Learning from each other: causal inference and American political development


Within political science, a movement focused on increasing the credibility of causal inferences (CIs) has gained considerable traction in recent years. While CI has been incorporated extensively into most disciplinary subfields, it has not been applied often in the study of American political development (APD). This special issue considers ways in which scholars of CI and APD can engage in mutually beneficial ways to produce better overall research. As the contributions to the symposium demonstrate, clear scientific gains are to be had from greater CI–APD engagement.

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  1. 1.

    For an example, see Imbens (2010). See Cartwright (2007) and Deaton and Cartwright (2018) for push-back.

  2. 2.

    While one might try to work around such problems by making use of hypothetical experiments, concerns about external validity will loom large.

  3. 3.

    Our focus here is on APD and historical American politics. CI also has had a limited impact on historical political science more generally.

  4. 4.

    The Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science at the University of Southern California provided matching funds.

  5. 5.

    We note that APD scholars often want to understand a particular case and may not care if its cause generalizes to other situations. Put differently, while individual APD scholars may not think much about external validity, we believe that their collective efforts and published work, when assembled and integrated by CI scholars, often can be made to speak to more general phenomena.

  6. 6.

    The two themes also appear in recent work that is not part of the symposium. For example, in his recent book providing an analytical history of constitutional decision making, Clark (2019, p. 317) notes that his “goal has been to strike something of a middle ground between historical description and traditional social-scientific causal inference.” He notes that “while at times the evidence does not rise to the level of what has come to be known as a ‘credible’ causal estimate, the invocation of an underlying, micro-founded theory of decision making has aided in the interpretation of those patterns.”


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Jenkins, J.A., McCarty, N. & Stewart, C. Learning from each other: causal inference and American political development. Public Choice 185, 245–251 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-019-00728-x

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  • Causal inference
  • American political development
  • Gains from engagement

JEL Classification

  • C18
  • N41
  • N42