While academic historians generally divide political economy, political history, and social history into three separate fields—the study of markets, the study of the state, and the study of ordinary people and communities—they were irreducibly fused for Davis. He certainly could do political economy with the best of them: I return often to his 1978 review of Michel Aglietta’s A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience (clocking in at 63 pages, and seemingly engaging with the dense Marxist text in its original French), where Davis develops complex arguments about the relations between Keynesianism, monopoly, and class struggle. Early in the essay, however, he points out that despite that moment’s renaissance of labor historiography, “the political economy of workers’ struggles . . . remains for the most part a terra incognita. The underdevelopment of economic history resonates in labor history as the absence of a theoretical level linking class struggles to their structural (partial-) determinants in the accumulation process (as well as, conversely, the absence of a theory of the role of the class struggle in U.S. economic development).” This absence, still felt today, would be the first great challenge he took up; and while he elaborated and extended its implications very far, it defined the entirety of his career.
What distinguished Davis perhaps above all else was his insistence that, while the social world could be—and ultimately had to be—grasped as a unified totality, this totality could at the same time only be understood as a complex system of differentiated parts, each of which in turn had to be comprehended in its own specificity….