You are on page 1of 3

Canadian Journal of Sociology Online July-August 2006

William H. Sewell Jr. Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation.
University of Chicago Press, 2005, 376 pp. $US 27.50 paper (0-226-74918-5), $US 70.00 hardcover (0-226-74917-7) The incorporation of historical ontology — seeing human action in terms of temporality — and a historical methodology — the use of narrative and process tracing — is not new to the various social science fields. A perusal of “the classics” of Marx and Weber, among others, illustrates a point in time when such eclectic incorporation was not questioned. However, during the twentieth century, the social sciences devolved into the specialized divisions of anthropology, sociology, economics, and political science. The development of these branches of social science involved the construction of ontological perspectives and methodologies. In reality, however, such exclusive boundaries never developed to the extent that social scientists in the various fields hoped for. The re-convergence of varied ontologies and methodologies became apparent in the 1970s, when historians and social scientists again borrowed from each other. The author, a historian, relates his personal relationship to this re-convergence by noting his initial work as a “social historian.” Social history involved not only an examination of non-elitist actors but also the use of quantitative data. This re-convergence is most evident in political science, which Sewell notes, has “a tendency to chase headlines.” Chasing headlines, not defined or illustrated, appears to relate to his experience that political science fails to institutionalize incorporated ontology and methodology, and this may be the case. For example, Bates, et al.’s (1998) Analytical Narratives serves as the tour-de-force of incorporative eclecticism in political science. Bates, et al. use both rational choice and historical narrative to examine various historical events. The rational choice (micro-level) ontology is clearly evident but two major faults become apparent. One fault is visible in hindsight: Bates et al.’s rational choice ontology and historical narrative failed to be institutionalized. Analytical Narratives did not produce a succession of follow-up works that would have aided in clarifying the authors’ perspectives. Another fault is that the temporalities inherent in rational choice and historical narrative are seemingly contradictory. This second fault, a seeming contradiction that has proven incorrigibly difficult to reconcile, is Sewell’s thesis. His explication of this fault is not confined to a contradiction between rational choice and historical narrative, but extends to the intersection of history and the social science fields of anthropology and sociology. Working out the bi-directional influence of history, anthropology, and sociology is not a pithy task and the layout of the book attests to that. Logics of History is a collection of the author’s essays, the work of a lifetime. One of the major problems that Sewell does an excellent job of working through is the connection of historical ontology — seeing human actions and events temporally — to the various theoretical perspectives in anthropology and sociology. He conducts an especially erudite and detailed analysis in drawing connections between theoretical perspectives in anthropology and history. However, the connection between history and anthropology is not drawn in a concise manner; instead, it is interwoven into the theoretically oriented chapters on culture and structure. As noted, the work is one of a lifetime; this is reflected in Sewell’s ability to interconnect historical ontology, synchronic temporality, with theoretical understandings of culture and structure. Generally, sociologists and anthropologists have been at odds over the utilization of culture and structure together. Sociologists are not inclined to accept culture as containing structure, but anthropologists tend to accept that structure comes from culture and Sewell implicitly leans towards the anthropological. In his explication, he does scholars an indelible favor by cleaning up the debris

This process of transformation is illustrated by changes across class and gender. and analyzing the results is far from objective because such an reiterative process might be seen as cooking the data. This historical ontology involves seeing an unfolding of events over the longee durée. The problem is in extending the causal elements to the future— leading us into the teleological trap. Interpretive or qualitative analysis is localized analysis. He makes a salient point by noting the ontological lacuna that exists in sociology. The chiefs altered the traditional meaning of the cultural practice of taboo in order to preclude others from participating in trade with westerners. in the example noted this is the sojourn of Captain James Cook. therefore. the explication has to include how an event altered the semiotic discourse of the inhabitants of the island of Hawaii. The inhabitants of the island of Hawaii had a social structure characterized. structures are amenable to change — a seemingly oxymoronic contention — through what the author describes as events. In the anthropological perspective. Captain Cook overstays his welcome by returning for repairs and is ritually murdered. a system — . the most in-depth of which is the story of the transformation of cultural practices of the inhabitants of the island of Hawaii through an event — the sojourn of the British Captain James Cook. The murder of Captain Cook by the Hawaiians is presented in a historically synchronic narrative involving beliefs about the return of the god Lono. However. the purpose of social science analysis is to discover generalizations first. Prezworksi and Teune (1971) tried to deal with this in their argument that social science should employ variable oriented analysis (methodological positivism) for the purpose of producing generalizations by relegating systemic variables to the end of the analysis. the culture contains the structure. This is so because sociological methodology is generally not interpretive but causal. by gender and elitecommoner stratification.2 that obfuscates the relationship between historical ontology and culture and structure. Thus. we can see a historical unfolding. This is done through statistical analysis — usually multivariate regression — involving the correlation of variables. in most general terms. but generalizations do not rule out variation at the place or space level. Culture is examined from an evolutionary stance as it evolves in the western perspective towards a practical system of meaning. that is. But can a historical ontology be compatible with causal methodology? The best example of attempting to combine a historical ontology with a causal methodology is Wallerstein’s world systems theory (WST). he argues in the last chapter that the process of analysis might be construed as itself qualitative. The author of The Logics of History proposes that sociology can benefit from utilizing a historical ontology. In other words. The practical is illustrated through various examples. the author of the Logics of History uses the analogy of the Big Bang. and Sewell keenly articulates that while strongly disagreeing with it. The incorporation of Captain Cook’s mana by the chief provides the rationale for war with other tribes that inhabit other islands in the Hawaiian archipelago. The ontology of WST is the unfolding of events predicated on the relationship of classes of nation-states within a capitalist system. Logics of History .Canadian Journal of Sociology Online July-August 2006 Sewell. but tying together sociological methodology — sociological ontology is definitively muddled — with a historical ontology is more difficult. The author never really produces a solid refutation of the positivist methodology. instead. Sewell’s conjuncture of historical ontology and anthropological theory is well done. the development of capitalism. Causality implies generality: the ability to ascertain the same cause and effect over different cases. his conjunction of historical ontology and methodological causality is limited to analysis of systems. it involves a place or a space depending on the social science subfield. but within the system causal laws exist. conducting the analysis. Positivist social scientists are reluctant to admit that the process of operationalizing the variables. If we reverse engineer. In other words. which. This is a determinist and teleological perspective. over time — historically synchronically — led to a transformation of structure.

Logics of History .ca/reviews/logicshistory July 2006 © Canadian Journal of Sociology Online . This is a thorough and engaging analysis of how utilizing a historical ontology can mitigate problems inherent problems in sociological methodology and anthropological theory. Such a perspective. In other words. I would not doubt that this work finds its place in history as a landmark exposition. David Granger Georgetown University jdg26@georgetown. History also benefits from sociological methodology by taking into account systemic causality. is still seemingly incompatible with generalization. this will spur much needed debate and research. however. http://www. but there are discoverable causalities within the system. Taking temporality into account allows one to see how structure is not immutable to change and that critical junctures (events) are significant factors to be analyzed. he dismisses the ability of economists to actually efficaciously tackle problems using their theories.cjsonline. but their actual application —generalization in action — is obfuscated by system level differences. The only major weakness is the weak explanation of how history and generalization can fit together.3 J. etc. On the positive side.Canadian Journal of Sociology Online July-August 2006 Sewell. This work is a brilliant expose of the ontologies and methodologies of the various social sciences and is certainly applicable for use across the social science disciplines. world system. In other words. This forces the historian to provide an analysis that transcends story telling. The laws of economics are real. history uncovers the dynamics of structural change. His address of economics is brilliant because he attacks the perceptions of economics in terms of its actual utility. J. A rudimentary way of dealing with this incompatibility problem is illustrated by Sewell through his brief coverage of economics. Sociology and anthropology can benefit by taking temporality into account. nation-state. David Granger is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Government at Georgetown University. — has a unique historical background.