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Building Reliable Theories of the Presidency


Lawrence R. Jacobs is the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies and director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance in the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute and Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. His most recent books include Class War?, The Unsustainable American State, Talking Together, and The Private Abuse of the Public Interest.


Framing the necessary purpose of theory building as a choice between grand theory or particularism poses two unsound extremes. The application of rational choice has made contributions, but it has also generated conclusions that are inaccurate, duplicative of long-standing and well-known research, and unnecessarily adversarial. The most productive approach to theory building in the study of the presidency relies on “middle-level” concepts and research, producing theoretical extension by climbing the abstraction ladder to identify similarities and sufficient analytic intention to avoid unnecessary declines in precision and accuracy.