American Journal of Sociologywhereas historical sociologists traditionally had insisted on distinguishingsocial science from history, now many sought to do away with the bound-ary between these disciplines. It seemed to us that the norms of historywere coming to replace traditional sociological standards for assessing re-search.We characterized this trend as troubling because it discourages ade-quate social explanations. Good explanations, we maintained, must spec-ify both relations between causal factors (including models that indicatehow the causal factors are related), and the mechanisms purporting todescribe the process by which one causal factor inﬂuences the other. Sincesocial mechanisms are unobservable, they cannot be derived from empiri-cal observations; instead, they often are derived from general theories.Hence, we concluded, the increasingly fashionable attacks on general the-ory inexorably foster poor explanations of social outcomes. At the sametime, we argued that some of the methodological practices in historicalsociology were deﬁcient.To ground the argument more concretely, we brieﬂy discussed stateautonomy and policy formation—two favorite substantive topics in his-torical sociology. To this end, the article highlighted the research of ThedaSkocpol and Michael Mann because it is widely acknowledged as exem-plary.
We argued that one particular general theory—rational choice—improved their analyses by offering superior models of causal relationsand by suggesting plausible causal mechanisms.
Far from dismissing contemporary historical sociology
ourcritique of historical sociology was selective.
We challenged only method-
In our 1991 article, we noted that “Skocpol and Mann have contributed a great deal to our understanding of state autonomy. They have demonstrated that states arepotentially autonomous and that the extent of state autonomy varies across time andspace. Both have identiﬁed structural factors related to variations in autonomy inparticular historical settings, and each has made general statements about what sortsof factors are likely to inﬂuence state autonomy” (1991, p. 18). Our substantive aimin discussing state autonomy and policy formation was to use rational choice theoryto “complete the project they have begun” (1991, p. 19). Further, we praised manyaspects of Skocpol’s work on revolutions: “Theda Skocpol’s substantive studies of social revolutions and welfare states have combined important criticisms of existingtheoretical perspectives with insightful empirical generalizations about important his-torical events. She has also been self-conscious and explicit about the methodologicalunderpinnings of her work” (1991, p. 12).
Somers (p. 723) claims that we view rational choice as they only current generaltheory. This is simply false. Our text (1991, pp. 19, 23, 16) referred to rational choice as“one source” of testable theoretical models and acknowledged “other general theories,”including Marxism (see pp. 16, 19, 23). We still regard rational choice as the most promising general theory currently available and continue to focus on it throughout this discussion.
For example, our reservations about Stinchcombe refer only to his
Theoretical Meth-ods in Social History
(1978). We approvingly cited his (1978) focus on causal mecha-