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Americanists and political economy

- October 8, 2008

Four years ago, Paul Pierson, a comparativist who has drifted into the study of US politics, “complained vigorously”:http://www.nd.edu/~apsacp/documents/WinterIssue2004Final1.pdf about the state of Americanist political science.

bq. The compartmentalization that characterizes the American subfield has also led to a kind of methodological one-upmanship. Technical proficiency becomes the metric for evaluating quality. Statistical analysis of large data sets and the development of formal models of strategic interaction of small groups of actors are dominant. Despite the wealth of scholarly resources, research has become increasingly concentrated on that restricted subset of questions that lend themselves to the most “sophisticated” research techniques. There is no questioning the technical proficiency of much work in American politics. Yet far too much of that research reminds one of nothing more than muscled-up body-builders, whose arms are so bulky that they are almost useless for everyday tasks. …

bq. Again, comparativists are much more likely to organize their inquiries around distinctive substantive issues rather than particular sites of political activity. For example, one of the liveliest areas of inquiry in comparative politics over the past two decades has been the study of political economy. A large group of well respected scholars has debated how the evolving structures of national economies and the coalitions of interests surrounding those economies influence, and are influenced by, political systems. By contrast, there is really nothing like a field of political economy in the American subfield. There are scattered studies that could be placed under such a rubric. Yet despite massive and growing economic and political inequalities, the interplay between the highly distinctive American economy and its peculiar political system has not generated a sustained or systematic research

I know that Paul is now more enthusiastic about the Americanist field than he was four years ago. We’re beginning to see intellectual firepower being concentrated on the specific question of the political sources of economic inequality by Larry Bartels, McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal and others. Yet I think that the major criticism he makes still stands, and that the current economic crisis makes this eminently clear. If I were to want to to point, say, an intelligent journalist, to a useful synthetic literature on the way that the American economy is governed, and how these governance arrangements lead to certain patterns of regulation, private actor behavior etc, I wouldn’t know where to start. There are books and articles that I can think of which deal with smaller aspects of this question, but as Paul notes, there isn’t any very broad _debate_ that could bring these different sub-perspectives together usefully. I wouldn’t have any problem in identifying literatures that do this for the countries of Western Europe, for the EU (which is a fantastically complicated and multilayered regulatory system), or for Asian economies (including big complex economies such as China). I’m not an Americanist – am I missing out on a literature that does this? Or is there really not much of a there there, as I suspect to be the case?