Historical comparative research

Historical comparative research is the study of past events and questions using methods in sociology and other social scientific research to inform the possible outcomes and answers to current events and questions. [cite web|url=http://uk.geocities.com/balihar_sanghera/qrmmehrigiulhistoricalresearch.html |title=Historical Research |accessdate=2007-11-27] Beginning in the late 1950’s, the discipline of history became more linked with sociology. Eventually historical sociology was accepted as a more concrete perspective during the 1970’s. [cite web|url=http://www.cas.sc.edu/socy/faculty/deflem/zhistory.htm |title="On the Methodology of Historical Sociology: Scattered Notes." By Mathieu Deflem |accessdate=2007-11-27] Historical investigations are based on the remnants of the past called historical material, which include official documents, diaries and much more as is discussed below. Comparative sociology on the other hand, specifically looks at sociology across regions or nations. Historical comparative sociology differs from historical sociology by focusing only on three main issues. These issues are causal relationships, processes over time, and comparisons. It does not allow interpretive approaches, which historical sociology may favor in certain occasions.cite book|last=Mahoney, |first=J |coauthors=Rueschemeyer, D. |date=2003 |title=Comparative historical analysis of the social sciences |location=Cambridge |publisher=Cambridge University Press]

Major researchers

Leading historical-comparative sociologist in America during the mid-1960s into the 1980s, predominantly Barrington Moore, Jr., Charles Tilly and Theda Skocpol based their "theoretical insights" on Karl Marx, Weber and even Alexis de Tocqueville over Durkheim. Durkheim's work has important contributions to historical-comparative research despite being looked over and dismissed, historically, in relation to this field.cite book|last=Emirbayer |first=M. |date=1996 |title=Useful Durkheim. Sociological Theory |publisher=American Sociological Association] Scholars suggests that Durkheims work on civil society, analyses of the family, schooling, professional bodies and the public sphere aid historical-comparative sociology and his work overall "sheds light" on some of the recurring issues in this field.

Max Weber defined the early development of historical comparative research with his broad ranging comparisons of religious and economic systems around the world. For example, one of his most famous works examines the cultural differences between China and that of Western Europe. Other examples of his work and comparisons of religions including Hinduism, and Ancient Judaism. He propositioned that Protestantism has "The Spirit of Capitalism". More recent major figures include Barrington Moore whose work on the origins of different types of states inspired, notably by Theda Skocpol major book on states and social revolutions. That research inspired some of the major substantive and methodological debates in historical research during recent decades. More recently, researchers including; Theda Skocpol, Somers, Kiser and Hechter have argued about the theoretical basis of explanation in historical comparative research.


There are four major methods that researchers use to collect historical data. These are archival data, secondary sources, running records, and recollections. The archival data, or primary sources, are typically the resources that researchers rely most heavily on. Archival data includes official documents and other items that would be found in archives, museums, etc. Secondary sources are the works of other historians who have written history. Running records are “documentaries maintained by private or non profit organizations.” Finally recollections include sources such as autobiographies, memoirs or diaries. [cite web|url=http://faculty.ncwc.edu/toconnor/308/308lect09.htm |title=UNKNOWN |accessdate=2007-11-27]

There are four stages, as discusses by Schutt, to systematic qualitative comparative historical studies; (1) Development of the premise of the investigation, identifying events/concepts, etc that may explain the phenomena; (2) Choose the case(s) (location- nation, region) to examine (3) Using what Theda Skocpol has termed as "interpretive historical sociology" and examine the similarities and the differences; (4) finally based on the information gathered propose a casual explanation for the phenomena.cite book|last=Schutt |first=R. K. |date=2006 |title=Investigating the Social World: The Process and Practice of Research |location=London |publisher=SAGE Publications]

The key issues in methods for historical comparative research stem from the incomplete nature of historical data, the complexity and scale of the social systems, and the nature of the questions asked. Historical data is a difficult set of data to work with due to multiple factors. This data set can be very biased, such as diaries, memoirs, letters, which are all influenced not only by the person writing them, that persons world view but can also, logically, be linked to that individuals socioeconomic status. In this way the data can be corrupt/skewed. Historical data regardless or whether it may or may not be biased (diaries vs. official documents) is also vulnerable to time. Time can destroy fragile paper, fade ink until it is illegible, wars, environmental disasters can all destroy data and special interest groups can destroy mass amounts of data to serve a specific purpose at the time they lived, etc. Hence, data is naturally incomplete and can lead social scientists to many barriers in their research. Often historical comparative research is a broad and wide reaching topic such as how democracy evolved in three specific regions. Tracking how democracy developed is a daunting task for one country or region let alone three. Here the scale of the social system, which is attempting to be studied, is overwhelming but also the complexity is extreme. Within each case there are multiple different social systems that can effect the development of a society and its political system. The factors must be separated and analyzed so that causality can be attained. It is causality that brings us to yet another key issue in methods for historical comparative research, the nature of the questions which are asked are attempting to propose causal relationships between a set of variables. Determining causality alone is a difficult task; coupled with the incomplete nature of historical data and the complexity and scale of the social systems being used to examine causality the task becomes even more challenging.

Identifying features

The three identifying issues of historical comparative research are causal relationships, processes over time, and comparisons. As mentioned above causal relationships are difficult to support although we make causal assumptions daily. Schutt discusses the five criteria, which must be met in order to have a causal relationship. Of the five the first three are the most important: association, time order and nonspuriousness. Association simply means that between two variables; the change in one variable is related to the change in another variable. Time order refers to the fact that the cause (the independent variable) must be shown to have occurred first and the effect (the dependent variable) to have occurred second. Nonspuriousness says that the association between two variables is not because of a third variable. The final two criteria are; identifying a causal mechanism- how the connection/association among variables is thought to have occurred- and the context in which this association occurs. The deterministic causal approach requires that in every study, the independent and dependent variable have an association, and within that study every case (nation, region) the independent variable has an effect on the dependent variable.

John Stuart Mill devised five methods by which people are able to systematically analyze their observations and make more accurate assumptions about causality. Mill's Methods discusses; direct method of agreement, method of difference, joint method of agreement and difference, method of residues and method of concomitant variations. Some issues with this aspect of historical comparative research are that the Mill's methods are typically the most useful when the causal relationship is already suspected and can therefore be a tool for eliminating other explanations. [cite web|url=http://www.philosophypages.com/lg/e14.htm |title=UNKNOWN |accessdate=2007-11-27] . Mill's methods simply cannot provide proof that the variation in one variable was caused by the variation of another variable.

Something about each of these three. How do we tell when we have sufficient evidence to impute a causal relationship? How best can we model processes unfolding over time? On what basis can we identify appropriate comparisons?


There are several difficulties that historical comparative research faces. James Mahoney, one of the current leading figures in historical comparative research, identifies several of these in his book "Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences." Mahoney highlights key issues such as how micro level studies can be incorporated into the macro level field of historical comparative research, issues ripe for historical comparative research that continue to remain overlooked, such as law, and the issue of whether historical comparative research should be approached as a science or approached as a history. This is one of the more prevalent debates today, often debated between Theda Skocpol, who sides with the historical approach, and Kiser and Hechter, who are proponents of the scientific view that should search for general causal principles. Both Kiser and Hechter employ models within Rational Choice Theory for their general causal principles. Historical researchers that oppose them (Skocpol, Summers, others) argue that Kiser and Hechter do not suggest many other plausible general theories, and thus it seems as though their advocacy for general theories is actually advocacy for their preferred general theory. They also raise other criticisms of using RCT in historical comparative research. [cite web|url= |title=UNKNOWN |accessdate=2007-11-27]

Role of general theory

In recent decades historical comparative researchers have debated the proper role of general theory. Two of the main players in this debate have been Edgar Kiser and Michael Hechter. They have argued that it is important to use a general theory in order to be able to test the results of the research that has been conducted. They do not argue that one specific theory is better than the other just that a theory needs to be used. Their chosen theory is rational choice. One of the main problems is that everyone has a different concept of what a theory is and what makes something a theory. Some of their opponents feel that any theory can be tested and they are arguing that some can not be. Kiser and Hecter do acknowledge that this is a growing field and that their perspective may change in the future.


Other reading

*Kiser, E. & Hechter, M. (1998) "The Debate on Historical Sociology: Rational Choice Theory and Its Critics." [http://www.library.ohiou.edu:5334/ehost/pdf?vid=5&hid=4&sid=68325436-e2a7-49a3-af79-64a14dccafd6%40sessionmgr3] American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 104 Issue 3, p785-816, 32p; (AN 2147972)

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