Path Dependence and Historical Materialism

In political science, a form of process tracing known as “path dependence” has often been defined by researchers with different academic backgrounds resulting in unclear meanings that make it difficult for students to understand. While many scholars have properly applied the concept, particularly in case study research, it remains one of the most important theories in comparative politics that seek to outline changes and resistance to changes in institutions of civil society. However, a difficulty arises when applying this concept to research because of the lack of understanding of its complexity that ranges from the study of cost/benefit in economics and the ‘lock-ins’ and predictability in political science and sociology.

A reason for this is that the social concept is a paradox on its own. Tatum wrote,” The concept is based in a rather paradoxical set of circumstances: Increasing returns in complex systems make it nearly impossible to predict which paths institutions will take, and when certain exogenous events will cause fundamental changes in such paths. Yet, path dependence itself is an explanation for why institutions can remain quite stable and predictable” – a catch 22. Not weighing the pros and cons properly may elicit a biased approach to interpreting path dependency may limit a future researcher from collecting the proper data, which can cause a desultory analysis of events and a deviant case study. Nonetheless, by understanding its origins and how its similar characteristics with teleological theories such as Karl Marx’s historical materialism, new researchers are likely to comprehend its sophistication and apply it to academic research particularly in case studies.

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The process of path dependency was conceived in economics but has merged itself in the contemporary study of comparative politics. While the lack of a proper definition is partly due to its complexity and bias in its usage, the proper approach is to start with its conception and ultimately unto its similarities with existing concepts in their respective range of academic research in economic and political science. As Tatum wrote, “The most important defining feature of path dependence is the idea of positive feedback, and increasing returns, which have been controversial subjects since their introduction into economics during the 1980s.

Though other scholars, most notably William Sewell (1996), have suggested that path dependence is simply the idea that prior historical events in a sequence have an impact on future events.” Scholars of path dependency assert that history plays a major role in social science. They hold history in high regard believing that certain events that affected the past are currently hidden (temporally lagged) in the present but will be visible later into the future. While some scholars may agree or disagree on the importance of history, the characteristics of path dependence emphasize how history can be important. As noted by Mahoney, the disagreements revolve around six potentially defining features of path dependence which are, “the past affects the future, initial conditions are causally important, contingent events are causally important, historical lock‐in occurs, a self‐reproducing sequence occurs and a reactive sequence occurs. Scholars disagree about whether and in what combination these six conditions must be present for path dependence to exist. For example, they diverge regarding how many attributes should be included in the definition of path dependence.” These features allow for researchers to develop a standpoint about the importance of history and path dependency by making the meaning of the term see less abstract. Furthermore, some key features of path dependence and critical junctures are evident in teleological most notably in Karl Marx’s historical materialism.

The concept of path dependency in political science and sociology overlaps Marx’s historical materialist interpretation of history by way of its empirical study of social evolution that solicits a unitary and formal stage in the philosophy of history and social science – a concept that is also known as historical institutionalism. Karl Marx was a prominent 19th-century German philosopher, economist, and sociologist that sought to interpret the world from a socio-economic standpoint. He argued that history is a constant class struggle between the proletariat (workers) and the bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) that can only be toppled if workers of the world unite to fight against the rising capitalist mode of production.

This idea can be elaborated in Marx’s historical materialism where the mode of production of a society will determine how it is organized economically. Studying history from the Marxist point of view is known as historical materialism or the materialist conception of history. As mentioned by Engels, “The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent on what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in man’s better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the mode of production and exchange.” Marx developed the materialist conception of history right before the middle of the 19th century and has since then become the first scientific view of history.

Before the discovery of historical materialism, many European philosophers asserted that history was driven by subjective thought which meant that any historical event or the emergence of a social condition was merely the result of an idea put to action in the real world. In essence, it asserts a materialistic perspective of history other than the usual idealistic perspective embraced by many philosophers of history during his time such as Georg Hegel. However, despite that historical materialism, or materialistic dialectics, is a derivative of Hegel’s philosophy of history by way of critique, it negates Hegelian idealism by implying that Hegelian dialectics obscure society from the ‘real’ world of the ideal. Thus, the material conditions of how people view their lives are distorted as a result of certain ideologies that blind them. The Workers Party of New Zealand wrote, “Marx belonged to the materialist school of philosophical thought; that is, he held that being, matter and nature were primary, while thinking, mind and spirit were secondary, derivative.

The philosophical idealists held the opposite view. Thus, the great idealist thinker Georg Hegel who developed dialectics asserted that society was ruled by divine will.” However, the philosophical idealists limit the causality of history as they cannot explain the birth of ideas at a particular time in history by relying solely on what the mind conceives. In this event, a researcher can ask how do social institutions influence the socio-political and economic behaviors of a society. However, Ideas, in Marx’s view, are reflections of the material world. Historical materialism, like historical institutionalism, provides a substantial background to the development of history and social order through thoughts that are modeled and influenced by human social interaction and their environment resulting in people coming together to create social institutions. On the other hand, historical materialism, like path dependency, seeks to meticulously interpret and predict the evolution of society by examining human actions and interactions in a particular social condition/environment influence each other.

Marx noted that social institutions are influenced by the economic forces creating a superstructure that supports capitalism. The application of process tracing to Marx’s theories of class struggles yields significant insights into the development of contemporary institutions and creates logic as it tries to arrange history to understand a scenario in society. Furthermore, Marx’s historical materialism applies critical juncture and path dependency to flesh out its purpose. Marx and Engels’ critical juncture of historical materialism and class struggle is evident in their explanation of the developments of human societies in an evolutionary process commencing from man’s prehistoric days. They mentioned that human labor, one of the most significant aspects of a society’s development, started when apes first realized the difference between their hands and feet. This meant that man realized that the hands were meant to hold the tools that were necessary for the advancement and creation of a society. This significant phase of human evolution was known as the ‘erection gait’ and has thus differentiated man from animal.

As a consequence of labor in prehistoric man, social productivity emerged through man’s need to change his environment which fostered social interactions with each other and created a static social structure. His analysis of how slavery and feudalism sponsored capital to enhance the start of the industrial revolution in the 19th century are examples of path dependency as one event leads to the other for the benefit of the ruling class. However, like path dependency, critical juncture can be divided into the following modes of production: Primitive Communism, Slavery, Feudalism, Capitalism, and Socialism. Each critical juncture gave rise to a process that can be traced and explained using path dependency. As mentioned by Kelemen, “When trying to explain an institutional outcome that derives from a process of self-reproduction and path dependency, it is of course vital to “go back and look” for the genetic moment that launched the process.” Marx and Engels were successful in using critical junctures and path dependency to analyze human development and to create socio-economic theories even before the terms came to existence.

Later Marxist such as Italian Antonio Gramsci, theorized how capitalist socio-economic forces influenced social institutions allowing for domination of the bourgeois over the proletariats in a concept known as cultural hegemony. Cultural hegemony asserts the manipulation of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class through religion, beliefs, norms, values to enforce their ideas as the world view. This event is self-reinforcing and creates a lock-in and positive feedback – halting institutional change in a capitalist society. Therefore, in a capitalist society, path dependency can explain the rarity of changes in institutions that support the socio-economic forces.

Nonetheless, the paradox of path dependency as it relates to “exogenous shocks”, which is the possibility of random events altering the social institutions, also plays a major role in Maxist theories of the fall of capitalism. The probability of any “random event” that can alter the capitalist’s mode of production can be deemed as a flaw of capitalism by Marxist even before the “random event” could be predicted by using path dependency. In essence, path dependence is a form of historical materialism as it is a tool used to, not only predict social outcomes but to identify institutions created by human interactions in a specific condition. In this case, a capitalist society with institutions that support capitalism. However, we can also use path dependency to predict the range of outcomes of institutions in Marx’s communist societies as both capitalism and communism seek to be utopian and universal while disobeying the unpredictability and chaos of “Fortuna”. By following the entire path of these political-economic systems, we can learn from their mistakes and strike a balance.

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Path Dependence and Historical Materialism. (2021, Aug 30). Retrieved from