Sunday, November 2, 2008

How the calendar matters

It is interesting to consider how the timing of a routine social event can have a major effect on outcomes. Malcolm Gladwell observes that the most talented Canadian hockey players in the NHL are disproportionately likely to have birthdays in the months of January or February in his recent book, Outliers: The Story of Success. Observers of the current US presidential election may speculate that, if the financial crisis of September had occurred in May, the outcome of the election might have been different. The generation of Americans born around 1915 are much like those born around 1945 -- except for the searing experience their generation had of the great depression.

The lesson to be drawn here might seem to be the obvious and trivial one -- context matters in human affairs. Because youth hockey leagues define the age of a player based on his age on December 31, the January children have a major advantage in size and physical development over the November children. And this advantage creates a small headstart that amplifies over time. The fact that the financial crisis of 2008 created a major disadvantage for the McCain ticket less than 60 days ahead of the election made it very difficult for the candidate to recover in the polls. The cohort experience of poverty and insecurity made the 1920 generation much more risk averse than the 1950 generation. So context and the timing of contextual events matters.

But perhaps the importance of the calendar goes deeper than this. In an earlier posting I discussed Victor Lieberman's discovery of an unexpected synchronicity of political change at the far ends of Eurasia, over the course of a millenium. We tried to understand this pattern in terms of hypothetical social mechanisms that might have produced these parallels. But what is striking about the example is not simply the fact that there must have been underlying causal mechanisms; it is that the result is a weakly synchronized system of events -- that is, a system of events with a regular temporal association -- that might never have been noticed.

What this suggests to me is that the social sciences can profitably give more attention to the temporal features of social phenomena -- the simultaneous experiences a group of people would have had in virtue of being part of the same age cohort, the temporal parallels that might exist between the rise of a mass ideology and the sales of particular books, the accidents of simultaneity that have major repercussions decades later. Causal analysis implicitly imposes a temporal structure on events (causes precede effects). But often the research goal is to strip away the particular timing and temporal context, and to treat causal structures purely abstractly. And this means deliberately taking causal pairs out of their particular temporal contexts and comparing them with temporally disconnected alternative examples.

Andrew Abbott takes up some aspects of these issues in "Conceptions of Time and Events in Social Science Methods" in Time Matters: On Theory and Method. And William Sewell's critique of some forms of causal reasoning in comparative historical sociology in "Three Temporalities" in Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation is highly relevant as well.

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