counterfactual

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counterfactual, counterfactual conditional A proposition which states what would have followed had the actual sequence of events or circumstances been different. Thus, to claim that the Battle of Alamein altered the outcome of the Second World War is to imply the counterfactual that, had victory in the desert actually gone to the defeated German forces, then the Allies would have lost the War.

Counterfactual reasoning is clearly inherent in causal explanation: the identification of a cause implies that, ceteris paribus, in its absence things would have happened differently. It is frequently claimed that any meaningful and falsifilable sociological proposition will necessarily have a corresponding counterfactual. In practice, however, it may be difficult to assess the plausibility of the counterfactual (or ‘conditional’) claim—which can be supported only indirectly by comparative analysis of similar or parallel circumstances elsewhere which (for some identifiable reason) yielded different outcomes.

Many sociological claims (for example those relating to the allegedly functional consequences of certain social institutions) are notoriously without counterfactuals. If the argument is put that the state in capitalist society serves the long-term interests of capital, then it is difficult to see how this statement can be subject to falsification, unless one can specify both what the precise interests of capital are and what would count as evidence of the state acting against these interests. Understandably, therefore, proponents of the more grandiose sociological theories attach little (some would say far too little) importance to the possibilities of formulating counterfactual propositions. See also CLIOMETRICS; COMMUNITY POWER.