This article attempts to reformulate and resuscitate the seemingly prosaic methodological task of description, which is often derided in favour of causal analysis. First, the problem of definition is addressed: what does this category of analysis (‘description’) refer to? Secondly, a taxonomy of descriptive arguments is offered, emphasizing the diversity contained within this genre of empirical analysis. Thirdly, the demise of description within political science is charted over the past century, with comparisons to other disciplines. Fourthly, it is argued that the task of description ought to be approached independently, not merely as a handmaiden of causal theories. Fifthly, the methodological difficulties of descriptive inference are addressed. Finally, fruitful research areas within the rubric of description are reviewed.
Department of Political Science, Boston University (email:
1 Kaplan, Abraham, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science (San Francisco: Chandler, 1964)
2 Sen, Amartya, ‘Description as Choice’, Oxford Economic Papers, 32 (1980), 353–369
Singer, J. David, ‘The Level-of-Analysis Problem in International Relations’, World Politics, 14 (1961), 77–92
Clark, John and Banks, Joseph, ‘Description of an Extraordinary Production of Human Generation, with Observations’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 83 (1793), 154–163
3 These areas are reviewed briefly in the concluding section of this article.
4 Laudan, Larry, Science and Values (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983)
Schaffer, Simon, ‘What is Science?’, in John Krige and Dominique Pestre, eds, Science in the Twentieth Century (Amsterdam: Overseas Publishers Association, 1997), pp. 27–42
5 Indeed, readers who are unwilling to accept my terminological argument will find the rest of this essay bewildering.
6 John Gerring, Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
7 Judea Pearl, Causality: Models, Reasoning, and Inference, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
8 How questions partake of both worlds, which is to say, they can be differently viewed.
9 Stanovich, Keith E. and West, Richard F., ‘Discrepancies between Normative and Descriptive Models of Decision Making and the Understanding/Acceptance Principle’, Cognitive Psychology, 38 (1999), 349–385
10 One must infer what the outcome of a case might be if were exposed to the counterfactual condition.
11 Elster, Jon, Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)
Hollis, Martin and Smith, Steve, Explaining and Understanding International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
King, GaryKeohane, Robert O. and Verba, Sidney, Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994)
12 Dessler, David, ‘Beyond Correlations: Toward a Causal Theory of War’, International Studies Quarterly, 35 (1991), 337–355
13 Wendt, Alexander, ‘On Constitution and Causation in International Relations’, Review of International Studies, 24 (1998), 101–117
Wendt, Alexander, The Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
14 Gelman, Andrew, ‘Describing Descriptive Studies Using Descriptive Language, or the Practical Virtues of Statistical Humility’, Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science (March 2009)
15 Achen, Christopher H., Interpreting and Using Regression (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1982)
16 White, Theodore H., The Making of the President 1960 (New York: Atheneum House, 1961)
17 Morgan, Garethed., Beyond Method: Strategies for Social Research (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1983)
Williams, Malcolm, ‘Interpretivism and Generalisation’, Sociology, 34 (2000), 209–224
18 Contra King, Keohane and Verba, Designing Social Inquiry, p. 34.
19 Gerring, John, Case Study Research: Principles and Practices (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)
20 Berk, Richard A., Regression Analysis: A Constructive Critique (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2004)
21 Jacoby, William G., ‘Levels of Measurement and Political Research: An Optimistic View’, American Journal of Political Science, 43 (1999), 271–301
22 Monty G. Marshall and Keith Jaggers, ‘Polity IV Project: Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions, 1800–2006’, (2007), http://www.systemicpeace.org/polity/polity4.htm.
23 Freedom House, ‘Freedom in the World’ (2010), www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=15.
24 Schattschneider, E. E., The Semi-Sovereign People (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960)
Verba, SidneySchlozman, Kay Lehman and Brady, Henry, Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Life (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995)
25 Putnam, Robert D., Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001)
26 Knoke, David, Broadbent, Jeffrey, Tsujinaka, Yutaka and Pappi, Franzeds, Comparing Policy Networks: Labor Politics in U.S., Germany, and Japan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)
27 Hartz, Louis, The Liberal Tradition in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace, World, 1955)
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 vols (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945)
28 Pocock, J. G. A., The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975)
29 Smith, Rogers M., ‘Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz: The Multiple Traditions in America’, American Political Science Review, 87 (1993), 549–566
30 Bailey, Kenneth D., ‘Polythetic Reduction of Monothetic Property Space’, Sociological Methodology, 4 (1972), 83–111
Capecchi, Vittorio, ‘On the Definition of Typology and Classification in Sociology’, Quality and Quantity, 2 (1968), 9–30
Collier, DavidLaPorte, Jody and Seawright, Jason, ‘Putting Typologies to Work: Levels of Measurement, Concept-Formation, and Analytic Rigor’, Political Research Quarterly, 65 (2012), 217–232
Elman, Colin, ‘Explanatory Typologies in Qualitative Studies of International Politics’, International Organization, 59 (2005), 293–326
George, Alexander L. and Bennett, Andrew, Case Studies and Theory Development (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005)
Wiarda, Howard J.ed., New Directions in Comparative Politics (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1991)
Lenski, Gerhard, ‘Societal Taxonomies: Mapping the Social Universe’, Annual Review of Sociology, 20 (1994), 1–26
Lijphart, Arend, ‘Typologies of Democratic Systems’, Comparative Political Studies, 1 (1968), 3–44
Marradi, Alberto, ‘Classification, Typology, Taxonomy’, Quality & Quantity, 24 (1990), 129–157
McKinney, John C., ‘The Role of Constructive Typology in Scientific Sociological Analysis’, Social Forces, 28 (1950), 235–240
McKinney, John C., ‘Polar Variables of Type Construction’, Social Forces, 35 (1957), 300–306
McKinney, John C., ‘Typification, Typologies, and Sociological Theory’, Social Forces, 48 (1969), 1–12
Nowotny, Helga, ‘The Uses of Typological Procedures in Qualitative Macrosociological Studies’, Quality & Quantity, 6 (1971), 3–37
Smith, Kevin B., ‘Typologies, Taxonomies, and the Benefits of Policy Classification’, Policy Studies Journal, 30 (2002), 379–395
Whittaker, John C.Caulkins, Douglas and Kamp, Kathryn A., ‘Evaluating Consistency in Typology and Classification’, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 5 (1998), 129–164
Wiseman, H. V., Political Systems: Some Sociological Approaches (New York: Praeger, 1966)
31 Samuel E. Finer, The History of Government, Vols. 1–3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
32 Doorenspleet, Renske, ‘Reassessing the Three Waves of Democratization’, World Politics, 52 (2000), 384–406
Huntington, Samuel P., The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991)
33 Some writers define ‘typology’ as having a matrix form. This usage seems more common in settings where the typology is playing a causal role, i.e., where the intersection of two or more attributes explains (causally) the values found in the resulting cells (Elman, ‘Explanatory Typologies in Qualitative Studies of International Politics’). My understanding of a matrix typology does not preclude causal relationships, but it does not presume them either. This is consistent with Collier, LaPorte and Seawright, ‘Putting Typologies to Work’, who use the term ‘multidimensional typology’.
34 Dahl, Robert A., Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971)
35 Collier, David and Jr, James E. Mahon, ‘Conceptual “Stretching” Revisited: Adapting Categories in Comparative Analysis’, American Political Science Review, 87 (1993), 845–855
Lakoff, George, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987)
36 Michael Coppedge, John Gerring, et al., ‘Conceptualizing and Measuring Democracy: A New Approach’, Perspectives on Politics, 9 (2011), 247–267
David Held, Models of Democracy, 3rd edn (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006)
37 A more detailed treatment is offered in Gerring, Social Science Methodology, chap. 6.
38 Hoover, Kevin D., ‘Lost Causes’, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 26 (2004), 149–164
39 Backhouse, Roger E. and Fontaine, Philippeeds, The History of the Social Sciences Since 1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
40 Crosland, Maurice P., Historical Studies in the Language of Chemistry (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962)
Linsley, E. G. and Usinger, R. L., ‘Linnaeus and the Development of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature’, Systematic Zoology, 8 (1959), 39–47
Mayr, Ernst, ‘Origin and History of Some Terms in Systematic and Evolutionary Biology’, Systematic Biology, 27 (1978), 83–88
41 Michell, Joel, Measurement in Psychology: A Critical History of a Methodological Concept (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
42 Duncan, Otis Dudley, Notes on Social Measurement: Historical and Critical (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1984)
43 Lerner, Daniel and Lasswell, Harold D.eds, The Policy Sciences (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1951)
44 Boumans, Marceled., Measurement in Economics: A Handbook (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007)
45 E.g. David J. Bartholomew, ed, Measurement, 4 vols (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2007)
Kimberly Kempf-Leonard, ed., Encyclopedia of Social Measurement, 3 vols (New York: Academic Press, 2004)
Wright, Benjamin D., ‘A History of Social Science Measurement’, Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 16 (1997), 33–45
46 Carmines, Edward G. and Zeller, Richard A., Reliability and Validity Assessment (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1979)
47 Henry E. Brady and David Collier, eds, Rethinking Social Inquiry: Diverse Tools, Shared Standards, 2nd edn (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), pp. 67–82
48 King, Keohane and Verba, Designing Social Inquiry, p. 34.
49 Sobel, Michael E., ‘An Introduction to Causal Inference’, Sociological Methods and Research, 24 (1996), 353–379
50 Schedler, Andreas, ‘The Measurer's Dilemma: Coordination Failures in Cross-National Political Data Collection’, Comparative Political Studies, 45:2 (2012), 237–266
51 Firebaugh, Glenn, Seven Rules for Social Research (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008)
52 Lieberson, Stanley, Making it Count: The Improvement of Social Research and Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)
Gelman, Andrew, ‘Causality and Statistical Learning’, American Journal of Sociology, 117 (2011), 955–966
53 Hamilton, Richard F., The Social Misconstruction of Reality: Validity and Verification in the Scholarly Community (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996)
Lars E. Fyberg, Paul Biemer, Martin Collins, Edith De Leeuw, Cathryn Dippo, Norbert Schwarz and Dennis Trewin, eds, Survey Measurement and Process Quality (New York: Wiley, 1997)
Herrera, Yoshiko M. and Kapur, Devesh, ‘Improving Data Quality: Actors, Incentives, and Capabilities’, Political Analysis, 15 (2007), 365–386
Kurtz, Marcus J. and Schrank, Andrew, ‘Growth and Governance: Models, Measures, and Mechanisms’, Journal of Politics, 69 (2007), 538–554
Munck, Gerardo L., Measuring Democracy: A Bridge between Scholarship and Politics (Baltimore, Md.: John Hopkins University Press, 2009)
Campbell, Stein Rokkan with AngusTorsvik, Per and Valen, Henry, Citizens, Elections, Parties: Approaches to the Comparative Study of the Processes of Development (New York: David McKay, 1970)
54 Bowman, KirkLehoucq, Fabrice and Mahoney, James, ‘Measuring Political Democracy: Case Expertise, Data Adequacy, and Central America’, Comparative Political Studies, 38 (2005), 939–970
Munck, Gerardo L. and Verkuilen, Jay, ‘Conceptualizing and Measuring Democracy: Alternative Indices’, Comparative Political Studies, 35 (2002), 5–34
March, James G. and Olsen, Johan P., Democratic Governance (New York: Free Press, 1995)
Pagden, Anthony, ‘The Genesis of Governance and Enlightenment Conceptions of the Cosmopolitan World Order’, International Social Science Journal, 50 (1998), 7–15
Pierre, Joned., Debating Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)
55 Habitat, UN, State of the World's Cities 2004–2005: Globalization and Urban Culture (New York: Earthscan Publications, United Nations, 2004)
56 Nie, Norman H.Verba, Sidney and Petrocik, John R., The Changing American Voter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976)
57 Apter, David E.ed., Ideology and Discontent (London: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964)
58 Milanovic, Branko, Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005)
59 Bourguignon, Francois and Morrisson, Christian, ‘Inequality Among World Citizens: 1820–1992’, American Economic Review, 92 (2002), 727–744
Weinstein, Michael M.ed., Globalization: What's New? (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005)
Firebaugh, Glenn, The New Geography of Global Income Inequality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003)
60 Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America; Tocqueville, Democracy in America.
61 Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment.
62 Smith, ‘Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz’.
63 Popper, Karl, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (New York: Harper & Row, 1934/1968)
64 Note that in the following discussion I address the generic characteristics of descriptive work; later, I shall attend to differences among descriptive arguments.
65 Resolving membership in the category ‘majoritarian electoral system’ is easier than resolving membership in the category ‘democracy’, just as analysing the cause or effect of a majoritarian electoral system is easier than analysing the cause or effect of democracy.
66 Brown, Michael E., Lynn-Jones, Sean M. and Miller, Steven E.eds, Debating the Democratic Peace (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996)
Elman, Miriam Fendius, Paths to Peace: Is Democracy the Answer? (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997)
67 Buonaccorsi, John P., Measurement Error: Models, Methods, and Applications (London: Chapman & Hall, 2010)
68 Lewis, Jeffrey B. and Linzer, Drew A., ‘Estimating Regression Models in which the Dependent Variable Is Based on Estimates’, Political Analysis, 13 (2005), 345–364
69 Casper, Gretchen and Tufis, Claudiu, ‘Correlation versus Interchangeability: The Limited Robustness of Empirical Findings on Democracy Using Highly Correlated Data Sets’, Political Analysis, 11 (2003), 196–203
70 Weber, Max, The Methodology of the Social Sciences (New York: Free Press, 1905/1949)
71 Collier, DavidHidalgo, Fernando Daniel and Maciuceanu, Andra Olivia, ‘Essentially Contested Concepts: Debates and Applications’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 11 (2006), 211–246
Black, Maxed., The Importance of Language (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962)
72 Heider, Karl G., ‘The Rashomon Effect: When Ethnographers Disagree’, American Anthropologist, 90 (1988), 73–81
Roth, Wendy D. and Mehta, Jal D., ‘The Rashomon Effect: Combining Positivist and Interpretivist Approaches in the Analysis of Contested Events’, Sociological Methods and Research, 31 (2002), 131–173
73 Holland, Paul W., ‘Statistics and Causal Inference’, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 81 (1986), 945–960
74 For further discussion, see Gerring Social Science Methodology, chap. 12.
75 Bourguignon, FrancoisLevin, Victoria and Rosenblatt, David, ‘Declining International Inequality and Economic Divergence: Reviewing the Evidence through Different Lenses’, Economic Internationale, 100 (2004), 13–25
76 Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968)
77 Sen, ‘Description as Choice’.
78 Coppedge, Gerring, et al., ‘Conceptualizing and Measuring Democracy’.
79 I am speaking of what might be called average-quality publications. Publications in top journals are probably more likely to involve some original data collection, whether the arguments are causal or descriptive.
80 Bollen, Kenneth A., ‘Issues in the Comparative Measurement of Political Democracy’, American Sociological Review, 45 (1980), 370–390
Pemstein, DanielMeserve, Stephen A. and Melton, James, ‘Democratic Compromise: A Latent Variable Analysis of Ten Measures of Regime Type’, Political Analysis, 18 (2010), 426–449
Treier, Shawn and Jackman, Simon, ‘Democracy as a Latent Variable’, American Journal of Political Science, 52 (2008), 201–217
81 Lalonde, Robert J., ‘Evaluating the Econometric Evaluations of Training Programs with Experimental Data’, American Economic Review, 76 (1986), 604–620
82 Sartori, Giovanni, ‘Concept Misformation in Comparative Politics’, American Political Science Review, 64 (1970), 1033–1046
83 Of course, it can never truly be written out since it undergirds all causal analysis and comprises our factual knowledge of the world.
84 Donsbach, Wolfgang and Traugott, Michael W.ed., Handbook of Public Opinion Research (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2008)
King, Gary, Honaker, JamesJoseph, Anne and Scheve, Kenneth, ‘Analyzing Incomplete Political Science Data: An Alternative Algorithm for Multiple Imputation’, American Political Science Review, 95 (2001), 49–69
85 Clinton, Joshua D.Jackman, Simon and Rivers, Douglas, ‘The Statistical Analysis of Legislative Behavior: A Unified Approach’, American Political Science Review, 98 (2004), 355–370
Box-Steffensmeier, Janet, Brady, Henry and Collier, Davideds, The Oxford Handbook of Political Methodology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
86 Smithson, Michael and Verkuilen, Jay, Fuzzy Set Theory: Applications in the Social Sciences (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2006)
Verkuilen, Jay, ‘Assigning Membership in a Fuzzy Set Analysis’, Sociological Methods & Research, 33 (2005), 462–469
87 Abdelal, Rawi, Herrera, Yoshiko M., Johnston, Alastair Iain and McDermott, Roseeds, Measuring Identity: A Guide for Social Scientists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
Fearon, James D., ‘Ethnic Structure and Cultural Diversity by Country’, Journal of Economic Growth, 8 (2003), 195–222
Posner, Daniel N., ‘Measuring Ethnic Fractionalization in Africa’, American Journal of Political Science, 48 (2004), 849–863
88 Jonathan Andrew Harris, ‘A Method for Extracting Information about Ethnicity from Names’ (presented to the annual meetings of the American Political Science Association, Seattle, 2011).
89 Sniderman, Paul M. and Grob, Douglas B., ‘Innovations in Experimental Design in Attitude Surveys’, Annual Review of Sociology, 22 (1996), 377–399
90 ‘Special Issue: The Statistical Analysis of Political Text’, Political Analysis, 16 (2008), 351–477.
91 Hegre, HåvardØstby, Gudrun and Raleigh, Clionadh, ‘Poverty and Civil War Events: A Disaggregated Study of Liberia’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 53 (2009), 598–623
Weidmann, Nils B. and Ward, Michael D., ‘Predicting Conflict in Space and Time’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 54 (2010), 883–901
92 King, Gary, ‘An Introduction to the Dataverse Network as an Infrastructure for Data Sharing’, Sociological Methods and Research, 36 (2007), 173–199
King, Gary, ‘Ensuring the Data-Rich Future of the Social Sciences’, Science, 331 (2011), 719–721
93 Raleigh, Clionadh, Linke, AndrewHegre, Håvard and Karlsen, Joakim, ‘Introducing ACLED: An Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset’, Journal of Peace Research, 47 (2010), 651–660
Goemans, Hein E.Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede and Chiozza, Giacomo, ‘Introducing Archigos: A Dataset of Political Leaders’, Journal of Peace Research, 46 (2009), 269–283
Beck, Thorsten, Clarke, George, Groff, AlbertoKeefer, Philip and Walsh, Patrick, ‘New Tools and New Tests in Comparative Political Economy: The Database of Political Institutions’, World Bank Economic Review, 15 (2001), 165–176
Weidmann, Nils B.Rod, Jan Ketil and Cederman, Lars-Erik, ‘Representing Ethnic Groups in Space: A New Dataset’, Journal of Peace Research, 47 (2010), 491–499
94 Goertz, Gary, Social Science Concepts: A User's Guide (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006)
95 Collier, LaPorte and Seawright, ‘Putting Typologies to Work’.
96 Adcock, Robert and Collier, David, ‘Measurement Validity: A Shared Standard for Qualitative and Quantitative Research’, American Political Science Review, 95 (2001), 529–546
97 Gerring, John and Yesnowitz, Joshua, ‘A Normative Turn in Political Science?’ Polity, 38 (2006), 101–133
* Department of Political Science, Boston University (email: email@example.com). This article has benefited enormously from comments received from Robert Adcock, Ben Bishin, Fred Chernoff, Michael Coppedge, Zachary Elkins, Colin Elman, Gary Goertz, Andy Harris, Patrick Johnston, Evan Lieberman, Drew Linzer, James Mahoney, Fred Schaffer, Andreas Schedler, Carsten Schneider and David Waldner. The author is also grateful to Joshua Yesnowitz, who conducted the content analysis for Figures 2–4.
Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.
* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.
Usage data cannot currently be displayed