Biography, Path-Dependence and Social Events

There’s a fascinating post on Stumbling and Mumbling looking at the political implications of beliefs being path-dependent:

However, according to Matthew Parris in the Times, many Tories have such out-dated attitudes to unions. He says they believe they benefit from Labour’s “indefensible” links with unions:

They know the toxic potency in millions of minds of the image of the raised fist of organized labour. With relief they sink into the comforting upholstery of a ready-made rhetoric about trade union barons, winters of discontent, beer and sandwiches and No 10, union militants…

For millions of voters, though, the winter of discontent is as distant from their lives as the Suez crisis is to mine. There’ll be voters at the next election whose parents weren’t born in the winter of discontent. And many first-time voters in the 1979 election are now retired.

Another (not exclusive) possibility is that beliefs can be path-dependent; we believe things because we used to, and continue to do so even after such beliefs have lost truth-value or utility. What’s more, I suspect this path-dependency can sometimes be transmitted from generation to generation. So, for example ethinic minorities are very unlikely to vote Tory, in part because of memory of the party’s racist past; Greeks dodge taxes because of the legacy of Ottoman rule; and Germans are hostile to inflationary policies because of memories of Weimar hyper-inflation. Perhaps Tory antipathy to unions falls into this class of beliefs – a form of folk memory that is no longer useful. We are all prisoners of history.

This is integral to why I think biography as a unit of analysis is important to the analysis of social events. The properties and powers of each actor at a given point in time have a specific history i.e. what led each to be that person at that point in time. So questions about the causal contribution of each individual actor inevitably point back towards that actor’s history. An acknowledgement of the specificity of the individual must encompass temporality because of precisely the path-dependency discussed in the quote above. The analysis of social events can often proceed in a satisfactory way without being attentive to the specificity of the individual (though not as frequently as is often assumed) but where this is not the case then a biographical perspective becomes invaluable.

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