusions, although they often take a structured ‘scientific’ approach when analysing their data. They suggest this matters because these explanatory stories form part of the context. Also relevant is the assumptions implicit in how political scientists approach their work.

As the authors are also the editors of this volume they explain why they selected the contributors they did in the contexts: philosophy, psychology, ideas, culture, history, place, population, and technology. I will definitely be reading the chapters in the Ideas Matter section.

  1. What did I learn?

I didn’t really need to be convinced that context matters. I did benefit from the succinct overview and comparison of different approaches to political and social science.

I agree with Tilly and Goodin’s ‘three provisional positions’:

  1. the way politics works doesn’t support finding general laws
  2. looking for general laws can be useful if it identifies ‘regularities to be explained’ but not in providing those explanations
  3. regularities do occur but not at a large scale and so the focus should be on identifying causal mechanisms at different scales and how they interact. p.20

I found the discussion of the range of positions along the continuum between general laws and everything is context to be very interesting. I will definitely do some more reading and think about how terms like causality, patterns, and explanations apply to my research as well as my own stories and assumptions.