I seem to have written myself into an analytical box. So what else is new?
Those of you who have been following my essays will recall that this is the second EXPERIMENT, the second CASE STUDY to test a method, a way of thinking about how societies/groups fail. My sample case studies depend on rigor, as much as this amateur can provide. I’m trying to demonstrate a method of analysis, not necessarily the research itself… though chicken-and-egg comes to mind rather readily. My model was based on a commonly used engineering method. I’m beginning to see that the model is inappropriate.
Let’s have a look at the model again:
- Step One: Determine When, Where and How the Failure Occurred
- Step Two: Collect Information on Similar Cases for Comparison
- Step Three: Identify Social/Economic/Political/Environmental Similarities in Similar Cases
- Step Four: Analyze Each Element/Factor Separately
- Step Five: Compare and Contrast Like You Did as an Undergrad
- Step Six: Stop, Think, and Ask: Does This Make Sense?
- Step Seven: Publish Analysis–and Methodology–and Await Criticism.
Step One feels jumbled and premature in historical studies. Engineers have it easy here: it’s broken; anyone can see that. In history, it’s kinda obvious that the Roman Empire petered out, that Spain is no longer the preeminent world power, that Babylon is now just some ruins over there between where the Tigris and Euphrates are. The when, where and how are three things we’re trying to figure out, thank you.
Step Two seems premature for historical analysis. If Step One is wrong, Step Two can’t be right. Step Three depends on Two…and that’s a problem.
Now, the rest of the steps seem OK, but it’s those first two that seem wrong. But, based on the work I’ve already done, I will submit a new model.
Step One: Define the Failure
In our two case studies so far,
- The Southern Confederacy failed 1) to achieve meaningful and lasting political and economic independence from the United States, and 2) maintain the institution of chattel slavery;
- Germany failed…to what? What was it that Germany tried to do? THAT question is what we need to answer before we analyze the why of their failure.
Now, this is where we’ll probably see a great deal of argument stemming from the “but they…” kind of argument. But what’s essential to our failure analysis model is that the failure we’re analyzing has to be an apparent failure of either a state or a group with a finite timeline. The collapse of the Roman Empire is nebulous by this definition, even if the fall of Constantinople is held to be the end of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire. So are the ends of most empires of antiquity. Failure analysis for them might require different tools.
But for more modern states, such as the Southern Confederacy, modern Germany, France in 1940, and the Soviet Union in 1991, this sort of framework might be helpful. But when it comes to, say, the British Empire (which has yet to admit destruction), such a tool becomes arbitrary.
Whoever said the work of history was easy didn’t have to do it.
Step Two: Determine the Failure’s Indicators
This may not be a straightforward as it seems. How did the failure (or failures) manifest itself (or themselves)? How or when did the state, group, or leadership recognize or admit to the failure(s)? DID they ever admit to failure? Remember, we’re talking about people, policies, polities, and organizations, not machines or systems.
Step Three: Identify the Contributing Social, Economic, Political, Demographic and Environmental Causes of the Failure(s)
States/organizations/polities fail for many reasons. They succeed for the same volume of causes. But while the old saw that success has many fathers and failure is an orphan may feel true, failure can be attributed to causes just as success can.
Just because it feels true, doesn’t mean it is true
National/polity success and failure can have more causes than just “it didn’t work” or “they had a revolution.” Did the polity itself hold the seeds of its own destruction, like a top-heavy organization? Were there external factors that doomed the country, like geography?
Notice that we do not include military causes here. It’s not because we don’t want to consider them, but…look ahead.
Step Four: Identify the Military Factors(s) If Any
What’s important for this analytical tool is that the military factors that CAN BE factors are NEVER the ONLY factors. Military success depends on everything from voting patterns to the number of rivers a country has, to the length of her national borders to its racial/tribal demographics…even male motility (and yes, that matters a great deal). Build a fabulous military organization with thunderous power and pick a fight with a not-so-hot military organization that can absorb your thunderous power, and you could still lose–just ask Japan. But that level of analysis is finite and does not reach back to why the Japanese did what they did the way they did. That’s why military factors should be studied independently of the others.
Step Five: Analyze Each Identified Factor
Isn’t “compare and contrast” the same as “analyze?” I ask ya?
This step needs to stay more or less as-is, primarily because it’s so simple and fundamental to any process called “analysis.” How each factor is analyzed, however, can be daunting. Do we value their impact, or their influence, or their restrictions, or their contributions? Or all of these? How do we weigh each in a balance between the social and the political? Are the economic factors more important than the environmental? How do modern social factors affect contemporary political responses to the contemporary environmental causes of failure?
The analysis is essential, as it can reach the root of the issues that preceded the failure. They are also the most fraught with peril. Tread lightly.
Step Six: Stop, Think, and Ask: Does This Make Sense?
So often in the historical trade, practitioners often proceed with their evidence-presenting and their conclusions without a thought about their method or if their findings actually add up to anything more than an empty set of conclusions. This is sometimes best expressed by the equation:
A+B=C; Therefore D
Evidence that does not support the thesis is to be ignored
Everyone has an agenda, a direction they want their researches to go, at least initially. When the evidence points another way, and you don’t change directions, you stop analyzing and start advocating. My method here might have been flawed, but I’m changing it now. If I continued on the same way as I began to, I’d be advocating, not analyzing.
Step Six: Publish and Duck
History isn’t an exact science; historians can’t just publish and walk away. They often have to defend their work against critics who have looked at the same evidence and reached different conclusions for different reasons. They also have to protect their work who have not looked at the same evidence and are not inclined to do so…but who knows better than YOU do because, well, everyone knows better than YOU because you disagree with them. This plays out nearly every day; let’s face it. So when a scholar publishes his work, and someone looks at a fraction of it and declares it to be wrong, said scholar needs to duck and ignore said critic…if possible. Sometimes, however, critics have all sorts of publishing credits to their name and hold prestigious positions. Argue with them, will you? You’ll never have lunch in this town again.
So, next time I’ll restart the Germany Before 1945 with the question: What Did They Want?
The Past Not Taken
This is a collection of three novellas with the same narrator, location, and a common theme: What If? They are based on fragments of the author’s life, things that didn’t happen to him, people who did something different at crucial moments, and decisions made in different ways for different reasons.
In the spirit of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” these stories look at roads that a young man did not take.
- A budding academic makes a life-changing decision in a split-second;
- A young woman shows up on a doorstep with nowhere else to go;
- A man shows up on the same doorstep with dreaded demands.
Expect to see The Past Not Taken early in 2022.