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counterfactual explanation

  An extension of the comparative method which seeks to check \'hypothetical reconstructions\' of what might have happened in the past \'against the record of what actually took place\' (Prince, 1971). While there is nothing especially novel about counterfactuals as such — indeed, Cohen (1953) argued that \'the significance of historical fact [is] revealed by asking what might have happened if things had been different\', which would make the construction of counterfactuals intrinsic to historical method — they nevertheless played a prominent part in the so-called New Economic History (or econometric history) in which their supposed success encouraged calls for their formal deployment in historical geography. The emphasis on a formal methodology is important, because what is distinctive about counterfactual explanation in econometric history is its connection with formal model-building: its commitment to \'the efficacy of theory in specifying useful counterfactuals and to quantitative methods in implementing them\' in such a way that they indicate \'the latent tendencies of the system being studied\' (Fishlow and Fogel, 1971): both authors provided classic demonstrations of the method (Fogel, 1964; Fishlow, 1965). While counterfactuals restore an essential contingency to historical eventuation, within this framework their viability depends on the specification of adequate theoretical systems and on the use of sufficiently powerful techniques of simulation or space-time forecasting. But critics have complained that their interpretation is riddled with difficulties, since historical processes are contextual: this means that \'we cannot [readily] decide what we must subtract from the real past\' along with the event or process under investigation, and so we cannot readily decide whether the counterfactual construction is legitimate (Gould, 1969). These difficulties proved so formidable that many historical geographers implicitly endorsed economic historian M.M. Postan\'s claim that \'the might-have-beens of history are not a profitable subject for discussion\'. More recently, however, the rise of postmodernism has underwritten a new scepticism about the possibility of cleaving apart the \'factual\' and \'the fictional\' as cleanly as Gould, Postan and others supposed, and outside the formal frameworks of econometric history there have been several \'thought-experiments\' in the possible outcomes of historical events. (DG)

References Cohen, M.R. 1953: Reason and nature: essay on the meaning of scientific method, 2nd edn. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. Fishlow, A. 1965: American railroads and the transformation of the antebellum economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Oxford: Oxford University Press. Fishlow, A. and Fogel, R. 1971: Quantitative economic history: an interim evaluation. Journal of Economic History 21: 15-42. Fogel, R. 1964: Railroads and American economic growth: essays in econometric history. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Gould, J.D. 1969: Hypothetical history. Economic History Review 22: 195-207. Prince, H.C. 1971: Real, imagined and abstract worlds of the past. Progress in Geography 3: 1-86.

Suggested Reading Gould (1969).



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