Comparative Historical Sociology Research Paper

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A subfield of sociological works exists, often grouped together under the name “comparative historical sociology” (CHS). These are the works of a sociology that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, partially in response to perceived shortcomings of functionalism and crude Marxism, and partially as a return to classical sociological questions regarding the apparent contradictions and problems of modernity itself. Although a “comparative” approach is used in virtually all branches of social scientific inquiry, within CHS it has largely followed the works of Karl Marx and Max Weber with regard to the comparison of macrounits of analysis—the state, social class, capitalism, and culture. Its themes and major practitioners are well known; examples include Wallerstein’s (1974) study of the modern world-system, Moore’s (1966) study of democracies and dictatorships, Skocpol’s (1979) study of revolutions, and Mann’s (1986, 1993) study of the origins of social power. Although these names are not exhaustive, they are representative of a sociology that relies explicitly on the past to explain and understand the origins, auspices, and arrangements of social structures, institutions, and processes.

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On the other hand, there exists outside of the field of CHS a multitude of subdisciplinary pursuits, all of which evidence a degree of overlap with the topical and methodological concerns of comparative historical work. “Historical sociology” is quite similar to, and is even labeled interchangeably with, CHS. Social history in its various forms, particularly the Annales School work under Fernand Braudel, the “new history” of E. P. Thompson, the new “new history” of Perry Anderson, along with various “history from below” projects, all likewise share CHS’s interest in the formation and development of social class and nation-states. Feminist works such as Mies’s (1986) Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale also have taken a comparative historical approach to the study of gender and social class. Even the work of scholars such as Philippe Ariès (1981), whose The Hour of Our Death epitomizes the French emphasis on the history of mentalités, or “attitudes,” is both comparative and historical insofar as it explicates differing social attitudes toward death and dying throughout Western history.

The issue, then, becomes where one should draw the line between CHS and other works demonstrating some degree of comparative sociohistorical investigation. In the case of CHS, this line was perhaps originally carved out between the grand theory of functionalism and the narrative singularity of historiography. As Stinchcombe (1978) has argued, “one does not apply theory to history; rather one uses history to develop theory” (p. 1) Thus, for Stinchcombe and many others in the field, CHS was, and remains, a fundamentally social-scientific endeavor, whose main purpose is not the narrative description of wie es eigentlich gewesenist (“the way things actually were”) but rather the formulation of theoretical knowledge concerning historical processes and social structures. For many of its practitioners, CHS is not history, or even social history, per se, but rather represents the sociological analysis of history, particularly in relation to the rise of capitalism, social class, and the modern state.

This distinction between social science and history is not new. It is a tension that runs the gamut of sociological thinking, dating back to at least Comte’s proposition of a “science of society,” as well as to the succession of Enlightenment thinkers, who initiated the scientific study of economics, politics, and law. Marx and Durkheim both argued that their work was “scientific,” although for Marx this “science” was intrinsically linked to the study of history. However, it was Weber who devoted the most serious consideration to the methodenstreit between the social and natural sciences—the question of whether sociology should be aligned nomothetically with the empirical sciences or idiographically with the traditions of hermeneutics and interpretation (Weber 1949).

More recently, within the last two decades, this tension between social science as either a nomothetic or an idiographic pursuit has become more pronounced. CHS has been criticized for its dependence on historical data, its proclivity for the use of small numbers of cases, and for its close association to qualitative research. This is also due, in part, to the rise of the so-called linguistic turn in the humanities and social sciences, which has affected not only CHS but also sociology in general in its claims to empirical knowledge and value-neutral methodologies. While much of the work in CHS still assumes Stinchcombe’s proposition that history can be used to develop sociological theory, newer scholarship has questioned the limits of theoretical generalization within the field.

Arguably, it is not so difficult to trace the origins and seminal works within CHS. It is, however, decidedly more difficult to draw contemporary boundaries between this field of study and works within history, the humanities, culture studies, policy studies, international relations, and political science, which all appear to be moving with increasing ease between one another as disciplinary boundaries become more ambiguous. This research paper will look at the general contours of CHS: its origins, its major works, and its relationships to other fields of study. It will also look more closely at the debates regarding method, theory, and epistemology, giving special consideration to the longstanding tension between history and sociology.


The foundations of CHS are present in its emergence as a distinct field within sociology in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as in the work of much of classical sociology that was itself vested in historical investigations of the rise of capitalism, the nation-state, and modernity. In this regard, CHS initially focused extensively, as it still does today, on the concepts of social class and the nation-state, where the influence of Marx and Weber are most present. Although a “comparative historical” approach can arguably be applied to a variety of phenomena, its emphasis on class and the state reflects basic concerns of Marx and Weber regarding the origins and role of social class, the rise of the modern state, bureaucracy, industrialization, and revolution. Despite their dissimilarities, these two thinkers both believed that history itself provided an important explanatory role in their respective analyses of social change. The peculiar aspects of social organization related to capitalism, industrialization, bureaucracy, and modern rationality could only be located and analyzed in the past histories of modes of production, “primary” accumulation, the division of labor, technology, religion, and government.

Durkheim is often left out of the discussion of CHS and “the classics.” While Durkheim’s work was, in some sense, no less dependent on history than Marx’s or Weber’s, for Durkheim history could not define the function of a particular social fact, nor could it provide a positivistic framework necessary for the analysis of social organization. Mathieu Deflem (2000) characterizes this as “the distinction between causal explanation and functional analysis,” where “causal-historical research and functionalsynchronic analysis were divorced and the latter was often the privileged perspective,” particularly within midcentury American sociology.

The use of history for explaining and understanding social change and organization was also present in the work of other well-known late-nineteenth- and earlytwentieth-century scholars. Sombart’s ([1902] 1928) Der moderne Kapitalismus continued in the tradition of Marx’s analysis of the history of capitalism. The early work of the Annales School under Bloch and Febvre in the 1930s, as well as its later direction under Fernand Braudel, has been influential within CHS and world-systems theory specifically. Polanyi’s (1944) The Great Transformation analyzed the rise and apparent failure of the “market society.” Hannah Arendt’s (1951) The Origins of Totalitarianism compared the rise of Soviet communism and German fascism and their relationship to anti-Semitism. These works deserve mention because they mitigate the notion that the close relationship between history and sociology was “rediscovered” in the waning light of functionalism in the 1960s and 1970s. By the middle of the last century, American sociology had become the predominant locus of sociology itself; the work of Talcott Parsons and other functionalists came to dominate almost every major research university in the United States. Yet even within Parsonian functionalism, as well as in the work of other midcentury scholars such as Robert Merton, history per se was not ignored. Rather, with its emphasis on the search for a general theory of social organization, functionalism largely eschewed history as a viable means of sociological explanation.

Immanuel Wallerstein (2000) has called the era of functionalist dominance between 1945 and 1960 the “golden age” of sociology, the time when “its tasks seemed clear, its future guaranteed, and its intellectual leaders sure of themselves” (p. 25). Yet somewhat rapidly, sociology moved from the certainty and dominance of midcentury functionalism to the uncertainly of a discipline united in name only. One consequence of this sociological fracturing was a return to history, or, more specifically, a return to Marxist and other critical works that viewed social problems as immanently rooted in history itself—colonialism, capitalism, slavery, and war. Although Weber’s work was also being reread, comparative historical works in the late 1960s and 1970s owed more to Marx than to Weber, influenced in part by new readings of Marx in Britain (E. P. Thompson, Perry Anderson, and Eric Hobsbawm) and France (Althusser and Braudel). While by no means homogeneous—for example, the disagreements between Thompson and Althusser—variations of Marxist analysis were by far the most prevalent within both “new history” as well as within the inception of the so-called second wave of historical sociology.

Although the works of Marxist historians were (and remain) influential within CHS, what separated “new history” and the Annales School from early CHS was the proposition that CHS could be empirical, and could generate generally applicable theory. This was evident in the use of comparative methodologies and particularly the development of the case studies approach. A principal concern of comparative historical sociologists was not so much the writing of history but rather the use of history for the development of empirically valid theories about largescale social change: the transitions from feudalism to capitalism, agrarianism to industrialization, fiefdom to nation-state, and local culture to commodity culture.

However disparate in terms of individual works, the CHS that emerged from the late 1960s until the early 1980s was articulated largely as a “middle ground” between the grand theories of functionalism, teleological Marxism, and the perceived idiosyncratic tendencies of historiography. Tilly (1981) notes that such a “middle ground” was not an attempt to reconcile theory and history. On the contrary, it was a conglomeration of specialties that sought to “concentrate on human social relationships . . . deal with change over a substantial succession of particular times [and] . . . yield conclusions that are generalizable, at least in principle, beyond the particular cases observed” (p. 57). This approach is clear in the work of Wallerstein, Tilly, Skocpol, Stinchcombe and Moore, and others and remains a central position in comparative historical research today.

Major Themes and Works

A majority of comparative historical works share important general features. Notably, CHS deals in macrosocial units of analysis. Charles Ragin (1987:8–9) makes a useful distinction between “observational units” and “explanatory units”ofanalysiswithincomparativework.Thisdistinction is common throughout sociology, as Ragin (1987) notes:

For most noncomparative social scientists, the term [unit of analysis] presents no special problems. Their analysis and their explanations typically proceed at one level, the individual or organizational level. This is rarely the case in comparative social science, where analysis often proceeds at one level (perhaps the individual level) . . . and the explanation is couched at another level (usually the macrosocial level). (P. 8)

Dependency theorists and neo-Marxists, for example, rejected the assumptions of early modernization and development theories by bringing attention to larger external factors involved in the purported “inability” of poorer nations to modernize. The sizable corpus of work on revolutions has documented the degree to which external and larger units of explanatory analyses are involved in the precipitation, as well as the successes or failures of revolutionary movements. Thus, early comparative historical work emerged out of a context in which an endogenetic model of social change was standard; a major focus of CHS has been to determine how and where larger social, economic, and political structures contribute to or determine historical processes and events.

Within CHS, the idea of an “explanatory unit of analysis” is not the same as the establishment of direct causality. Contrary to other comparative sociological approaches, for example, comparative cross-national analysis, CHS usually does not present or analyze casual determinacy through statistical methodologies. Even where quantitative analysis is sometimes used, the emphasis on outcomes is almost always on the identification of what Ragin (1987) calls “intersections of conditions,” and it is usually assumed that any several combinations of conditions might produce an outcome.

One reason for the emphasis on “intersections of conditions” is that CHS focuses extensively on the identification and development of historical “cases.” As they are used in comparative historical work, cases involve the identification of particular processes, institutions, or events as situated within a larger temporal setting. The development of cases thus requires extensive knowledge not only of the particular phenomenon being studied but also a broad understanding of the economic, social, and cultural milieu in which this phenomenon has occurred as well as its location within a temporal sequence of complex events and the identification of possible causal relationships.

The effort required in the development and identification of case studies explains, in part, why comparative historical work usually results in a small n. A second explanation for small n is that the macrosocial units of analysis that are of interest to comparative historical sociologists are often limited in number. Comparative historical works that use a small or single n are, therefore, more often qualitatively oriented, and rely on methodologies more suited to the development of rich and detailed description of individual cases, the identification of unforeseen or unanticipated phenomenon, and the proposal of general hypotheses that may be followed up through more detailed studies.

Another commonality within CHS is an interest in macrosocial changes over long periods of time, decades or even centuries. Fernand Braudel’s work, in particular, remains influential for his notion of the longue durée. In CHS, world-systems theory remains most closely aligned with the study of the longue durée. Even where Braudel’s work may be criticized for its Marxist structuralist approach, the overarching notion that the study of large social structures and processes requires a long durational setting is common throughout comparative historical work.

Finally, most comparative historical works draw from a variety of disciplines, not only history and sociology but also economics, political science, legal studies, geography, and more recently race, gender, and culture studies. This is often necessary both for the development of suitable comparative cases as well as for the analysis of macrosocial structures and processes, where different disciplines provide a contextual framework not readily apparent within sociology. Paige’s (1997) Coffee and Power, for example, draws from various disciplines—economics, political science, gender studies, and culture studies—in comparing the histories of El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica over the last century, and proposes that each case cannot be understood outside of the complex political, social, and cultural relationships each country has had in relation to this commodity.

Thus, even within these aforementioned similarities, any attempt at grouping the wide disparity of works within CHS requires an artificial thematic, theoretical, or methodological unity not borne out in the disparity of works in the field. Much debate exists regarding not only the merits of individual works but also in their respective classifications. For our purposes, Charles Tilly’s classification of the various levels of comparison within the study of comparative history remains conceptually useful. Tilly (1984:60–61) categorizes comparative historical works into four categories: world-historical, world-systemic, macro-historical, and micro-historical. Of these, we will look at the first three, as they constitute an overwhelming amount of work within CHS.

World-Historical Approaches

In the category of world-historical approaches, Tilly includes works from Toynbee and Braudel as exemplifying “schemes of human evolution, the rise and fall of empires, and of successive modes of production.” Arguably, the work of Toynbee (1934), particularly his A Study of History, falls squarely into the category of “the rise and fall of empires,” as does the work of those such as Oswald Spengler (1926) and Samuel Huntington (1997). For varying reasons, all of these scholars, except Braudel, have played fairly minor roles within CHS—Spengler and Toynbee, perhaps for their almost total lack of materialist analysis, and Huntington, who as Matlock (1999) has argued, “makes the same error Toynbee did in assuming that the many disparate elements that make up his ‘civilizations’comprise a coherent, interdependent whole” (p. 432).

Marx and Weber

Marx’s theoretical connection between the forces and relations of production as a means by which to understand and methodologically approach social organization and power remains central within sociology, and particularly germane to comparative historical analyses. Marx’s work has also proved fruitful in CHS in the extension of his notion of the capitalist mode of production to larger geographical regions, such as in world-systems analysis, and in the comparative historical interest in revolutions. Finally, Marx remains central within CHS by way of influence of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony,” formulated in his analysis of the Italian working-class embrace of fascism, has been widely adopted, used, and critiqued in comparative historical work, particularly in Marxist work on the state.

In the case of Weber’s influence on CHS, this is more difficult to trace to any single work or even particular theory, as his work was less organized than Marx’s around a particular theme or organizing principle. The best known among Weber’s ([1930] 2001) comparative works remains The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, but this work has been less influential within CHS, and arguably sociology itself, than his other writings. In the case of CHS, Weber’s work was also closely associated with that of Parsons’s and structural functionalism. Outside of the more interpretive emphasis of Bendix and the pluralist approach of those such as Lipset, Weber was somewhat cast aside in favor of the reinvigoration of Marx that characterized much of CHS in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

By the later 1970s and 1980s, however, Weber’s work was being widely read and used within CHS, including studies of nation-states and state policy, nationalism, and social movements. Contrary to Marx, for whom society was defined more or less as the forces and relations of production, Weber argued that class alone was not able to account for the variety of forms of social organization. “Status” and “party” were, in Weber’s estimation, equally influential spheres of social life. This recognition alone has been most important for sociology, which now recognizes economics, politics, and culture as distinct and interrelated spheres of social organization and power.

Weber’s influence on CHS, however, extends beyond his tripartite analysis of social organization. Weber’s (1975:128) interpretive method (Verstehen) broadened the task of social analysis by proposing that sociology must elucidate not merely the causal sequence of events but also the meaning of social action. In Weber’s estimation, people, institutions, and organizations act for a variety of reasons: class interest, obligation, honor, emotion, tradition, custom, or habit. Understanding the meaning of social action was therefore as important as the effects of such actions, insofar as they were both necessary components of causal explanation. As sociologists could rarely definitively know the actual motives of social actors, Weber stressed the need for “ideal types” of social action (e.g., instrumental rational action, value-oriented action, affective action, and traditional action) against which specific cases could be juxtaposed. Comparative analysis was useful and necessary for Weber both for understanding the differences between different cases as well as for refining ideal types.

At the same time, Weber argued that the nature of an “interpretive” science mitigated the possibility of causal attribution when juxtaposed against that of the natural sciences. As Giddens (1971) notes, “Weber stresses that causal adequacy always is in a matter of degrees of probability . . . [T]he uniformities that are found in human conduct are expressible only in terms of the probability that a particular act or circumstance will produce a given response from an actor” (p. 153). Here, Weber’s work has seeped down thoroughly into CHS, which more often seeks “conjectural” explanations than “calculable” ones.

World-Systems Theory

Out of Tilly’s four categories, “world-systems approaches” denotes the most cohesive corpus of work within CHS. While Wallerstein’s (1974) The Modern World-System is generally regarded as the starting point of the worldsystems approach, the last 30 years has seen the subsequent proliferation of works from many scholars. Wallerstein developed his concept of the “modern world-system” partially as a response to perceived deficiencies within modernization theory and partially in relation to Braudel’s notion of the longue durée and the “world economy.” In The Modern World-System, Wallerstein argued that contrary to the apparent “success” of capitalism in the West, and its apparent “failures” elsewhere, modern capitalism represented rather a single “world-system” based largely on the geographical division of labor between “core,” “semiperipheral,” and “peripheral” regions. For Wallerstein, there had been other “world-systems,” largely articulated under a single political entity, but the modern world-system is unique in that it constitutes “a worldeconomy [that] has survived for 500 years and yet has not come to be transformed into a world-empire” (p. 348).

This uniqueness is explained through the historical rise of Western capitalism. According to Wallerstein (1974), “capitalism has been able to flourish precisely because the world-economy has had within its bounds not one but a multiplicity of political systems” (p. 348). Wallerstein’s argument rests on the notion that within the modern worldsystem, capitalism relies on a particular geographical configuration of the division of labor but is at the same time not bound to any one geographical location. Arrighi (1997) notes,

Central to this account [is] the conceptualization of the Eurocentric world-system as a capitalist world-economy. A world-system [is] defined as a spatio-temporal whole, whose spatial scope is coextensive with a division of labor among its constituent parts and whose temporal scope extends as long as the division of labor continually reproduces the “world” as a social whole. (Para. 5)

The division of labor under capitalism, while certainly present within early-modern Western European states, was for Wallerstein more pronounced as a division of labor and resources that began in the sixteenth century to define the respective core, semiperipheral and peripheral regions of Western Europe, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Americas. Where Northwestern Europe was successful in amassing capital for purposes of industrial production, largely through war and colonization, it was also able to coerce or force semiperipheral and peripheral regions into the production of foodstuffs and cheap textiles, as well as the exportation of raw materials. While limited movement between these regions has occurred, most notably in the case of the United States as the now dominant “core” region, for Wallerstein the movement within regions is secondary to the arrangement of the system itself.

Wallerstein’s analysis has been expanded on in a proliferation of works both critical and complementary to his theory of the modern world-system. One of the best known is Arrighi’s (1994) The Long Twentieth Century. Arrighi follows Wallerstein’s logic of a global world-system but emphasizes the ebb and flow of finance capital in what he calls “systemic cycles of accumulation.” Arrighi identifies four major systemic cycles of accumulation, dating from the sixteenth-century Italian city-states (particularly Genoa), moving to Holland in the eighteenth century, Britain in the nineteenth century, and finally the United States in the twentieth century. For Arrighi, the study of the movement and growth of capitalism must take into account not only the division of labor or the periodic stability of production but also the periods of crises and instability by which capitalism is able to move expansively from one region to another. Profitability in trade and production, argues Arrighi, periodically reaches geospatial limits, at which point capital moves toward high finance, war, and eventual relocation into newer and larger spheres of trade and production.

Other world-systems scholars have argued that the world-system existed prior to the rise of European capitalism. Janet Abu-Lughod’s (1989) Before European Hegemony, for example, suggests that the world-system as conceptualized by Wallerstein is actually a subset of a larger world economy that encompassed parts of China, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Europe from the twelfth to the fourteenth century. Andre Gunder Frank and Barry Gills (1993) have also argued that Wallerstein’s world-system is itself part of a larger world-system, but unlike AbuLughod, they see this world-system dating back not to the eleventh or twelfth century but 5,000 years. For Frank and Gills, the conceptualization of a larger and more truly global world-system represents more than an attempt to “reorient” Wallerstien’s unit of analysis on an even larger scale. It also questions major assumptions within worldsystems theory, and indeed much of classical sociology itself, regarding (1) the analysis of capital accumulation as a peculiarly European phenomenon; (2) the notion that “core,” “semiperiphery,” and “periphery” are relatively new or exist only within the European development of capitalism; and (3) whether or not cycles of expansion and contraction within European capitalism are in fact only part of an interrelated world-system “that extend[s] back many centuries before 1942” (pp. 3–4).

Macro-Historical Approaches

In Tilly’s categorization of differing levels of comparative analysis, macro-historical approaches fall in between worldsystems approaches and micro-historical approaches. Tilly (1984) argues that “at this level, such large processes as proletarianization, urbanization, capital accumulation, statemaking, and bureaucratization lend themselves to effective analysis” (pp. 63–64). In describing different units of analysis, Tilly is also making an argument that the “macrohistorical” approach deals with the largest units of analysis from which empirically verifiable arguments can be derived from comparative case studies. Although this point remains contentious, it is the case that the large majority of work in CHS focuses on the processes taking “states, regional modes of production, associations, firms, manors, armies, and a wide variety of [other] categories” as their units of analysis (p. 63).


Virtually all historical comparative works engage various aspects of nation-states in the study of different forms of government, social class, revolutions, militarism, social welfare, civic society, social citizenship, and cultural studies. States are used both as descriptive and explanatory units of analysis. Over the last half-century, the most wellknown approaches to the study of the state are structuralfunctionalist theories, including pluralism and early modernization theory; elitism, Marxism, and class-centered theories; the state-centered approach, and institutionalism or new institutionalism.

Pluralist and Modernization Theories of the State

Pluralist theories of the state such as those put forth by Parsons (1966, 1969, 1971) and Smelser (1968) have tended to view the liberal democratic state and particularly the United States as a neutral mechanism for the “equilibration” of competing actors and groups. Social class has on occasion been identified as an important or central interest group, but pluralist approaches have more frequently emphasized the ability of the free market and representative democracy to mitigate the concentration of power. A variation of pluralist theory known as “elite pluralism” or “polyarchy” concedes that elites maintain a disproportional amount of power and influence within liberal democracies but views competition among different elite groups as prohibitive of the creation of a single ruling class.

Pluralist theory has been largely confined to analyses of modern Western states. Its functionalist correlate for the study of nonindustrial Western nations is found in early modernization theory (also called development theory). Here, nation-states are assumed to develop in a similar unilinear fashion, and modernization theorists have argued that a “dichotomy” exists between traditional and modern states. The question for modernization and development theorists such as Rostow (1960), Almond and Powell (1966), and Eisenstadt (1966) was thus how to “encourage” policies of industrialization and democratization similar to those that had occurred in the West.

Marxist and Class-Centered Theories of the State

Marxist theories of the state became quite popular by the 1960s in both Europe and North America. The wellknown “Miliband-Poulantzas,” often referred to as the “instrumentalist-structuralist” debate, seen as crucial at that time, was between Marxists who viewed the state as more of a direct or subjective extension of class interests (e.g., as an “instrument for the domination of society”; Miliband 1969:22) and those who viewed the state as a distinct set of structures and practices through which the logic of capitalism was naturalized and reproduced. While the instrumentalist position was quite popular, structuralist theory has fared better within sociological analyses of the state, particularly in its ability to analyze the state less as the subjective extension of the elite than as an objective relation of economic, political, and social structures or “state apparatuses.” Structural Marxists, for example, have investigated (1) the manner in which capitalism was reproduced in “institutional form[s] of political power” (Offe and Ronge 1975:139), (2) the use of social welfare to stabilize class conflict (Gough 1979), and (3) the successes and failures of states to mediate fiscal crises (O’Conner 1973) and legitimization crises (Habermas 1973; Offe 1973). The work of Offe, in particular, recognized important contradictions between state institutions, as well as circumstances where states acted against the interests of elites.

Where structural Marxism has fared better is within works that are more historically oriented. The structural Marxism of Althusser and the anthropological structuralism of Lévi-Strauss, on the other hand, have largely fallen out of favor for their tendency toward transhistorical or functionalist analysis of deeply rooted social structures that were seen as totalizing or teleological by other Marxists (e.g., Anderson 1974; Thompson 1963).

Perry Anderson’s (1974) Lineages of the Absolutist State, along with the work of Moore (1966), represented a decidedly different class-centered approach to the study of states, suggesting that history was far more important in understanding the development of modern states than most structural Marxists had allowed for. These two works were central in the development of the “comparative historical” method. Both Moore’s and Anderson’s work cast significant doubt on the idea that states followed anything like a normative or unilinear progression of development. Anderson argued that contrary to the idea that an emerging bourgeoisie had merely supplanted the landed feudal aristocracies of Europe, absolutist monarchies had rather helped to foster the bourgeoisie. For Anderson, however, this did not occur at the same level throughout Eastern and Western Europe, and particularly in England. A large part of Anderson’s analysis was therefore directed toward explaining the “lineages” of absolutist states from relatively similar feudal relations to decidedly different modern economic and political paths.

Barrington Moore’s (1966) Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy set the stage for a generation of comparative historical work on nation-states. His general thesis is often summed up as “no bourgeoisie, no democracy.” In each case study, Moore argued that the relative strength of the bourgeoisie was decisive in the formation and outcome of different revolutions or revolutionary movements. Moore then linked these different revolutionary typologies to the development of differing forms of modern governments—democracy, fascist dictatorship, or communist dictatorship.

For Moore, however, the presence or absence of a strong bourgeoisie was important within a sequence or ordering of specific historical events. In this sense, Moore’s was one of the first comparative historical works that analyzed cases both structurally and temporally. As Mahoney (2003) notes, “Since the publication of Social Origins, nearly all comparative historical scholars have come to theorize about the ways in which the temporal ordering of events and processes can have a significant impact on outcomes” (p. 152). More generally, Moore’s work suggested that class conflict itself was not given to any one specific historical trajectory or outcome.

State-Centered Theory

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, comparative historical sociologists were questioning the usefulness of Marxist analyses. If there had existed any thematic or theoretical unity in the field under its earlier Marxist cohesion, the 1980s (1) witnessed not only the demise of any such cohesion but the beginnings of a proliferation of different approaches to the study of states that rejected earlier assumed groupings of capitalism and the state as cohesive or binomial components of “society-centered” approaches, (2) questioned the limitations of class conflict and the division of labor as an analytical approach to the study of modern states, and (3) analyzed the “agency” and efficacy of states, elites, and institutions.

The single biggest shift in the historical comparative study of states was the development of the state-centered approach of Evans, Giddens, Mann, Reuschemeyer, Skocpol, and Tilly in the early 1980s. Although varied in their respective emphasis on different aspects of state formation and activity, this approach was a redress of what Skocpol called “society-centered” functionalist, pluralist, and Marxist approaches to the study of the state that, as Skocpol (1985) argued, tended to view states as “inherently shaped by classes or class struggles [that] function to preserve and expand modes of production” (pp. 4–5). State-centered theorists drew heavily from Max Weber’s work on bureaucracy and political sociology. Contrary to Marx, Weber had developed a comprehensive and systematic theory of the state, one that agreed with Marx’s analysis of class divisions but rejected Marx’s primacy of class itself as determinate or even central in the formation or logic of modern states. Weber ([1919] 1958) argued rather that “sociologically the state cannot be defined in terms of its ends . . . Ultimately, one can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of force” (pp. 77–78). The primary goal of the state was, in Weber’s analysis, sustained sovereignty over a particular territory through the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.

Using Weber’s work, proponents of the state-centered approach thus argued that states themselves should be considered as “weighty actors” able to “affect political and social processes through their policies and patterned relationships with social groups” (Skocpol 1985:1). Jessop (2001) summarizes nicely the major assumptions and research foci of the state-centered approach:

(1) The geo-political position of different modern states within the international system of nation-states . . . (2) the dynamic of military organization and the impact of warfare in the overall development of the state; (3) the distinctive administrative powers of the modern state . . . (4) the state’s role as a distinctive factor in shaping institutions, group formation, interest articulation, political capacities, ideas, and demands beyond the state . . . (5) the distinctive pathologies of government and the political system—such as bureaucratism, political corruption, government overload, or state failure; and (6) the distinctive interests and capacities of “state managers” (career officials, elected politicians, etc.) as opposed to other social forces. (P. 153)

The state-centered approach opened up or expanded on several avenues of comparative historical research, including the study of economic policy (Evans 1985; Reuschemeyer and Evans 1985), revolutions (Farhi 1990; Goodwin 1997; Skocpol 1979; Wickham-Crowley 1991, 1992), and militarism and war (Giddens 1987; Mann 1988; Tilly 1985).


Popular throughout the 1980s, state-centered theory largely merged with or moved toward what is called historical institutionalism. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, two new institutional approaches, rational choice theory and historical institutionalism, emerged as interdisciplinary pursuits within political science, organizational studies, economics, and sociology. Within CHS, historical institutionalism is closely aligned with the state-centered approach insofar as it recognizes the state as a potential locus of action. However, historical institutionalists such as Hacker, Immergut, Pierson, Skocpol, Steinmo, Thelen, and others have moved away somewhat from the notion of the state as actor, toward the investigation of how institutions themselves are both agents and objects within larger networks of structurally limited possibilities. A central focus of historical institutionalism is the emphasis on historically contingent institutional “paths” or “path dependency.”

Pierson (2000) describes path dependency as “increasing returns” where “the costs of switching from one alternative to another will in certain social contexts increase markedly over time” (p. 251). Path dependency thus seeks to explain the “initial conditions” or “critical junctures” that precipitate specific institutional paths, recognizing that small events or actions can lead to large outcomes. Historical institutionalists also recognize that while paths may become more stable or determined through positive feedback, outcomes are not predetermined. Emphasis is placed on the “timing” or “sequence” of events in an attempt to explain institutional movement or development.

Historical institutionalism also argues that questions of power and legitimacy are almost inexorably linked to institutional processes. Comparative historical sociologists and political scientists have used this approach extensively when explaining why similar institutional structures and choices vary widely between states in the case of social welfare (King 1992; Orloff 1993; Pierson 1994; Skocpol 1992), social health care policies (Immergut 1992), taxation (Steinmo 1993), and labor movements and democratization (Collier and Collier 1991; Mahoney 2002).

Social Class and Labor

A key theme in the comparative study of social class has been the historical formation of modern classes. Researchers interested in “transition periods” in Europe and the United States have developed different theories about the movement from feudalism to capitalism and from agrarianism to industrialism. Hobsbawm (1965) argued that a “general crisis” within seventeenth-century Europe had been central to the development of European capitalism. Brenner (1977) proposed that levels of peasant organization and revolt could explain the emergence of variant forms of capitalism in Europe, particularly the early development and force of industrialism in England. The work of Moore and Anderson (discussed above) was also central in transitional literature. E. P. Thompson’s (1963) The Making of the English Working Class was a redress to structural Marxism (specifically Althusser), and this work continues to be influential for his thesis that class is not merely a structural category but rather “an active process, which owes as much to agency as to conditioning” (p. 9).

Comparative historical sociologists such as Tilly have argued that the nineteenth century represented a substantial shift in the formation of social class. Tilly’s (1975, 1978) work emphasizes the change in later-nineteenth-century Europe from collective “reaction” to more deliberative or purposive collective action such as labor organization strikes. As Eder (2003) notes, “What changes in 1848, the year chosen by Tilly as a convenient time marker, are the claims and the action repertoire. Claims become more proactive; new rights are claimed, rather than old rights defended” (p. 279).

The comparative study of organized labor in Western twentieth-century states has looked at general patterns of labor strength and organization between states, as well as produced several notable comparative works on specific labor movements and unions (see Haydu 1988; Taylor 1989; Tolliday and Zeitlin 1985). Voss’s (1993) work on the Knights of Labor rejects the “American exceptionalism” explanation for the conservatism of American labor movements and concludes that the fall of the Knights of Labor shifted the direction of American labor unions toward a decidedly different and more conservative course. Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin’s (2002) Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions argues that the post-World War II decline of unions can be traced to the anticommunist purging that effectively crippled many unions. Kimeldorf’s (1988) Reds or Rackets explored how longshoremen’s unions on the East and West Coasts of the United States developed, respectively, toward conservative and radical political affiliation.

Comparative studies of class have also looked at the changing structures of labor itself in the West, particularly in the later part of the twentieth century. The world of Mills’s “white-collar” managers and the division between the managerial and working classes has given way to a complex arrangement of labor sectors and relationships. Myles and Turegun (1994) argue,

By the 1970s virtually all class theorists—Marxist and Weberian—had converged on the centrality of two broad strata for understanding the class structure of advanced capitalist societies: the growing army of mid-level corporate officials engaged in the “day-to-day” administration of the modern firm . . . and the professional and technical “knowledge” workers who have become virtually synonymous with postindustrialism. (Pp. 112–13)

Moreover, as Myles and Turegun note, the rise of the latter group has been categorized alternatively as “the service class” (Goldthorpe 1982), as part of “new petite bourgeoisie” (Poulantzas 1975), or as “knowledge workers” (Wright 1978).

The division of bourgeoisie/proletariat or owner/worker has thus become more complex with the rise of managerial and “middle” classes, and comparative historical sociologists have sought explanations for differences or varieties of class formation—largely in comparative studies of states. Katzenstein (1984, 1985) has identified differences between liberal (e.g., the United States and Britain), statist (e.g., France), and corporatist (e.g., Germany,Austria, and smaller European states) systems of capitalism as crucial for the development of class and the relationship between labor and capital. Others such as Zysman (1983) and Arrighi (1994) have emphasized the central role of financial systems and finance capital in the structuring of industry, labor markets, and social class.

The comparative historical study of class and labor in other regions besides Europe and the United States is still limited but has increased somewhat more recently, partially in relation to the rise of global commodity chains and the rapid change in labor relations under structural adjustment policies and flexible accumulation. Bonacich et al. (1994), Candland and Sil (2001), and Silver (2003) have all looked at global production schemes or changes in global labor trends and relations. Studies of labor relations in Latin America include Collier and Collier’s (1991) case studies of eight Latin American countries and the relationship between labor movements and political developments in the twentieth century; Bergquist’s (1986) Labor in Latin America, which looks at the experiences of workers in the export-oriented economies of Argentina, Columbia, Chile, and Venezuela; Huber and Stafford’s (1995) Agrarian Structure and Political Power; and Murillo’s (2001) Labor Unions, Partisan Coalitions, and Market Reforms in Latin America. Studies of labor in Asia include Frenkel’s (1993) edited volume Organized Labor in the Asia-Pacific Region: A Comparative Study of Trade Unionism in Nine Countries; Gills and Piper’s (2002) edited volume Women and Work in Globalising Asia; and Hutchison and Brown’s (2001) Organizing Labour in Globalizing Asia. Comparative historical work on Africa is perhaps not surprisingly the most underrepresented within the field, the work of Michael Burawoy (1972, 1981) being the notable exception.


In many respects, because the study of revolutions and states in CHS are so closely tied to one another, the movement of research and theory about revolutions parallels research on the state itself. Midcentury American thought on revolutions tended to follow a functionalist analysis, using variants of early modernization theory to explain revolutions as disequilibria between traditional and modern forms of social organization. However, as Goldstone notes (2003:58–59), large n studies attempting to link “the strains of transition” to revolutions have been only partially successful at best. The most notable finding that came out of these studies, argues Goldstone (2003), was the realization that “different countries were different in important ways, and that revolutions themselves were different in how they unfolded, their levels of violence, and which elites and groups were involved” (p. 59).

The assumption of unilinear development from premodern to modern society is not unique to functionalist analysis of revolutions, however. In the case of historical materialist accounts of revolution, as Comninel (2003) notes, “The classic formulation of this transformation has been as ‘bourgeois revolution’—a historically progressive class of capitalist bourgeois taking political power from an outmoded landed class of feudal aristocrats” (p. 86). Moore’s (1966) work, however, cast significant doubt on both orthodox Marxist and functionalist depictions of any unilinear progression from premodern to modern states, and the role that revolutions play in this transformation. While Moore argued that class conflict, and particularly the strength of peasant movements, was central to the potential for and shape of revolutions in his case studies (Russia, France, Germany, Japan, the United States, Great Britain, and India), his analysis also showed that varying forms of class conflict led to very different types of revolutions and subsequently to different types of modern states. Tilly’s (1978) work From Mobilization to Revolutions also centered on class conflict as central to revolutionary movements, although for Tilly, revolutionary conditions did not emerge from class exploitation alone. Rather, revolutions were a form of “collective action” that required specific political opportunities, access to resources, and an organizational structure capable of attracting support and mounting a sustained challenge.

Skocpol’s (1979) States and Social Revolutions challenged what she has called in various places “societycentered” analysis of states and revolutions. In this seminal work, Skocpol argued that the success of revolutions in France, Russia, and China were as much or more the result of external forces—markets and militarism—than of internal political instability. Moreover, Skocpol argued that in each case, successful revolutions depended on other structural factors as well, namely, competition or conflict between rulers and elites, and the organizational ability of revolutionaries.

More recently, Skocpol’s work, and social-structural theory in general, has become less popular in light of research on the numerous revolutions and revolutionary movements that have occurred within the last half-century. If anything, the differences between revolutions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Iran, the Philippines, Central America, and Asia have made comparative historical scholars cautious toward theorizing too broadly about the causes of revolutions. Yet the current lack of any single dominant theoretical approach to the study of revolutions has been greeted by a deluge rather than a dearth of work in the area. As Goldstone (2003) notes,

The elements of revolutionary process [have been] expanded to include international pressures, fiscal strain, intraelite conflict, a wide range of popular protest and mobilization, underlying population on resources, and coordination between opposition elites and popular protest to produce revolutionary situations, as well as the pivotal role of revolutionary ideologies in guiding outcomes. (P. 69)

Social Movements

Social movements have been of keen interest to comparative historical sociologists not only for determining the conditions under which such movements may emerge but also in understanding why they succeed or fail in their respective aims. By “aims,” the study of collective action recognizes that very often such action constitutes more than mob violence or disorganized reaction to external political, social, and cultural pressures. Prior to the American civil rights movement and subsequent social movements, much of the thinking on the topic was centered around functionalist and behavioralist theories in North America and Marxist theory within Europe. The civil rights movement, along with the antiapartheid movement, environmental movements, and other social movements, were clear indications, however, for sociologists that collective action could not be adequately explained as spontaneous reaction to the short-term breakdown of social norms (functionalism), or merely as response to material inequalities or oppression.

More recent approaches include resource mobilization and political process theories. These approaches argue that social inequality is endemic throughout social relations, and that collective actions and social movements cannot be explained solely by inequality (e.g., “relative deprivation”) or oppression itself. Rather, resource mobilization and political processes theories argue that social movements are created and engendered by “opportunity structures” and access to resources otherwise unavailable to potential collective actors. “New” social movement theory has argued that modern social movements differ from earlier forms of collective action in that the contested terrain encompasses not only class conflict and material inequality but the symbolic production of meaning and identity (Canel 1997; Cohen 1985; Melucci 1980, 1985).

Methodological and Epistemological Considerations

Within the last two decades or so, there has been significant debate regarding the role of method and theory in comparative historical analysis. These debates encompass not only particular critiques of various works and theories but more generally the historical comparative claim to theoretical knowledge, the reliability of causal explanation in comparative historical work, and the purported division in comparative historical work between sociology and history. Moreover, these debates can be linked to the “linguistic turn” that has occurred throughout the social sciences and humanities, particularly in relation to the various postmodernist and poststructuralist critiques of epistemology and knowledge/power relations.

In the case of methodology and subsequent claims to theory generation, Jeffery Paige (1999:782) has characterized the polarities of this debate in CHS as one of “advancing general theories of society,” on the one hand, and “explaining historical conjectures,” on the other. This division is a revival of the methodenstreit confronted by Max Weber, focusing on the question of whether to situate sociology nomothetically, which is within the realm of empirical sciences, or idiographically, within the realm of hermeneutics and interpretation.

Although CHS takes history as its “field of study,” its earlier practitioners generally sought to situate the field on the other side of the methodenstreit. Calhoun (1998) notes that

rather than emphasizing sociology’s substantive need for history—the need for social theory to be intrinsically historical—Skocpol and Tilly among others argued that historical sociology should be accepted because it was or could be comparably rigorous to other forms of empirical sociology. (P. 850)

Part of this “rigor” lay in the notion that CHS could speak scientifically about history, not only by distinguishing causal sequences of events but also by generating broader theories about society itself through the study of history.

With a few exceptions, this view of CHS was the predominant view through the mid-1970s. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, the nomothetic/idiographic assumption was being questioned both within CHS as well as within sociology itself. Philip Abrams’s (1982) Historical Sociology was one of the first serious critiques of this assumption, where Abrams argued that “in terms of their fundamental preoccupations, history and sociology are and always have been the same thing” (p. x). While the notion that there are no differences between history and sociology was and remains perhaps not as widely held as critics of this position decry, comparative historical analysis in the last two decades has undoubtedly seen a growing divide along the lines of “historical conjecture” and “general theory.”

Sociologists such as Goldthorpe (1991), Burawoy (1989), Kiser and Hechter (1991), and others have moved to counter the growing “historicism” within sociology, something that Goldthorpe (1991) has called “mistaken and—dangerously—misleading” (p. 225). Instead, Goldthorpe argues,

History may serve as a “residual category” for sociology, marking the point at which sociologists, in invoking “history,” thereby curb their impulse to generalize or, in other words, to explain sociologically, and accept the role of the specific and of the contingent as framing—that is, as providing both the setting and the limit—of their own analyses. (P. 212)

Here the debate becomes as much epistemological as methodological. The question becomes “What counts as legitimate knowledge within comparative historical analysis?” This is a difficult question and one that has plagued not only CHS but also sociology and the social sciences in general. Currently, nothing like the cohesion of functionalism in sociology or the dominance of Marxism exists within CHS. Some like Kiser and Hechter see the concomitance of sociology and history as a dangerous vacuum. Others see this as the movement away from a confining and limiting sociology.

Much of the current work in CHS arguably falls somewhere in the middle. Some, such as Mahoney and Rueschemeyer’s (2003) edited work Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences, seek to show that historical comparative work can be empirically rigorous and that the field has been successful not only in individual projects but also in the accumulation of knowledge in the field itself. Paige (1999:785), on the other hand, has argued that many “second-generation” comparative historical sociologists have developed “neither case-specific conjectural explanation, nor universal theory, but rather historically conditional theory,” which Paige defines as the practice of “examining anomalies in theoretical frameworks presented by particular time-place conjunctures.” Yet these historically conditional theories resemble less a gradated continuum than myriad trajectories of method and approach to theory.

Moreover, it is not only CHS that has changed but the discipline of history as well. Thus, within comparative historical analysis, the question of the relationship of history to sociology is hardly settled. The turn toward history within sociology itself, the overlap between sociological and historical work, the emergence of differing methodological strategies, and the growing interdisciplinary nature of the field have created a decidedly complex and contentious blurring of the boundaries of the field. If anything, it is questions of method and epistemology that appear most daunting for the future of comparative historical studies.

The Future of Comparative Historical Sociology

At this point, conclusions are difficult. Part of this stems from the possibility that the field itself has become unwieldy. This would not be surprising except for the fact that so few historical comparative courses are taught when compared to other sociological subfields. Outside of a dozen or so “classic” works in the field, lists of readings for “comparative historical” courses vary widely, as does the inclusion or exclusion of methods, and works in the history of the field itself.

The literature in the field has in fact become subsets of literatures that have largely moved toward specialization, as well as being connected with other disciplines and fields of study. For some, the emergence of subspecializations runs the risk of “turning [students] into skilled technicians” competent in specific methodologies but “crippling” their ability “to think like social scientists” (Wallerstein 2000:33). For others, the overlap with other disciplines and fields of study is seen as a corruption of or regression away from the goal of empirical research and the construction of general theory (Burawoy 1989; Goldthorpe 1991; Kiser and Hechter 1991). For yet others, the movement of comparative historical analyses into other areas such as feminist and culture studies is indicative of the “domestication” of the field itself, where CHS has lost its once “critical edge” to other disciplines and fields (Calhoun 1996).

In many ways, CHS is today less diverse or “transdisciplinary than merely divided along differing thematic, methodological, theoretical, and epistemological positions. There seems to be much hope in “trans- or “postdisciplinary” approaches. There is also decidedly less actual work that can be pointed to as examples of what such work should look like, particularly in several major sociological journals that for the last decade or so have played host to a series of various attacks on and defenses of what CHS is or is not.

However, it is not at all clear that these growing divisions are as dangerous as many claim, or that CHS as a meaningful rubric has not outlived its usefulness. Its initial growth in the United States and Europe was as much a social as an academic movement, a type of collective identification against the perceived shortcomings of sociology and its inability to address problems of social injustice, exploitation, and war. As this collective identity has faded, so too has the notion that comparative historical work must be grounded in these larger theoretical concerns. In this sense, a truly transdisciplinary approach must begin not with greater emphasis on interdisciplinary research but with the more reflexive question of whether or not the field has outgrown its conceptual boundaries. It must confront the fact that today the landscape of the field resembles a contested and contentious division of comparative historical “sociologies.”


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