What is American Political Development?

Frequent comment from people at a conference to me: “So you do political history, right?”

My response, “Er, no, American Political Development (APD), is distinct from how my colleagues in the history department approach history.

Response: [Head scratching]

Blllrrrrrgh. Welcome to my world as an APD specialist (and the even smaller group that works in constitutional law/APD, all 5 of us, but we’re a hardy band).

More seriously, because I have been asked so many times what APD research is, I’ve had to formulate a coherent answer. Here’s the short version: It would be wrong to say APD research uses history as evidence. As a discussant and a double-blind journal reviewer, I have read many a manuscript that merely applied contemporary social science theories to data that is historical. That is not APD.

The short reason: some assumptions of contemporary political analysis do not, should not, and cannot be applied to historic events. Would you use contemporary theories of gender equality and apply them to diaries of eighteenth century citizens? You could, but it would be goofy and there would be major slippage in the theory and historical practice/belief you are purporting to study and understand.

The longer reason why you cannot and should not apply contemporary theories of political and social behavior to historical evidence is because the subfield of American Political Development in political science has a distinct set of foci, theories, and methodologies from the rest of American politics research and historical research as undertaken by historians.

On the one hand, historians and American Political Development specialists share a sensitivity to temporality, namely a strong belief in the idea that what happens often depends on when in history it is happening. Also similar to historians, APD research is not defined by one set of methodological approaches, either quantitative or qualitative–APD studies utilize either or both types methodological approaches. But then our foci diverge from historians.

Whereas historians excel at carving historical periods into eras by expertly identifying common social, political, artistic, identifiers that define a time period (e.g. “the Age of Jackson”, “the Gilded Age”), APD specialists are more focused on factors that precipitate major change in society and politics. APD specialists pore over decades of history identifying key watershed moments that move an institution’s development (like the federal courts), or a policy area (immigration, health care, post offices) from one stage of development to a different stage. In terms of Civil Rights policy, for example, the Reconstruction Period and the Civil Rights movement and legislation of the 1960s all constitute key watershed moments when US civil rights moved to a distinct stage of development from the previous one (slavery, and Jim Crow, respectively). Identifying and recognizing patterns and change or lack of change over time is one of the main activities of many APD scholarship.A hallmark of APD analytical approaches is also an enthusiasm for path dependency. In other words, in their analysis of macro-history which flies over huge chunks of time (often decades and centuries, not months or years), APD scholars pay close attention to the roads not taken by key decisions made at an earlier junctures in US history or policy history.

What policy and political possibilities have been foreclosed by other previous decisions made by our nation? An example: since the 19th Amendment granted American women the right to vote in 1920, it is difficult to see a time (yes, even now) when women’s voting rights are erased. While access to the ballot box in general is being infringed by states, it’s inconceivable that a state or locality will declare that all women will now formally be stripped of their voting rights. The voter suppression efforts being carried out by some states point to the inability of foes of democratic participation to simply overturn women’s right to vote. Of course I’m aware other aspects of gender equality continue to be challenged including: women’s control of their reproductive rights, their ability to obtain equity in salary, and protections form sexual harassment and discrimination. But it is unlikely that we, as a nation, re-litigate politically whether it is a good idea to give women the right to vote.

Thankfully for you, this a blog. I’ve tried my best to take a cut at explaining APD research (several defining aspects of it) in jargon-free terms. If you want to learn more about this strange group of people who blog together and what intellectually binds us and our research, see:

Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek, The Search for American Political Development, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Paul Pierson. Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis. Princeton University Press, 2004.

Articles from the academic journal Studies in American Political Development if you want something shorter.

For other examples of APDS scholarship, check the published work of all my fellow co-bloggers here or Tweet us at @AHouseDivided2

I am the Herbert Kurz Chair in Constitutional Rights at CUNY Brooklyn College. I will be blogging about US immigration history, policy and US constitutional development.

2 thoughts on “What is American Political Development?

  1. Actually, sounds like political history to this historian. Some historians take snapshots of discrete eras, but hardly all of them. And even when they do, they differentiate eras of political history by looking at watershed moments–just as you do. Finally, path dependence is bread and butter for a lot of us. This sounds more like market differentiation than a drawing of a real distinction.

    1. That is good to know. The main reason for my post is many political scientists have no idea what I do and some have dismissed it as “story telling and not science.” I’ve received much more engaged feedback from historians especially on my current book project.

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