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Mere Description

  • John Gerring


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.



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Department of Political Science, Boston University (email: 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.



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3 These areas are reviewed briefly in the concluding section of this article.

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5 Indeed, readers who are unwilling to accept my terminological argument will find the rest of this essay bewildering.

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10 One must infer what the outcome of a case might be if were exposed to the counterfactual condition.

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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’.

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37 A more detailed treatment is offered in Gerring, Social Science Methodology, chap. 6.

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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.

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74 For further discussion, see Gerring Social Science Methodology, chap. 12.

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76 Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968)

77 Sen, ‘Description as Choice’.

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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.

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83 Of course, it can never truly be written out since it undergirds all causal analysis and comprises our factual knowledge of the world.

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87 Abdelal, Rawi, Herrera, Yoshiko M., Johnston, Alastair Iain and McDermott, Roseeds, Measuring Identity: A Guide for Social Scientists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

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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), 377399

90 ‘Special Issue: The Statistical Analysis of Political Text’, Political Analysis, 16 (2008), 351–477.

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93 Raleigh, Clionadh, Linke, AndrewHegre, Håvard and Karlsen, Joakim, ‘Introducing ACLED: An Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset’, Journal of Peace Research, 47 (2010), 651660

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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), 529546

97 Gerring, John and Yesnowitz, Joshua, ‘A Normative Turn in Political Science?’ Polity, 38 (2006), 101133

* Department of Political Science, Boston University (email: ). 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.

Mere Description

  • John Gerring


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