I was thinking about this the other day when I was reading a piece on “path dependence.” This is a term, developed by a pair of economists in the 1980s which has gained broader currency. To me, the concept is just the formalization, in modern social science jargon, of the well-known if less impressive sounding concept of “inertia,” itself a term appropriated from physics and applied to an innumerable list of social/historical phenomenon; both merely being the formalization of common-sense observations that are deeply embedded in all cultures..
To put it in straightforward terms: things change slowly because people think and act habitually. Economists may be disappointed that most folks don’t run cost-benefit analyses on everything they do. They do what they do and think what they think because that’s what they (we) learned from our parents or a older sibling or girlfriend, etc. This may show up in how I perform my daily ablutions, or how I load the dishwasher, or cover cooking pots. And, once I start to shave from left-to-right, I continue to do so, even if I might learn some years later that it would be more efficient to shave top-to-bottom.
The classic example cited by the promoters of “path dependency” is the very keyboard I am using to type up this posting. It’s a standard “QWERTY” keyboard, developed in the 19C to be sufficiently inefficient as to minimize the jamming of manual typewriters. Even after that technology improved, long before many of us learned (kinda) how to text with two thumbs on a small virtual keyboard, it was shown to be inefficient as a means of communications; but, that’s what we all learned, so that’s what we all do (still). The costs of change are too high. The same was said of the US decision not to switch to the metric system in the 1960s. As a result, we spend a lot, directly and invisibly, in dealing with the rest of the world who made the switch. But we DO have Myanmar and Liberia on our side, and we ARE the US of A, so that should be enough justification. “Path dependency” or inertia?
There are two things that I take from this situation. The first is that social science mentality often gets in the way of good history and people’s understanding. The second is a reminder that most of the time, social change, particularly attitudes, change very slowly.
One of my first professors when I started down my current history path, Tony D’Agostino, explained to me that social scientists and historians were two separate breeds. The former start with an elegant mathematical model of human behavior (in economics, psychology, or political science), they then neatly package the available data, plug them into the model and come out with descriptions and predictions. The latter insist that there are few (if any) useful models of human behavior, so all we can do is try to get each story out for consideration without expecting things to line up coherently. Historians agree that it would be great to be able to model human behavior, but that it’s a fool’s errand. Social scientists think historians muck about in the dust way too much and come up with interesting but meaningless stories.
While my own inclinations are closer to social sciences than most historians, I still recoil from the idea of modelling, for example, the ways wars start. I’ve read way too many discussions of flukes and weird personal proclivities to have much confidence that we can come to some profound comprehensive conclusion. Still, as a Historian, I tend to steer away from “path dependency,” and stick with focusing on human habits.
And, as a Historian, I can tell you that there is not much evidence to support the idea of rapid social change. I’m not speaking here of fashion (e.g. hemline location), but, rather, the way people think and the way societies operate. We refer to the French Revolution as one of the great turning points of modern history. However, if you look at the vagaries of French history in the 19C, you can see it actually took until the 1880s (i.e. almost 100 years) to establish a stable republican form of government. Women began agitating for political rights in the US in 1848, but it took 70 years for them to break through the accumulated inertia of male-dominated power structures and attitudes to finally achieve the vote after WWI. That was over a hundred years ago and many women would say that a lot of attitudinal adjustment still lies ahead.
The central struggle of modernity—between rationality and faith—has been going on for hundreds of years and billions of people continue to find the literal word of God (Jesus/J*hweh/Allah) a better guide to understanding the world than the combination of evidence and reason which (if you’ll pardon the expression) God gave ‘em. And, stay tuned, Marx and Lenin might yet still be right about the broad course of human history, even if they missed many specifics and muffed the implementation so far.
Revolutions (whether political or epistemological) are oft proclaimed. Political revolutions are (often) morally imperative. They are also, historically-speaking, usually futile. Things just take a while to absorb. There is change in the world, but when you look at from a little distance and allow the turmoil du jour to settle down, there’s no escaping the power of inertia. The laws of thermodynamics tell us that there is no escape from inertia (even when you call it path dependency).
1 Burke, Social History of Knowledge, p. 14.