The Best Training for Any Social Scientist

“I believe the best training for any social scientist is to read widely and deeply in history, choosing works for the intrinsic quality of the argument rather than the importance or relevance of the subject matter. Here are some models: James Fitzgerald Stephen, A History of the Criminal law of England; E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class; G. E. M. de Ste Croix, The Class Struggles in the Ancient Greek World; Joseph Levenson Confucian China and Its Modern Fate; Paul Veyne, Le pain et le cirque; G. Lefebvre, La grande peur; Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic; Tocqueville, L’ancien régime et la Révolution; Max Weber, Agrarverhältnisse im Altertum; Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution; Jean Egret, La pré-révolution française; Denis Crouzet, Les guerriers de Dieu; or Martin Ostwald, From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law (I have stuck my neck out a bit by including some not-yet-acknowledged classics). What these writers and others of their stature have in common is that they combine utter authority in factual matters with an eye both for potential generalizations and for potential counterexamples to generalizations. By virtue of their knowledge they can pick out the “telling detail” as well as the “robust anomaly,” thus providing both stimulus and reality check for would-be generalists.” (Jon Elster, 2007, Explaining Social Behavior)

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