Sociology Comparative Historical Sociology
by
Monica Prasad
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0009

Introduction

Comparative historical sociology is the branch of sociology that analyzes society-wide transformations, such as social revolutions, the rise of capitalism and the nation-state, democratization, and the birth and transformation of welfare states. At the end of the 19th century all of sociology’s European founders turned to historical explanation to understand the changes that capitalism had brought to their societies, from Marx’s attempt to explain history as the working out of class struggle, to Weber’s investigations into the comparative development of economy and society, to Durkheim’s investigations into the historical development of religion, law, and the division of labor. These early historical arguments were eclipsed, however, by the behavioral revolution and the explosion of statistical tools and techniques of the mid-20th century, which re-founded the discipline as the study of large numbers of individual actors or units. Only when revolutions and social change became increasingly pressing political concerns in the 1960s and 1970s did a large number of scholars once again turn to comparative historical sociology as the form of sociological explanation most appropriate to analyzing changes that occur infrequently or over very long periods, and that affect a society as a whole unit. While the classics of the discipline focus on European history, contemporary scholars are extending the approach to the rest of the world. Current areas of great interest include the question of why China did not experience an industrial revolution in the 18th century, the role of the state in economic development, and the transition to capitalism in eastern Europe. Some think that the study of rare events requires different methods from those common in the rest of sociology, and accordingly a lively methodological discussion is underway in the field. Because there has been great interest in the state as the source of much social transformation, the subfield overlaps considerably with macro political sociology; but comparative historical scholars are also interested in processes of social and economic change beyond the realm of the political.

General Overviews

An excellent starting point is the Mahoney and Rueschemeyer 2003 edited volume, which takes stock of what has been learned to date in what the authors call “comparative historical analysis”—which includes comparative historical sociology as well as comparative politics—and presents a manifesto for the value of the approach, attempting to define a space for it between interpretive approaches influenced by the humanities, and formal modeling approaches influenced by economics. The contributions in Adams, et al. 2005 place a greater emphasis on interpretive traditions and new directions in scholarship and trace the evolution of the field. For an overview of the range of approaches on offer in comparative historical sociology, compare the skepticism toward the “cultural camp” in Mahoney and Rueschemeyer’s introduction with George Steinmetz’s response in Adams, et al. Skocpol 1984, an edited volume, remains the best introduction to the classical tradition of historical sociology, with “second-wave” authors commenting on the classics of the “first wave.”

  • Adams, Julia, Elisabeth S. Clemens, and Ann Orloff, eds. 2005. Remaking modernity: Politics, history, and sociology. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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    Includes an introductory essay placing developments in comparative historical sociology into three historical “waves,” as well as contributions on new directions in historical sociology.

  • Mahoney, James, and Dietrich Rueschemeyer, eds. 2003. Comparative historical analysis in the social sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Features methodological discussions as well as an extremely useful set of essays on what has been learned about social revolutions, social policy, and the origins of democracy.

  • Skocpol, Theda, ed. 1984. Vision and method in historical sociology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    An important assessment of the classical tradition of historical sociology. Leading scholars from the 1980s write on the classic historical sociologists.

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