Clouds and Clocks: Contingency as Causes of Historical Change

Yang Zhang, American University

In comparative historical sociology, cause and contingency are often regarded as two opposite things, like clocks and clouds. Scholars used to compare and identify structural causes of historical change, but over the past two decades there has been a shift of intellectual interest to contingency. In this article, I instead examine how the two are entangled: (how) can contingency be causally significant in historical change? While we no longer need to pit one against another, it is equally unsatisfying to attribute the causes of historical change to arbitrarily chosen contingent events, accidents, or choices, or give different kinds of contingency with identical causal weights. My paper develops a sequential view of historical causation to address the essential components of contingency—conjunctures, chances, and choices—so as to evaluate and compare its causal quality and effects under different circumstances. In so doing, the paper also corrects a radical view of eventful causation, since many seemingly contingent and transformative events are not exogenous shocks but are endogenous to larger structures. Rather than independent causation, both their causes and consequences are better understood as the intersection and interaction of otherwise unrelated event sequences.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 50. Method and Theory on Historical Change I