May 28, 2019

Comparative Historical Research: The Intersection between Sociology and History

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

We’ve written a lot on this blog about the intersection between biography and history, C. Wright Mills’s now classic explanation of the sociological imagination. But beyond individuals’ connections with history, sociologists sometimes venture into the historical study of social phenomena and events in order to identify shifts over time and what social forces may be the cause of change. This is called comparative historical research.

Sociologists who conduct comparative historical research often use methods that overlap with historians’ research, such as using census data and other archived records, historical news clippings, oral histories, written correspondence and other sources of data. When sociologists use historical data, we are often trying to explain macro-level changes in society and have the benefit of time to analyze the causes and consequences.

By contrast, historians are often more interested in looking at the particular details of a given time period to better understand what happened in the past. (For a good description of the differences and similarities, see philosopher Dan Little’s explanation.) Social history, a subfield within history, can be hard to distinguish from comparative historical sociology. Social history is more focused on people’s historical experiences rather than government or political shifts, and like sociology considers the role that broader social forces played in people’s lived experiences.

In “The Practical Effects of Comparative-Historical Sociology,” sociologist Ho-fung Hung explains:

While historians occasionally unearth some forgotten events and peoples, it is often comparative-historical sociologists who rediscover the systemic significance of these recovered events and agencies. The recovery of these silenced voices can shed new light on many contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter.

Hung goes on to explain how sociologists who use this method can create a better understanding of social change that can be “guideposts” for social movements. (See also James Mahoney’s article in Annual Review of Sociology.)

Probably the most famous example of comparative historical research in sociology is The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, by Max Weber, which explores the relationship between religion and the expansion of capitalism in a number of countries over time. Economic sociologists are especially able to glean insights from looking at broad-scale changes over time.

While many comparative historical studies focus on major political or economic changes, this type of research can be smaller in scope. I have conducted two comparative historical studies in recent years that culminated in my books, Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility and Pop Culture Panics: How Moral Crusaders Construct Meanings of Deviance and Delinquency.

Celebrity Culture and the American Dream explores how meanings of the American dream mutated over the course of a century, and how these shifts were expressed through narratives created in celebrity fan magazines. My primary data source were fan magazines dating back to 1911 (yes, my research involved reading magazines—lots of magazines!). This source was supplemented by government-gathered data such as census data, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other official statistics that helped provide some context to understand economic and social changes taking place.

In Pop Culture Panics, I wanted to study the background and historical context of various panics about popular culture during the twentieth century in order to better understand the concerns that often recur about young people and new forms of technology. For this study, in addition to the official statistics from government sources (again, mostly census data but also some FBI data on crime) I relied on historical newspaper stories and magazine articles as data sources.

Delving into the political, cultural, and economic circumstances surrounding panics about things like pinball machines, comic books, and early rock music, we not only can see how social changes led to those panics, but also more contemporary scares about video games and texting.

Thanks to academic databases, it is very easy to search for news stories from last century. Census data and other official statistics are also easily accessible online, so it has never been easier to do comparative historical research. Before all of this content was online, researchers would have to comb through microfiche reels (basically a film with pictures of old newspapers and documents) at the library or travel to special locations where archives are maintained.

When reading the old fan magazines, I did have to read some on microfiche archived at a library operated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Fortunately, this is housed about 15 miles from my home so it wasn’t too difficult to get there. My university also has a vast collection of these magazines, so my research assistants and I could read them at the library. Of course nothing is as convenient as reading something online.

Comparative historical research crosses academic boundaries, linking sociology with history and often disciplines like economics, religious studies, cultural studies, ethnic studies, and many others. What kinds of research questions do you think comparative historical research might address in the future?


Thank you for this. It does give us a broad spectrum on the various disciplines that can be linked to sociology; either academically or economically.

this article is great

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