Against Social Physics.

Outline of a Context-sensitive Framework for Comparative Political Analyses

This paper concerns the divide between and idiographic and nomothetic forms of explanation. It aims to demonstrate that the pursuit of general theories of politics and governance is a vain one because of the character of human affairs. Consequently, the paper proposes that middle range theories acknowledging contingency, interaction effects and complexity are more appropriate in the study of politics and governance. The paper outlines an example of a context-sensitive framework and applies it to a historical case, South Africa. In this way, the paper seeks to demonstrate the importance of analyzing the context-specific interactions of economic, social, cultural and political factors in historical perspective. The South African transition to democracy was guided by reform models based on European blueprints, and general models of government and economics inherent in the influential doctrines of the time such as the Washington consensus and the third way doctrine. However, the economic development path did not interact well with the political framework of the new regime, and the first decade of democracy was accompanied by a rapid increase in unemployment, crime and a decreasing voter turnout. The paper concludes that a fully sustainable democratic transition in South Africa would have required an integrated solution, in which economic and social policies would have been aligned and adapted to the specific structure of the South African polity. The case thus demonstrates that a policy-oriented social science would be well served by context-sensitive middle-range theories that acknowledge the variety and complexity of the social world.

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