Initial Conditions as Exogenous Factors in Spatial Explanation

Dissertation, University of Cambridge (2008)
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This dissertation shows how initial conditions play a special role in the explanation of contingent and irregular outcomes, including, in the form of geographic context, the special case of uneven development in the social sciences. The dissertation develops a general theory of this role, recognizes its empirical limitations in the social sciences, and considers how it might be applied to the question of uneven development. The primary purpose of the dissertation is to identify and correct theoretical problems in the study of uneven development; it is not intended to be an empirical study. Chapter 1 introduces the basic problem, and discusses why it has become especially salient in debates concerning uneven development. Chapter 2 develops an argument for the importance of initial conditions in the philosophy of science, developed specifically in the context of the Bhaskar/Cartwright ‘open systems’ (and by extension, ‘exogenous factor’) emphasis on the ubiquity of contingency in the universe and rejection of explanation based on laws of nature (regularity accounts) of causation. Chapter 3 makes three claims concerning the concept of contingency, especially as related to the study of society: 1) that there are eight distinct uses of the word contingency, and its many meanings are detrimental to clarity of discussion and thought in history and the social sciences; 2) that it is possible to impose some order on these different uses through developing a classification of contingency into three types based on assumptions concerning possible worlds and determinism; 3) that one of the classes is a special use of the word without relevance to the social sciences, while the two remaining classes are nothing more than a variety of the ‘no hidden factors’ argument in the debate on indeterminism and determinism (and thus related to the concept of spacetime trajectories caused by initial conditions and the interference of these in the form of ‘exogenous factors’ with ‘open systems’). Chapter 4 The concept of explanation based on initial conditions together with laws of nature is widely associated with determinism. In the social sciences determinism has frequently been rejected due to the moral dilemmas it is perceived as presenting. Chapter 4 considers problems with this view. Chapter 5 considers attitudes among geographers, economists, and historians towards using geographic factors as initial conditions in explanation and how they might acceptably be used, in particular their role in ‘anchoring’ aspatial theories of social processes to real-world distributions. Chapter 6 considers the relationship of the statistical methods common in development studies with the trend towards integrating geographical factors into econometric development studies. It introduces the statistical argument on ‘apparent populations’ that arrives at conclusions concerning determinism consistent with Chapters 2 and 3 of the dissertation. The need for the visual interpretation of data with descriptive statistics and maps and their utility in the study of uneven development is discussed with a number of examples. Chapter 7 applies these concepts to the ‘institutions versus geography’ debate in development studies, using Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson’s 2002 ‘reversal of fortune’ argument as a primary example. Chapter 8 considers possible directions for future work, both theoretical and empirical. Chapter 9 concludes with a discussion of additional possible objections to the use of initial conditions as exogenous factors in explanation.
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