Present chiefly in historiography, a counterfactual is essentially a “what if?” thought experiment in relation to a given historical event or outcome. The main purpose of such an exercise is to evaluate the solidity of an explanation provided for a historical outcome. It does so by establishing a timeline of the incidents leading up to the studied event, and extrapolates from the position of what if a certain key event or element did not take place or was not present.
A good example can be derived from the theories presented in the opening quotation of the Fearon article provided below:
“Without the prior democratization of England, the reactionary methods adopted in Germany and Japan would scarcely have been possible. Without both the capitalist and reactionary experiences, the communist method would have been something entirely different, if it had come into existence at all.”
– Barrington Moore, Jr.
Moore provides here two causal relationships:
- The shape of Germany and Japan’s politics was reactionary against England’s democratization. Therefore, if England did not democratize, Germany and Japan would have no concept of the political shape they adopted in that time, and therefore that shape would never have come to exist or if it did, it would have been a drastically different thing altogether.
- Communism itself was a reaction to capitalism and other reactionary experiences to capitalism. Therefore, if capitalism never existed, communism would have no concept to begin with, and as such it would never have come to existence or if it did, it would have been a drastically different thing altogether.
Now, both assertions are probably right (especially with the case of communism, what with Marx fashioning it out of Hegel’s dialectic to begin with). However, as a method of evaluating those relationships, analysts would study the historical context of those periods where those concepts were nascent and play out possible outcomes using other elements prominent or similarly important in those times. For example, an analyst approach the communism example with the frame of: “Let’s say capitalism did not turn out as horrible as it did in Marx’s time. What other factors might have prompted him to develop his philosophy?”, or “Let’s say the bourgeoisie were not as capable or their drastically unequal position in society not as blatant. What then can we deduce of the conditions of Marx’s Germany, and can we find anything else that could have contributed to the development and momentum of his revolutionary philosophy?”
Counterfactuals are not, however, merely expansive flight of fancies. Effective counterfactuals are bound by specific, logical criteria. Joseph Nye spells out four important elements that go into the production of a credible counter-factual: plausability, proximity in time, relation to theory, and factual accuracy. ((Nye, Joseph S. 2005. Understanding international conflicts: an introduction to theory and history: 51-2.))
Counterfactual hypothesis testing, of course, has its own share of heavy criticism, not least because of its completely figurative style and the primacy of self-conceived extensions. However, it is also something of a unique and valuable approach to historical and political analysis, and its framework has the potential to make better developments in understanding of the field.
The articles below deal with various aspects of this technique.
- Tetlock, P., and A. Belkin. 1996. Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical, Methodological, and Psychological Perspectives. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 1-38.
- Fearon, James D. 1991. “Counterfactuals and Hypothesis Testing in Political Science.” World Politics 43(2): 169-195.
Abstract: “Scholars in comparative politics and international relations routinely evaluate causal hypotheses by referring to counterfactual cases where a hypothesized causal factor is supposed to have been absent. The methodological status and the viability of this very common procedure are unclear and are worth examining. How does the strategy of counterfactual argument relate, if at all, to methods of hypothesis testing based on the comparison of actual cases, such as regression analysis or Mill’s Method of Difference? Are counterfactual thought experiments a viable means of assessing hypotheses about national and international outcomes, or are they methodologically invalid in principle? The paper addresses the first question in some detail and begins discussion of the second. Examples from work on the causes of World War I, the nonoccurrence of World War III, social revolutions, the breakdown of democratic regimes in Latin America, and the origins of fascism and corporatism in Europe illustrate the use, problems and potential of counterfactual argument in small-N-oriented political science research.” – Jstor.org
- Lebow, Richard Ned. 2007. “Counterfactual Thought Experiments: A Necessary Teaching Tool.” HistoryCooperative.org.
Books at the Library
Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical, Methodological, and Psychological Perspectives. Edited by Philip E. Tetlock and Aaron Belkin.