I've heard history derided as simply "one damn thing after another," and lacking clear policy implications of more predictive social science work. Mack makes clear that careful historical works like Brown-Nagin's are essential for understanding the phenomena that social scientists are attempting to study. In scholarship questioning the role of courts in social change, he writes:
Despite its historical orientation, this particular school of thought has focused more on the question of what the Court can and cannot do as a general matter than on the more contextual question of how blacks and whites actually responded to the Court, and engaged with law more generally, during the civil rights era. The first of these questions is likely to prompt serious interest from political scientists and scholars of constitutional law, while the second is of more interest to historians. That is, a political scientist might ask a question like this: when and how can the Supreme Court be an effective proponent of social change? A historian, by contrast, would ask: how did blacks and whites respond to a world in which Brown had been decided? Historians are committed to explaining what happened in a particular context, while many political scientists are comfortable explaining trans-historical phenomena. This distinction between history and political science can be fuzzy around the edges, particularly for someone like Klarman who can write with considerable historical detail....On questions like whether Brown had an impact on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, "political scientists, and their critics, have argued from a series of predetermined positions on law and social change, and have often mobilized historical evidence with...predetermined positions in view." As a result, "with the exception of a few notable case studies, we still lack a true history of law and social movements during the post-Brown era. Such a history would present an actual account of the interactions between law, direct action movements, and southern white reaction in
the mid-1950s. That is exactly what Brown-Nagin attempts to do." Download the rest here.
Cross-posted on Balkinization.