Sunday, October 24, 2010

Historical! Comparative! Complicated!

I read Luker's chapter on historical-comparative methods with great interest because my research topic is historical (early modern) and I, like some others, have been wondering how to do historical sociology.

I am a fan of "building theory," which is the heart of Luker's book and, yes, the heart of her historical-comparative method, perhaps because I was in English literature and I built theories or interpretations about texts out of textual evidence of one kind or another. A notion like "pattern recognition" (190) sounds good to me. However, Luker argues that historical sociology attempts to build theory by identifying particular relationships: either "what events in the past shaped how this turned out in the present?" or "why did things turn out this way in one place and another way in another place?" (191). These questions represent a particular kind of history, one that focuses on causes and effects. They aim to build generalizations.

I want think about my research in relation to her method because I recognize the power of causal explanation to make research seem valuable and important and original. (That's an assumption worth interrogating.) I want to say that certain experiences, represented in texts, influenced the development of certain social and cultural formations. I'm pretty sure they did, but I won't know until I do a lot more research. But what if they merely reflect those formations?



  1. This is definitely a common theme in Luker's discussion of qualitative and interpretative methods - the vestiges of her canonical, quantitative training keep seeping through. If you can use it, great. But there are many other research objectives to strive for, beyond generalizability and causality, that are also perfectly acceptable (and sometimes preferable).

  2. Thank you for the reminder. I should write a post about my tendency to focus on certain methods simply because I've read about them in books about methods! Here's an antidote: if I had to invent a research method without reading any textbooks or articles, what would it be? (Actually, that would be a fun assignment.)

    I forget to include in my original post a point by Peter Burke, the legendary historian. (I think it was Burke. I seem to have lost the reference for this one.) He points out that we tend to see determinism when we look at events from a macro perspective and agency when we look at them from a micro perspective. In order to build a theory causation you have to, at some point, suppress the micro perspective.

    Further, I think that there are legitimate reasons for historians to shy away from building theory, reasons that have to do with the fragmentary nature of historical evidence and not with a fear of censure as Luker suggests. The kind of historical research that Luker promotes seems, well, rather old-fashioned.

  3. Excellent point about the macro/micro - thanks for that :)