The Traitors' Gate with the Gerkin in the background. Tower of London, London, UK.

Historical sociology is an interdisciplinary field of research that combines sociological and historical methods to understand the past, how societies have developed over time, and the impact this has on the present.[1] It emphasises a mutual line of inquiry of the past and present to understand how discrete historical events fit into wider societal progress and ongoing dilemmas through complementary comparative analysis.[2][3]

Looking at how social structures are changed and reproduced, historical sociology strives to understand the visible mechanisms and hidden structures that hinder certain parts of human development, whilst allowing other parts to thrive.[4] Throughout this, it challenges the ahistoricism of modern sociology as a discipline,[5][6] of the limited engagement with the past in studying social structures, whilst simultaneously critiquing the disengagement of historical study with the differences between societies and the broader social patterns between historical events.[4][7]

This interdisciplinary field operates within a spectrum between history and sociology with a 'sociology of history' residing at one end and a 'history of society' residing at another. A diverse range of people can be found throughout this spectrum that explore history through a sociological lens compared to others that dissect society through its historical events.[8] Although valid lines of research, they are based on singular disciplinary approaches and are reductionist in nature. In the middle of this spectrum historical sociology can be found that works to intertwine these mono-discipline efforts into an interdisciplinary approach.


As time has passed, history and sociology have developed into two different specific academic disciplines. Historical data was used and is used today in mainly these three ways. The first one is: Examining a theory through a Parallel investigation. To correspond with the natural-science conceptions of laws, and to look at, or apply various historical material where you gather your resources in order to prove the theory that is applied. Or on the other hand sociologists for the parallel investigation theory could apply the theory to certain cases of investigation but in a different modalities of a more widely used process. The second theory that sociologists mainly use: applying and contrasting certain events or policies. Analysed by their specific, or what makes them in unique quality of a composition, certain events used by the sociologist for comparative data can be contrasted and compared. For interpretive sociologists it is very common for them to use the 'Verstehen' tradition. And lastly, the third way sociologists typically relate is by taking a look at the causalities from a macro point of view. This is Mill's method: " a) principle of difference: a case with effect and cause present is contrasted with a case with effect and cause absent; and b) principle of agreement: cases with same effects are compared in terms of their (ideally identical) causes. There is an important debate on the usefulness of Mill's method for sociological research, which relates to the fact that historical research is often based on only few cases and that many sociological theories are probabilistic, not deterministic.[9] Today, historical sociology is measured by a conjunction of questions that are rich in detail.[10]


Human agency

A shared theme of sociology and history is accounting for the paradox of human agency. "The problem of agency is the problem of finding a way to account for human experience which recognises simultaneously and in equal measure that history and society are made by constant and more or less purposeful individual action and that individual action, however purposeful, is made by history and society".[11]

This theme is presented across authors from Marx to Spencer where a symbiotic relation enables action to create structure, whilst that structure defines action.[11] Here, historical sociology outlines that the key to understanding our human agency is to track its development over time. Better enabling us to see the changes and continuations of actions and structures that shape human agency throughout our societies.

Comparative historical sociology

Contemporary historical sociology is primarily concerned with how the state has developed since the Middle Ages, analysing relations between states, classes, economic and political systems.

Impact on other disciplines

International relations

(See International Relations)

Historical sociology has become an increasingly used approach in international relations to draw upon the reflective usefulness of historical sociology in exploring the past and present together, challenging unhistorical viewpoints in the field that stem from realist and neoliberalism paradigms that often see the wider structural makeup of the world as static.[12]

Political economy

(See Political Economy)

The work of political economy aims to reconcile the development of political and economic systems for insight into policy. Historical sociology critiques political economy for (1) viewing the present as a natural structure, (2) focus on history as a path dependent outcome, and (3) shaping their insights around prominent figures with limited engagement of wider processes and "regular" people.[13]

Notable authors


Journal of Historical Sociology

Research organisations

Historical sociology

American Sociological Association Comparative-Historical Sociology

British Sociological Association Historical & Comparative Sociology Study Group

International Sociological Association Historical Sociology Research Committee


Harvard University Political and Historical Sociology Research Cluster

See also


  1. ^ Scott, John (2014). A dictionary of sociology (4 ed.). Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-176305-2. OCLC 910157494.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  2. ^ Smith, Dennis (1991). The rise of historical sociology. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-0435-8. OCLC 59812746.
  3. ^ Granger, Frank (1911). Historical sociology : a textbook of politics. London: Methuen & Co. p. 26.
  4. ^ a b Smith, Dennis (1991). The rise of historical sociology. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-0435-8. OCLC 59812746.
  5. ^ Abbott, Andrew (1991). "History and Sociology: The Lost Synthesis". Social Science History. 15 (2): 201–238. doi:10.2307/1171415. JSTOR 1171415.
  6. ^ Aminzade, Ronald (1992). "Historical Sociology and Time". Sociological Methods & Research. 20 (4): 456–480. doi:10.1177/0049124192020004003. ISSN 0049-1241. S2CID 145310789.
  7. ^ Lachmann, Richard (2013). What is historical sociology?. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-7456-6008-0. OCLC 828181044.
  8. ^ Delanty, Gerard; Isin, Engin F. (2003). Handbook of historical sociology. London: SAGE. ISBN 1-84860-823-3. OCLC 431994038.
  9. ^ Deflem, Mathieu (2007). "Comparative and Historical Sociology: Lecture Notes". Retrieved 2021-06-18.
  10. ^ Clemens, Elisabeth S. (2007). "Toward a Historicized Sociology: Theorizing Events, Processes, and Emergence". Annual Review of Sociology. 33 (1): 527–549. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.33.040406.131700. ISSN 0360-0572.
  11. ^ a b Abrams, Philip (1982). Historical sociology. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. pp. xiii. ISBN 0-8014-1578-0. OCLC 9383033.
  12. ^ Lawson, George (2007). "Historical Sociology in International Relations: Open Society, Research Programme and Vocation" (PDF). International Politics. 44 (4): 343–368. doi:10.1057/palgrave.ip.8800195. ISSN 1384-5748. S2CID 143025453.
  13. ^ Seabrooke, Leonard (2007). "Why Political Economy Needs Historical Sociology". International Politics. 44 (4): 390–413. doi:10.1057/palgrave.ip.8800197. ISSN 1384-5748. S2CID 143437067.

Further reading

  • Robert Leroux, History and Sociology in France: From Scientific History to the Durkheimian School, London, Routledge, 2018.
  • Charles Tilly, Historical Sociology, in Scott G. McNall & Gary N. Howe, eds., Current Perspectives in Social Theory. Vol. I. (1980) Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, online
  • Charles Tilly, Historical Sociology, in International Encyclopedia of the Behavioral and Social Sciences (2001) Amsterdam: Elsevier. Vol. 10, 6753–6757, online
  • Charles Tilly, Three Visions of History and Theory, in History and Theory (2007) 46: 299-307, online
  • Charles Tilly, History of and in Sociology, introduction to the didactic seminar on methodologies of the history of sociology, American Sociological Association annual meeting, Montréal, May 2007, online
  • George Steinmetz, 'Ideas in Exile: Refugees from Nazi Germany and the Failure to Transplant Historical Sociology into the United States.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society', 2010.
  • Mathieu Deflem, “Useless Tilly (et al.): Teaching Comparative-Historical Sociology Wisely.” Trajectories, Newsletter of the ASA Comparative & Historical Sociology section, 19(1):14-17, 2007. online
  • George Steinmetz, 'The Historical Sociology of Historical Sociology: Germany and the United States in the 20th century', Sociologica (Italian Journal of Sociology online)2008 February). online
  • George Steinmetz,'The Relations between Sociology and History in the United States: The Current State of Affairs', Journal of Historical Sociology 20:1-2 (2007): 1-12.
  • John Baylis, Steve Smith, Globalization of world politics: An introduction to international relations, Oxford University Press, 3rd ed., 2005, ISBN 0-19-927118-6, p. 276–278
  • David Baronov, The Dialectics of Inquiry Across the Historical Social Sciences. Routledge Press. 2013.

Reading list


Scientific Prediction in Historical Sociology: Ibn Khaldun meets Al Saud