Debates concerning the relative role of structure versus agency in explaining social phenomena has endured for decades. Drawing parallels between the teleology of nineteenth century approaches and more modern, variable-oriented research methods, historian WILLIAM SEWELL JR’s 2005 book reflects on the pitfalls of structural thinking, and posits a path forward.

From the book:

“Structure is one of the most important and elusive terms in the vocabulary of current social science. If social scientists find it impossible to do without the term structure, we also find it nearly impossible to define it adequately. The term structure empowers what it designates. Structure, in its nominative sense, always implies structure in its transitive verbal sense. Whatever aspect of social life we designate as structure is posited as structuring some other aspect of social existence. Structure operates in social scientific discourse as a powerful metonymic device, identifying some part of a complex social reality as explaining the whole.

The most fundamental problem in the current use of the term is that it tends to assume a far too rigid causal determinism in social life. Those features of social existence denominated as structures tend to be reified and treated as primary, hard, and immutable, like the girders of a building, while the events or social processes they structure tend to be seen as secondary and superficial, like the skin of a skyscraper. What tends to get lost in the language of structure is the efficacy of human action, or agency. But the notion of structure does denominate, however problematically, something very important about social relations: the tendency of patterns of relations to be reproduced, even when actors engaging in relations are unaware of the patterns or do not desire their reproduction.”

Link to the book.

  • “Most social science research would never get off the ground if we had first to resolve the fundamental questions about being and knowing. Nevertheless, some reflection on the foundations of knowledge is necessary as a preliminary to all research.” Donatella della Porta and Michael Keating reflect on the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of qualitative research. Link.
  • “‘Social change’ is not a general pro­cess, but a catchall name for very different processes varying greatly in their connection to each other.” From Tilly’s Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons. Link.
  • In a 2010 paper, Anna Grzymala-Busse examines the role of time in shaping causality: “When dynamics are conflated with causes, aspects of temporality such as duration, tempo, and timing are invoked as misleading proxies for mechanisms and assumed, rather than shown, to have a causal role.” Link.


Global Sourcing and Input Trade

In her job market paper, PhD candidate in Economics at Vanderbilt University TRANG HOANG models the dynamics of input imports by using a sample of Chinese chemical producers between 2000 and 2006.

From the paper:

“This paper presents and estimates a dynamic, multi-country model of input imports with heterogeneous firms. The model incorporates intra-temporal interdependence across countries, while an inter-temporal link is embedded in the country-specific sunk entry costs. I document a new set of stylized facts about Chinese chemicals producers between 2000 and 2006. Chemicals is an important industry to study for a few reasons. In 2007, China became the world’s second largest chemicals manufacturer. In 2017, China’s chemical industry accounts for $1.5 trillion of sales, equivalent to 40 percent of the global chemical-industry revenue. The chemicals industry accounts for $10.8 billion of US exports and $15.4 billion of Chinese exports that are subject to increased tariffs during the current US-China trade war. The baseline results indicate that source countries are complementary in the sense that sourcing from an additional country increases the marginal benefits of other countries. Furthermore, a continuing importer pays between 7.81% and 27.06% of the average marginal revenue gain, while the average importing cost for a new importer is higher, ranging between 12.87% and 39.75% of the revenue gain of importing from a new source. The existence of interdependence across countries and location-specific sunk costs implies that temporary trade policy changes in one market can have long-lasting externalities on other markets.”

Link to the paper, link to Hoang’s website.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

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  • “The emergency basic income program launched in response to the pandemic distributed checks which were much higher than unemployment insurance or even the Bolsa Familia, but food insecurity increased. Why? Because people were paying off their existing debts.” On Phenomenal World, a transcript of our panel on Brazilian party politics and social policy, with Lena Lavinas, Barbara Weinstein, and André Singer. Link.
  • “The lesson is clear: our policies are only as good as the plumbing that delivers them.” JFI’s Stephen Nuñez and Rachel Black in Business Insider on stimulus checks and how to make America’s cash disbursement infrastructure work. Link.
  • JFI Fellow Michael Pizzi, along with Mila Romanoff and Tim Engelhardt, examines AI in humanitarian action. Link.
  • Mia Gray and Anna Barford find that austerity cuts were twice as deep in England compared to the rest of the UK. Link.
  • José Antonio Ocampo and Gabriel Porcile compare industrial policy in four Latin American countries, using Korea as a benchmark. Link.
  • “We provide the first comprehensive study of the ECB’s advocacy of structural reforms during the period 1999–2019.” By Benjamin Braun, Donato Di Carlo, Sebastian Diessner, and Maximilian Dusterhöft. Link.
  • “Inflation fears and the Biden stimulus: Look to the Korean War, not Vietnam.” By Joseph Gagnon. Link.
  • On federal health financing regimes and responses to Covid-19 in the US, Canada, and Mexico. By Daniel Béland, Gregory Marchildon, Anahely Medrano, and Philip Rocco. Link.
  • New analysis on the impacts of expanded unemployment insurance, by Peter Ganong, Fiona Greig, Max Liebeskind, Pascal Noel, Daniel M. Sullivan, Joseph S. Vavra. Link. h/t reader Omeed M.
  • “We find highly significant differences between low income countries (LICs) where the central bank targets monetary aggregates or inflation compared to LICs that maintain rigid nominal exchange rates.” Alina Carare, Carlos de Resende, Andrew Levin, and Chelsea Zhang analyze monetary policy across 79 LICs from 1990 to 2015. Link.
  • Gregori Galofré-Vilà, Christopher M. Meissner, Martin McKee, and David Stuckler on austerity and the rise of the Nazi Party. Link.
  • “We find that city-level repeal is associated with a 14.7% decrease in homicide rates and a 10.1% decrease in mortality rates associated with other accidents.” David Jacks, Krishna Pendakur, and Hitoshi Shigeoka on the effects of federal prohibition repeal from 1933 to 1936. Link.
  • “The automobile generated a demand for strong, durable gears which was quite unprecedented. Here the technological interrelations between the bicycle and the automobile are particularly clear, since the most important innovator in the grinding of gear teeth was the Leland and Faulconer Company. ‘Faulconer was, in 1899, the first to design a machine for production grinding of hardened bevel gears for bicycles.’ This was the same firm which was later to become the Cadillac Automobile Company. The earliest automobile firms drew very heavily upon the business and technical leadership, plant facilities, and skilled labor of the bicycle industry, the decline in which coincided exactly (in the first decade of the century) with the rapid growth of automobiles.” Nathan Rosenberg on machine tools and technological change. Link.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

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