Frameworks for Analysis

Week 2

Key Frameworks and tools for analysis: Political, economic, and social

Clark, G. (2008). A farewell to alms: a brief economic history of the world. Princeton University Press. (from chapter 1, a 16 page economic history of the world). Note the two lines from 1900 on.


This week we will review alternative frameworks and tools for thinking about political, economic and social development. A conceptual framework is a way to organize ideas. Political, economic, and sociological thinking have evolved different ways of organizing ideas related to development, but they overlap in important ways, which we seek to identify. A tool is a device used to carry out a particular function, so a correlation and a multiple regression analysis are both tools for determining the relationships between variables. Tools are employed in the context provided by a conceptual framework.


The most common frameworks for organizing ideas are lateral and hierarchical. For example, the concept of a number of states, or a group of markets for different commodities are both lateral frameworks. The concept of individuals within communities within states within a global system is an hierarchical framework. Other common frameworks except within each of the major academic disciplines, which become increasingly specialized over time (Abbott, 2001).


Our three primary texts put political systems (Bobbitt), economic systems (Polanyi), and social systems (Putnam) in the foreground, although each acknowledges the importance of the other, and each is less discipline-bound than many of the major texts.


We will spend some time talking about systems and causality in the social social sciences.


World Systems Analysis (WSA) is a framework for studying international relations and political economy, developed by Immanuel Wallerstein (1974, 2004).  It offers a critique of thinking confined to the boundaries of individual social science disciplines, and we’ll explore the major structures of WSA: the state system; the core-periphery division of labour; and the structure of capital accumulation. These are, respectively, political, social, and economic structures which Wallerstein and the WSA theorists see as mutually reinforcing.


At about the same time that Immanuel Wallerstein and his colleagues were exploring world systems analysis from a political-economic-social perspective, Donella Meadows and a group associated with the Club of Rome were exploring ecological and environmental constraints in systems terms (Meadows et al, 1972). Thirty- and forty-year retrospectives on this work abound, but one of the lasting contributions was systems thinking, summarized readably and succinctly in Meadows’ posthumously published primer for systems thinking (Meadows, 2008). Systems thinking is very important for policy-makers and strategic planners, because all the problems we deal with are “wicked problems” and risk the creation of social messes when we try to change one variable without reference to others (Ritchey, 2011).


We will return to an overview of the three texts, and consider the conceptual framework employed by each, the primary sources of data (information) on which each builds, and the methods (tools) used by each construct their arguments.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Understand competing definitions of political, economic, and social phenomena from social science perspective
  • Understand the concept of academic discipline and its implications for study in the social sciences
  • Apply a critical understanding of sources and methods derived from prior study to an overview of the primary texts

Required Reading

  • Skim each text in its entirety. Begin with the table of contents – what is the book about?  How is it structured?  What is in each of the major parts?
  • Look at the references and footnotes.  On what primary data do the books’ conclusions rest?  How were these data collected?
  • Skim the introductions and conclusions of each text, particularly the sections in which the authors describe what they are trying to do. In Bobbitt, review plates I to V, and relate them to the outline of the book.
  • Find and read at least one review of each text. What does that tell you that you didn’t learn from skimming the book.

Optional Reading

Look for reviews and reports of the references online.


For this week’s seminar, have some thoughts about each of your written assignments, and consider the merits of the analytical paper vs. the final exam. We will make a decision about one or the other.

Self-Assessment Questions

1. Give an example of a physical system, and describe how systems thinking helps us to understand relationships that study of isolated parts will not.

2. Give an example of a system of human relationships, and describe how systems thinking can be applied to it.


The seminar this week will consider the questions raised in the required reading, the self-assessment questions, your thoughts on the assignment, and the issue of the final paper or exam (40%).


(As of week 2, we are leaning towards a take-home exam rather than a major paper.)

David Last, updated September 2014, lastdav@gmail.com