Reconciling the General and the Unique Area Studies, Case Studies, and History versus Theoretical Social Science

Comparative Politics (Moscow). 2 (19) / 2015: 5-19.

10 Pages Posted: 20 May 2011 Last revised: 27 Aug 2015

Date Written: September 2014


Should social scientists search for general laws, or is each political event and, case study, and regime so infinitely rich in unique detail that such a search is bound to be futile? This question reappears perennially in debates about the aims and methods of comparative politics. The very idea of a science suggests a focus on generalization. It is thus widely believed that the social sciences must search for general laws. Case studies, historical, and area studies, given the uniqueness of each country and event, thus appear antithetical to the generalizing character of theoretical science. The polarization is no longer as sharp as it used to be. Virtually everything written in recent years about the relationship between area studies and social science acknowledges that each side has something to contribute to the other. But no coherent account has yet emerged of just how to integrated the generalizing spirit of science with the concern for uniqueness inherent in case studies, history and area studies. This article addresses the problem of synthesizing generalization with concern for uniqueness. It first argues that discovery of general laws, although not absent from the social sciences, is of less interest than it is in the natural sciences. Most generalization of what is called theory in the social sciences consists of generalized types of social situations or settings or events. Such contextually limited generalizations may be rough, rudimentary, oversimplified, and over schematized, but they are objective, empirically criticizable, and amenable to comparison with alternative models of the same situation or type of situation. They may be cast at any level of abstraction, from the richly detailed case study to the abstract model of a complex organization, for example. There is continuity across levels of abstraction. The article also shows that much explanation in the natural sciences also consists of such contextually-limited generalizations.

Keywords: general laws, area studies, case studies, history and social science, uniqueness, generalization, cross-cultural studies, ideal type, abstraction, comparison, comparative studies, social science

Suggested Citation

Eidlin, Fred, Reconciling the General and the Unique Area Studies, Case Studies, and History versus Theoretical Social Science (September 2014). Comparative Politics (Moscow). 2 (19) / 2015: 5-19. . Available at SSRN: or

Fred Eidlin (Contact Author)

Charles University ( email )

U krize 8
Prague, 158 00
Czech Republic

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