Monday, December 24, 2012

The Voice of Albert Hirschman

So one of my most admired social scientists has died, at the ripe old age of 97: see obits here, here and here. I have nothing much to add to the various tributes that have appeared, but I thought I'd give my own personal take on Hirschman's work, because it was probably amongst the most inspiring scholarship I've ever read and provided the backbone for my doctoral thesis on the creation and collapse of the Union of the Democratic Centre (UCD).
The UCD was the party that guided the Spanish transition to democracy and then fell apart, providing an almost unique example of a political party doing the hard bit of establishing an organisation on the ground, winning elections and government power, and then self-destructing in the most puzzling way. After months searching in vain for a theoretical framework that could make sense of this event (the party politics literature provided none, given parties' tendency to survive and stick around, rather than collapse) a friend suggested reading Hirschman's Exit, Voice and Loyalty. The usefulness of the framework was immediately obvious, since what I was trying to explain was why some members of the party had decided to exit, rather than stay inside the party (loyalty) exercising voice to turn things around. What I came up with was a loose framework that identified variables influencing the likelihood of exit (alternative electoral strategies, the openness of the electoral system to founding new parties, alternative sources of campaign and party funding). What I couldn't so easily explain was why some members stuck with the party, rather than exercising the exit option, even when the party's electoral decline meant that exit had become the dominant strategy. In other words, I couldn't explain loyalty, and neither, as Brian Barry argued, could Hirschman, or at least, not within a maximizing framework.
Hirschman's work constantly pushed at the tensions between economics and the other social sciences, and that is why his writing was so insightful. During Hirschman's career, mainstream economics moved steadily away from the kind of qualitative and conceptual analysis he deployed, and entrenched itself in a highly mathematical approach in which departures from maximizing behaviour were considered aberrant, the error term. Yet Hirschman insisted on studying precisely such behaviour, and the ways in which it interacted with classically rational action. As well as EVL, Hirschman's next book, Shifting Involvements, sought to understand the waves of collective action that drove political change, such as the student mobilizations of the late 1960s and 1970s. Shifting Involvements implied that individuals could be carried along by tides of collective activism, which were followed by periods of demobilization and relative apathy. In a similar vein, The Passions and the Interests looked at the ways in which rationalist thought had suppressed more romantic, emotive social behaviour as capitalism took root in the 17th and 18th centuries.
In other words, what Hirschman was interested in doing was understanding the variability of human behaviour. What economics and political science have spent the last few decades doing is assuming away this variability, and cramming the full range of social action into a narrow framework which is conducive to mathematical reasoning, but pretty useless for understanding and, especially, predicting social behaviour. In a sense Hirschman's passing reminds us of what the social sciences have lost over the last couple of decades in which the maestro, despite maintaining his emeritus position at Princeton, enjoyed his semi-retirement. It may be asking too much to hope for another Hirschman to come along, but we should at least try and encourage young scholars to take on the big questions with the same ambition and openness. Sadly we seem to be doing the opposite.