The Dynamics of American Politics: Approaches and Interpretations

By Lawrence C. Dodd; Calvin Jillson | Go to book overview

3
Pattern Recognition and "Doing" Political History: Art, Science, or Bootless Enterprise?

WALTER DEAN BURNHAM

Not too long ago, I was a participant in an American Political Science Association panel. Its papers saw the light of day in a 1991 volume that bore the catchy title The End of Realignment? ( Shafer, 1991a). Opinion among the initial paper givers was divided on the subject. One person thought that, whatever its uses may have been for studying the past, the once-promising "critical-realignment framework" was irrelevant to the present. Another scholar observed that it didn't explain the past well either. Still others on the panel professed one or another form of agnosticism. So strongly negative was the overall sentiment that it was only at my insistence that the question mark was added to the title of the book. I found the whole experience sufficiently thought-provoking to make an effort to deal with the general issues raised by my colleagues ( Burnham, 1991:101-138). This in turn led to some reflections on "doing" political history, and hence to this chapter, which is, in a sense, a continuation of that earlier discussion.


OF CONSILIENCE AND PERIODIZATION

In thinking about pattern recognition in history, we necessarily touch upon some very deep issues. Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and Pitirim Sorokin all advanced models claiming striking regularity at the highest imaginable levels of integration -- whole civilizations across the entire span of recorded history. The mainstream of the historical profession responded over time by thoroughly shooting them down for their pains: In the majority view, such attempted syntheses went vastly beyond what data and reasonable inference therefrom could support. Indeed, H.A.L. Fisher, and other critics, argued that there was no definable pattern

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