The scientific limits of understanding the relationship between complex social phenomena: the case of democracy and inequality

Journal of Economic Methodology 23 (1):97-109 (2016)
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This paper outlines the methodological and empirical limitations of analysing the potential relationship between complex social phenomena such as democracy and inequality. It shows that the means to assess how they may be related is much more limited than recognised in the existing literature that is laden with contradictory hypotheses and findings. Better understanding our scientific limitations in studying this potential relationship is important for research and policy because many leading economists and other social scientists such as Acemoglu and Robinson mistakenly claim to identify causal linkages between inequality and democracy but at times still inform policy. In contrast to the existing literature, the paper argues that ‘structural’ or ‘causal’ mechanisms that may potentially link the distribution of economic wealth and different political regimes will remain unknown given reasons such as their highly complex and idiosyncratic characteristics, fundamental econometric constraints and analysis at the macro-level. Neither new data sources, different analysed time periods nor new data analysis techniques can resolve this question and provide robust, general conclusions about this potential relationship across countries. Researchers are thus restricted to exploring rough correlations over specific time periods and geographic contexts with imperfect data that are very limited for cross-country comparisons.
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