historical sociology

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The term commonly applied to sociological analysis based on historical data sources—either primary (such as original documents in archives) or secondary (the written history produced by historians themselves). Historical sociologists see social change as a structured process of development but do not accept evolutionism and its view of long-term change.

There has been widespread and sometimes acrimonious methodological debate among historians and sociologists as to the boundaries and relationship between the two disciplines. In the early 1960s E. H. Carr (What is History?) argued that ‘The more sociological history becomes and the more historical sociology becomes, the better for both. Let the frontier between them be kept open for two-way traffic.’ However, Carr's views can be contrasted with those of Charles Wilson (Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge), who used the occasion of his inaugural lecture (in 1964) to observe that ‘the economic historian and historical sociologist have, it seems, never had things so much their own way…There is, I think, no great harm done if they go on talking their latest professional jargon to each other in private; if economic historians prattle of liquidity, variables, or backward sloping curves, or sociologists of motivation, elites and social roles. Provided always that we return to some common plain language which recovers this specialized shorthand for purposes of civilized intercourse and ultimate history’. The less controversial view of most sociologists and historians is probably that aired by Philip Abrams (Historical Sociology, 1980), who argued that ‘history and sociology are and always have been the same thing’, so that any dispute about their relationship to each other was merely a matter of prevailing institutional arrangements rather than one of intellectual substance. History tends to be individualizing (ideographic) and to describe singular or unique phenomena, whereas sociology is generalizing (nomothetic) in formulating theories that apply to categories of phenomena, but this is a matter of emphasis rather than a hard-and-fast principle of method, since (to quote Anthony Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory, 1979) ‘there simply are no logical or even methodological distinctions between the social sciences and history—appropriately conceived’. The common objective of practitioners in both disciplines is a causal analysis of the meaningful behaviour of individuals and groups, with a proper appreciation of process, context, and change.

Notwithstanding these epistemological matters, the major issue confronting historical sociologists relates to the practical difficulties of using primary historical materials as evidence, since (as E. P. Thompson so eloquently put it) we cannot interview tombstones. Such materials include public and private written documents such as official reports, surveys, parish registers, records of organizations, letters, and diaries. Among other things, the researcher needs to establish the authenticity of documents, identifying their authorship and degree of completeness; the credibility of documents, given likely sources of error and distortion, the possible motives of their authors, and the different conditions under which each testament was produced; and the representativeness of the various surviving documentary materials. In other words issues of reliability are especially acute. The question of validity is also to the fore, since few surviving sources were constructed for precisely the purposes which the modern researcher has in mind, so that he or she is usually attempting to establish the meaning of data by reading ‘against the grain’ of the purposes for which they were originally compiled.


Subjects: Sociology.

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