Published by EH.NET (January 2004)

Bertrand M. Roehner and Tony Syme, Pattern and Repertoire in History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. xii + 413 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-674-00739-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John Nye, Department of Economics, Washington University in St. Louis.

The book under review constitutes one of the most intriguing, challenging, and at the same time, frustrating works I’ve come across in the last few years. The authors make their focus the creation of a “nearly” scientific approach to comparative historical sociology using examples drawn from the literature on the origin of revolutions and strikes, war and territorial aggression, and the problem of wartime logistics. But in another sense, the authors are interested in a deeper question which should be of special interest to the readers of EH.NET: How does one study history from a social scientific perspective?

They want to know: What constitutes relevant and irrelevant historical information? What does it mean to observe recurrent patterns in similar historical events? How do we “test” or verify our beliefs and claims? Economic historians have been especially concerned with these problems and have developed a variety of partial answers and a number of workable methodologies over the last few decades without coming up with a systematic or definitive answer to the problem.

After reviewing the various methodologies in common use in historical sociology, the authors make mostly common-sense decisions about the best way to proceed. They try to break up historical events into smaller, “component” parts. They compare and contrast these parts across similar historical episodes, and they analyze these parts and their interrelation using a mix of qualitative and quantitative description. They seem to be indifferent to formal statistical hypothesis testing, though I do not entirely understand why. Surely Cliometrics — for all its limitations — explicitly deals with many issues of importance to such sociological discussions. More inexplicably, they criticize the use of individual choice methodology as typically applied in economics and economic history, because individual choice theory ignores “group representation and collective consciousness” (p. 21). Yet when using what they consider a “compelling argument” against individual choice theory, they point to a criticism of Jack Goldstone against Gordon Tullock’s positing of the standard collective action problem. As we know, the standard problem of collective action makes it unprofitable for individuals to participate in a revolutionary movement if free-riding were possible. Goldstone makes the point that ‘”individuals do not decide to join, or not join, revolutionary movements as isolated individuals.” Instead, they decide “as part of groups to which they have prior commitments” (Goldstone 1999). “This leads us to analyze the role of social constraints” (Roehner and Syme, p. 21).

Yet this only seems to be an argument for expanding the set of considerations that affect the payoffs to individual actors without changing the desirability or viability of the individual choice methodology as the appropriate tool of analysis. Perhaps a “collective consciousness” technique (which I understand is neither universally agreed upon, well-established, nor battle-tested even in sociological circles) would do better than individual choice reasoning with modified collective constraints, but it seems a bit premature to simply assert the inadequacy of the individual choice methodology on the basis of this simple critique. More important, I see little in their actual historical cases and analysis which is not amenable to individual choice reasoning. Indeed, they use individual actor models throughout most of the book, albeit substituting the state as the individual actor. But this is a tradition that is no more controversial (albeit incompletely specified) in political economy than is the habit of treating firms as single individuals in the literature on industrial organization. These usages are certainly well-known to the authors — one of whom holds a position as a lecturer in economic history! Hence, this methodological discussion, no matter how interesting, seems less than essential for the success or failure of the bulk of the book.

Be that as it may, there is much pleasure and learning to be derived from a careful study of the substantive chapters. Their chapter on “General Strikes, Mushroom Strikes” contains much insight in the nature and timing of strikes and shows how a comparative perspective builds on the more narrowly constructed national studies of strike duration, which allow us to observe, for example, that strikes are more frequent in the Spring and Summer, and less frequent in the Autumn or Winter. An economist might point out that this would be a good example of individual choice in action since it is both more pleasant to be outside in the warmer months, and the opportunity cost of striking or, even worse, of losing employment (due to a failed strike) in winter months is greater than in the summer. The authors themselves look to problems of partial unemployment and seasonal disparities in work opportunities or demand for output (cf. coal in winter) as important explanations. This sort of reasoning — at the margin — is precisely what neoclassical microeconomic theory is all about. Economics reasoning is not to be applied to the average. It does not explain nor seek to explain why some people strike no matter the individual cost to themselves. Rather, economists argue that at the margin, the more costly it is to engage in an activity, the less it will be undertaken particularly when dealing with aggregates of separate actions. This is a common problem that pops up with some regularity in social science critiques of economics. Economics is said to be deficient in explaining why anyone bothers to vote in a large election, or participate in a large-scale strike, but it makes no such claims in the first place. And it is foolish to deny the usefulness of marginal reasoning either in economic history, or for that matter, for scientific analysis in general. Given their otherwise commonsensical approach to modifying scientific methodology to the study of sociology, the authors — and we — would have benefited from their explicit incorporation of economic reasoning in their work or with explicit confrontation on a case by case basis where such reasoning fails.

Much of the book is taken up with the analysis of warfare — both in the general subjects of “Warfare for Territorial Expansion” and “The Constraints of Logistics.” There is too much to go over here in a short review, as their discussions range from the Napoleonic Wars through the First and Second World Wars. Much of their discussion seems to match standard military history such as the fact that submarine warfare in the Atlantic had striking parallels in both the First and Second World Wars — suggesting that the internal logic of submarine warfare tended to dominate over ephemeral considerations. Yet these discussions only highlight the difficulty of pinning down the authors’ hypotheses. They ask “Would it be the same again in a future conflict even though nuclear propulsion has considerably altered the problem? We are convinced that the response to this question must be sought not in an evaluation of the technology of submersibles, but in a comparison of the economic and naval potential of the belligerents” (p. 263). (And surely it makes no sense to posit the economic and naval potential against technology, since the naval potential of the belligerents is surely determined in part by the technology of the instruments of naval warfare.) After a few rereadings of the subsequent analyses, I can only conclude that the authors answer with a resounding “Maybe.”

The authors, in my view both lose the opportunity to explore the interaction between technological characteristics and military capacity as well as the deeper question of which random events were genuinely significant for the war, and which events were driven by the logic of economic, military and political considerations For instance, in the chapter on logistics, one would have liked to have seen a discussion of the role of contingency in the Second World War, where surely the success of the attack on France had much more to do with risk-taking, Allied error, and sheer luck than the conduct of the War in the East after, say Stalingrad, when individual battles ceased to matter, and sheer numbers virtually guaranteed German defeat. The issues they do tackle are stimulating but whether I agreed with them or not, it was not always clear what “test” or comparison we should look to when deciding whether a particular set of comparisons was insightful or accurate.

So this is certainly an imperfect book, but in its verve and ambition, one which nonetheless should be commended to the attention of EH.Net readers.

John V. C. Nye specializes in French economic history and industrial organization. His publications include “Tax Britannica: Nineteenth Century Tariffs and British National Income,” (forthcoming in Public Choice, 2004). He is a founding member of the International Society for the New Institutional Economics (ISNIE).