Research Methods STA630
HISTORICAL COMPARATIVE RESEARCH
History has several meanings; one of which could refer to `the events of the past.' Historiography is
the method of doing historical research or of gathering and analyzing historical evidence.
Historical-comparative research is a collection of techniques and approaches. It is a distinct type of
research that puts historical time and /or cross-cultural variation at the center of research that is, which
treats what is studied as part of the flow of history and situated in cultural context.
Historical comparative research is a powerful method for addressing big questions: How did major
societal change take place? What fundamental features are common to most societies? Why did current
social arrangements take a certain form in some societies but not in others? For example, historical-
comparative researchers have addressed the questions of what caused societal revolutions in china,
France, and Russia; how major social institutions, medicine, have developed and changed over two
centuries; how basic relationships, like feelings about the value of children, change; why public policy
toward the treatment of elderly developed in one way instead of another way in an industrial country;
why South Africa developed a system of greater racial separation as the United States moved toward a
greater racial integration.
Historical-comparative research is suited for examining the combination of societal factors that produce
a specific outcome (e.g., civil war). It is also appropriate for comparing entire social system to see what
is common across societies and what is unique, and to study long term change. An H-C researcher may
apply a theory to specific cases to illustrate its usefulness. And he or she compares the same social
processes and concepts in different cultural or historical contexts.
Researchers also use H-C method to reinterpret data or challenge old explanations. By asking different
questions, finding new evidence, or assembling evidence in a different way, the H_C researcher raises
questions about old explanations and finds support for new ones by interpreting the data in its cultural-
Historical-comparative research can strengthen conceptualization and theory building. By looking at
historical events or diverse cultural contexts, a researcher can generate new concepts and broaden is or
her perspective. Concepts are less likely to be restricted to a single historical time or to a single culture;
they can be grounded in the experiences of people living in a specific cultural and historical context.
Historical-Comparative research focuses on:
· Tracing the development of social forms (patterns) overtime as well as its broad its broad
historical processes, and
· Comparing those forms and its developmental processes across cultures (countries/nations).
Historical-Comparative research follows scientific approach:
Can be a survey of events in history could be through the study of documents.
Organizations generally document themselves, so if one is studying the development of some
organization he/she should examine its official documents: charters, policy statements, speeches
by the leaders, and so on. Often, official government documents provide the data needed for
analysis. To better appreciate the history of race relations in the United States on e could
examine 200 years of laws and court cases involving race.
One could also do the communication analysis of different documents related to a particular
issue (like the communication among the leaders of Pakistan movement through their letters,
Research Methods STA630
communication between the migrants to a new country and their relatives back in their country
Researcher could also get lot of information by interviewing people who may recall historical
events (like interviewing participants in the Pakistan movement).
Historical-Comparative researchers mostly do a longitudinal analysis i.e. look into the
developmental processes of the issues under reference.
Historical Comparative researchers make cross-cultural comparisons of the social forms or
economic form as well as the developmental processes of those forms, aiming at making
Social forms: Several researchers have examined the historical development of ideas about different
forms of society. The have looked at the progression of social forms from simple to complex, from
rural, from rural-agrarian to urban-industrial. The US anthropologist Lewis Morgan, for example, saw a
progression from "savagery to "barbarism" to "civilization." Robert Redfield, another anthropologist,
has more recently written of a shift from "folk society" to "urban society." Emile Durkheim saw social
evolution largely as a process of ever-greater division of labor. Ibn-e-Khaldun looked at the cyclical
process of change in the form of societies from nomadic (Al-badawi) to sedentary (Al-hadari). These
researchers discuss the forces that produce changes as well as the characteristics of each form of society.
The historical evidence collected by researchers from different sources about different societies supports
the whole discussion.
Forms of economic systems: Karl Marx examined the forms of economic systems progressing
historically from primitive to feudal to capitalistic. All history, he wrote in this context, was a history of
class struggle the "haves" struggling to maintain their advantages and the "have-nots" struggling for a
better lot in life. Looking beyond capitalism, Marx saw the development of a `classless" society. In his
opinion the economic forces have determined the societal system.
Not all historical studies in the social sciences have had this evolutionary flavor. Some social scientific
readings of the historical record, in fact point to grand cycles rather than to linear progression (Ibn-e-
Khaldun, P. Sorokin).
Economic forms and ideas: In his analysis of economic history, Karl Marx put forward a view of
economic determinism. That is, he felt that economic factors determined the nature of all other aspects
of society. Without denying that economic factors could and did affect other aspects of society, Max
Weber argued that economic determinism did not explain everything. Indeed, Weber said, economic
forms could come from non-economic ideas. In his research in the sociology of religion, Weber
examined the extent to which religious institutions were the source of social behavior rather than mere
reflection of economic conditions. His most noted statement of this side of the issue is found in The
Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. John Calvin, a French theologian, was an important figure
in the Protestant reformation of Christianity. Calvin thought that God had already decided the ultimate
salvation or damnation of every individual; this idea is called predestination. Calvin also suggested that
God communicated his decisions to people by making them either successful or unsuccessful during
their earthly existence.
God gave each person an earthly "calling" an occupation or profession and manifested his or her
success or failure through that medium. Ironically, this point of view led Calvin's followers to seek
proof of their coming salvation by working hard, saving for economic success.
In Weber's analysis, Calvinism provided an important stimulus for the development of capitalism.
Rather than "wasting" their money on worldly comforts, the Calvinists reinvested it in economic
enterprises, thus providing the capital necessary for the development of capitalism. In arriving at this
interpretation of the origin of capitalism, Weber researched the official doctrines of the early Protestant
churches, studied the preaching of Calvin and other church leaders, and examined other historical
Research Methods STA630
In three other studies, Weber conducted detailed analyses of Judaism, and the religions of China and
India. Among other things, Weber wanted to know why capitalism had not developed in the ancient
societies of China, India, and Israel. In none of the three religions did he find any teaching that would
have supported the accumulation and reinvestment of capital strengthening his conclusion about the
role of Protestantism in that regard.
Logic of Historical-Comparative Research
Confusion over terms reigns H_C research. Researchers call what they do historical, comparative or
historical-comparative, but mean different things. The key question is: Is there a distinct historical-
comparative method and logic, or is there just social research that happens to examine social life in the
past or in several societies? Some researchers use positivist, quantitative approach to study historical or
comparative issues, while others rely on qualitative approach.
Quantitative approach: Positivist researchers reject the idea that there is a distinct H-C method. They
measure variables, test hypotheses, analyze quantitative data, and replicate research to discover
generalizable laws that hold across time and societies. They see no fundamental distinction between
quantitative social research and historical-comparative research. They apply quantitative research
techniques, with some minor adjustments, to study the past or other cultures.
· The researcher can focus on the issue in one society few societies or multiple societies.
· The researcher can focus on the issue in one time in the past or examine the issue across many
years/periods in the past.
· The researcher can focus on the issue in the present or a recent past period.
· The researcher's analysis could be based primarily on quantitative data or qualitative data.
· Nevertheless, the debate continues.
H-C researchers sometimes use time-series data to monitor changing conditions over time, such as data
on population, crime rates, unemployment, infant mortality rates, and so forth. The analysis of such data
sometimes requires sophistication for purposes of comparability. In case the definitions of the concept
vary, it becomes difficult to make comparisons. The definitions not only could vary across nations but
also these could vary within the same country over time (In Pakistan the definition of literacy changed
from what it was in first population census of 1951 and what we had later on).
There are no easily listed steps to follow in the analysis of historical data. Max Weber used the German
term verstehen "understanding" in reference to an essential quality of research in behavioral
sciences. He meant that the researcher must be able to take on, mentally, the circumstances, views, and
feelings of those being studied to interpret their actions appropriately.
The historical-comparative researcher must find patterns among the voluminous details describing the
subject matter of study. Often this takes the form of what Weber called ideal types: conceptual models
composed of the essential characteristics of the phenomena. Thus, for example, Weber himself
conducted lot of research on bureaucracy. Having observed numerous bureaucracies, Weber detailed
those qualities essential to bureaucracies in general: jurisdictional areas, hierarchically structured
authority, written files, and so on. Weber did not merely list those characteristics common to all
bureaucracies he observed. Rather, he needed to understand fully the essentials of bureaucratic
operation to create a theoretical model of the "perfect" (ideal type) bureaucracy.
A distinct, qualitative historical-comparative research differs from the positivist approach. Historical-
comparative researchers who use case studies and qualitative data may depart from positivist approach.
Their research is an intensive investigation of a limited number of cases in which the social meaning
and context are critical. Case studies even in one nation, can be very important. Without case studies,
scholars "would continue to advance theoretical arguments that are inappropriate, outdated, or totally
irrelevant for a specific region".
Research Methods STA630
Historical-comparative researcher focuses on culture (patterns of behavior), tries to see through the eyes
of those being studied, reconstructs the lives of the people studied, and examines particular individuals
A distinct H-C approach borrows from ethnography and cultural anthropology, and some varieties of H-
C are close to "thick description" in their attempt to recreate the reality of another time or place.
A Distinct Historical-Comparative Approach
A distinct historical-comparative research method avoids the excesses of the positivist and interpretive
approaches. It combines sensitivity to specific historical or cultural contexts with theoretical
generalization. Historical-comparative researches may use quantitative data to supplement qualitative
data and analysis. The logic and goals of H-C research are closer to those of field research than to those
of traditional positivist approaches.
Similarities to Field Research:
First, both H-C research and field research recognize that the researcher's point of view is an avoidable
part of research. Both involve interpretation, which introduces the interpreter's location in time, place,
and world-view. H-C research does not try to produce a single, unequivocal set of objective facts.
Rather, it is a confrontation of old with new or different world-views. It recognizes that the researcher's
reading of historical or comparative evidence is influenced by an awareness of the past and by living in
the present. Our present day consciousness of history is fundamentally different from the manner in
which the past appeared to any foregoing people.
Second, both field and H-C research examine a great diversity of data. In both, the researcher becomes
immersed in data to gain an emphatic understanding of events and people. Both capture subjective
feelings and note how everyday, ordinary activities signify important social meaning. The researcher
inquires, selects, and focuses on specific aspects of social life from the vast array of events, actions,
symbols, and words. An H-C researcher organizes data and focuses attention on the basis of evolving
concepts. He or she examines rituals and symbols and dramatize culture and investigates the motives,
reasons, and justifications for behaviors.
Third, both field and H-C researchers often use grounded theory. Theory usually emerges during the
process of data collection. Both examine data without beginning with fixed hypotheses. Instead, they
develop and modify concepts and theory through a dialogue with the data, then apply theory to
reorganize evidence. [Historically grounded theory means that concepts emerge from the analytic
problem of history: ordering the past into structures, conjectures and events. History and theory can
thus be simultaneously constructed.]
Fourthly, both field and H-C research involve a type of translation. The researcher's meaning system
usually differs from that of people he or she studies, but he or she tries to penetrate and understand their
point of view. Once the life, language, an perspective of the people being studied have been mastered,
the researcher "translates" it for others who read his or her report.
Fifth, both field and H-C researchers focus on action, process, and sequence and see time process as
essential. Both say that people construct a sense of social reality through actions that occur over time.
Both see social reality simultaneously as something created and changed by people and as imposing a
restriction on human choice.
Sixth, generalizations and theory are limited in field and H-C research. Historical and cross-cultural
knowledge is incomplete and provisional, based on selective facts and limited questions. Neither
deduces propositions or tests hypotheses in order to uncover fixed laws. Likewise replication is
unrealistic because each researcher has a unique perspective and assembles a unique body of evidence.
Instead, researchers offer plausible accounts and limited generalizations.
Research Methods STA630
Unique Features of H-C Research: Despite its many similarities to field research, some important
differences distinguish H-C research. Research on past and on an alien culture share much in common
with each other, and what they share distinguishes them from other approaches.
First, the evidence of H-C research is usually limited and indirect. Direct observation and involvement
by a researcher is often impossible. A H-C researcher reconstructs what occurred from the evidence, but
he or she cannot have absolute confidence in his reconstruction. Historical evidence in particular
depends on the survival of data from the past, usually in the form of documents (e.g., letters and
newspapers). The researcher is limited to what has not been destroyed and what leaves a trace, record,
or other evidence behind.
Second, H-C researchers interpret the evidence. Different people looking at the same evidence often
ascribe different meanings to it, so a researcher must reflect on evidence. An understanding of it based
on a first glance is rarely possible. The researcher becomes immersed in and absorbs details about a
context. For example, a researcher examining the family in the past or a distant country needs to be
aware of the full context (e.g., the nature of work, forms of communication, transportation technology,
Another feature is that a researcher's reconstruction of the past or another culture is easily distorted.
Compared to the people being studied, H-C researchers is usually more aware of events occurring prior
to the time studied, events occurring in places other than the location studied, and events that occurred
after the period studied. This awareness gives the researchers a greater sense of coherence than was
experienced by those living in the past or in an isolated social setting. Historical explanation surpasses
any understanding while events are still occurring. The past we reconstruct is more coherent than the
past when it happened.
A researcher cannot see through the eyes of those being studied. Knowledge of the present and changes
over time can distort how events, people, laws, or even physical objects are perceived. When the
building was newly built (say in 1800) and standing among similar buildings, the people living at the
time saw it differently than people do in the 21st century.
H-C researcher does not use deterministic approach. H-C research takes an approach to causality that is
more contingent than determinist. A H-C researcher often uses combinational explanations. They are
analogous to a chemical reaction in which several ingredients (chemicals, oxygen) are added together
under specified conditions (temperature, pressure) to produce an outcome (explosion). This differs from
a linear causal explanation. H-C research focuses on whole cases and on comparisons of complex
wholes versus separate variables across cases. The logic is more "A, B, and C appeared together in time
and place, then D resulted" than "A caused B, and B caused C, and C caused D."
H-C researcher has the ability to shift between a specific context and a generalized context for purposes
of comparison. A researcher examines several specific contexts, notes similarities and differences, then
generalizes. He or she looks again at the specific context using the generalization. H-C researchers
compare across cultural-geographic units. They develop trans-cultural concepts for purposes of
comparative analysis. In comparative research, a researcher translates the specifics of a context into a
common, theoretical language. In historical research theoretical concepts are applied across time.
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