Galton's problem

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The Galton problem is named after Francis Galton, the 19th-century British polymath, who became embroiled in a celebrated exchange about the logic of comparative analysis with the anthropologist Edward Tylor. In 1889, Tylor published an article which purported to show clear correlations between the economic and familial institutions of a wide range of past and present societies, and attempted to explain these in terms of their functions. Galton's rejoinder argued that correlations between social institutions might not only arise under pressure of functional exigencies (that is, through processes operating within societies), but also as an effect of cultural diffusion between societies. In this way he questioned Tylor's assumption that each of his national cases represented an independent observation (see the debate in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1889).

This problem of distinguishing between autonomous institutional development on the one hand, and institutional development influenced by cultural diffusion on the other, remains a central issue in comparative macrosociology. For example, it is plausible to argue that the national institutions associated with the emergence of modern welfare states have in different ways been influenced by the examples of the Beveridge Plan for post-1945 Britain, 19th-century Bismarckian social policy in Germany, or the contemporary so-called Scandinavian model. Indeed, some observers argue that the process of globalization, the emergence of the world-system, and policies of certain multinational corporations and political organizations are accelerating and intensifying the effects of cultural diffusion, to the point at which these undermine the very possibility of a comparative macrosociology based on ‘independent’ national observations: we may be moving towards a world in which N = 1.

Empirically, the problems posed for cross-national comparative analysis by processes of cultural diffusion seem to vary across different spheres of social life, being particularly pronounced in the study of economic and social policy (where governments purposively do often emulate each other). Similarly, it is clear that theorists wishing to develop general accounts of rebellion that emphasize indigenous causes must recognize that revolutionaries have everywhere learned from each other, so that (for example) the course of the Chinese revolution was in part shaped by the earlier Russian experience. Elsewhere, however, such as in the study of class differentials in educational attainment, there is evidence to suggest that national variations are in fact largely attributable to processes of social selection which are distinctive to indigenous institutions—despite the apparent cross-national similarities in programmes of educational expansion and reform. It is also possible to model cross-national interdependence into comparative macrosociology, for example by using event-history analysis to study how institutional and policy development is affected both by domestic factors, and by the timing of cross-national influences of particular kinds.

For an excellent discussion of the implications of Galton's problem for the methodology of comparative macrosociology, of both a case-oriented (qualitative) and variable-oriented (quantitative) kind, and of wider problems of theory development and testing in this field, see the symposium in volume 16 of the journal Comparative Social Research (1997). See also comparative sociology; function.

Subjects: Sociology.

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