Historical Comparative Essays

Comparative historical research is a method of social science that examines historical events in order to create explanations that are valid beyond a particular time and place, either by direct comparison to other historical events, theory building, or reference to the present day.[1] Generally, it involves comparisons of social processes across times and places. It overlaps with historical sociology. While the disciplines of history and sociology have always been connected, they have connected in different ways at different times (see 'Major researchers' below). This form of research may use any of several theoretical orientations. It is distinguished by the types of questions it asks, not the theoretical framework it employs (see 'Illustrations' below).

Major researchers[edit]

Some commentators have identified three waves of historical comparative research.[2] The first wave of historical comparative research concerned how societies came to be modern, i.e. based on individual and rational action, with exact definitions varying widely. Some of the major researchers in this mode were Alexis de Tocqueville,[3]Karl Marx,[4]Emile Durkheim,[5]Max Weber,[6] and W.E.B. Du Bois.[7] The second wave reacted to a perceived ahistorical body of theory and sought to show how social systems were not static, but developed over time.[8] Notable authors of this wave include Barrington Moore, Jr.,[9]Theda Skocpol,[10]Charles Tilly,[11]Michael Mann,[12] and Mark Gould.[13] Some have placed the Annales school and Pierre Bourdieu in this general group, despite their stylistic differences.[14] The current wave of historical comparative research sociology is often but not exclusively post-structural in its theoretical orientation. Influential current authors include Julia Adams,[15] Anne Laura Stoler,[16]Philip Gorski,[17] and James Mahoney.[18]

Recent Studies[edit]

Studies of comparative nature have taken place in recent years. For PhD dissertations this can be an approach used. One example is comparing communities and minorities and social groups. Mordechai Zaken compared two non-Muslim minorities in Kurdistan, the Jews and the Assyrian Christians in their relationships with their Muslim rulers and tribal chieftains during the 19th and 20th centuries. His comparative study gave a much clearer picture on the status of the minorities and their relationships with the ruling elites in and around Kurdistan. His PhD dissertation and the online book upon which it was based have been widely spread and translated into the local languages in Kurdistan and the surrounding.[19]


There are four major methods that researchers use to collect historical data. These are archival data, secondary sources, running records, and recollections. The archival data, or primary sources, are typically the resources that researchers rely most heavily on. Archival data includes official documents and other items that would be found in archives, museums, etc. Secondary sources are the works of other historians who have written history. Running records are ongoing series of statistical or other sorts of data, such as census data, ship's registries, property deeds, etc. Finally recollections include sources such as autobiographies, memoirs or diaries.[20]

There are four stages, as discussed by Schutt, to systematic qualitative comparative historical studies: (1) develop the premise of the investigation, identifying events, concepts, etc., that may explain the phenomena; (2) choose the case(s) (location- nation, region) to examine; (3) use what Theda Skocpol has termed as "interpretive historical sociology" and examine the similarities and the differences; and (4) based on the information gathered, propose a causal explanation for the phenomena.[21]

The key issues in methods for historical comparative research stem from the incomplete nature of historical data, the complexity and scale of the social systems, and the nature of the questions asked. Historical data is a difficult set of data to work with due to multiple factors. This data set can be very biased, such as diaries, memoirs, letters, which are all influenced not only by the person writing them, that person's world view but can also, logically, be linked to that individual's socioeconomic status. In this way the data can be corrupt/skewed. Historical data regardless or whether it may or may not be biased (diaries vs. official documents) is also vulnerable to time. Time can destroy fragile paper, fade ink until it is illegible, wars, environmental disasters can all destroy data and special interest groups can destroy mass amounts of data to serve a specific purpose at the time they lived, etc. Hence, data is naturally incomplete and can lead social scientists to many barriers in their research. Often historical comparative research is a broad and wide reaching topic such as how democracy evolved in three specific regions. Tracking how democracy developed is a daunting task for one country or region let alone three. Here the scale of the social system, which is attempting to be studied, is overwhelming but also the complexity is extreme. Within each case there are multiple different social systems that can affect the development of a society and its political system. The factors must be separated and analyzed so that causality can be attained. It is causality that brings us to yet another key issue in methods for historical comparative research, the nature of the questions which are asked is attempting to propose causal relationships between a set of variables. Determining causality alone is a difficult task; coupled with the incomplete nature of historical data and the complexity and scale of the social systems being used to examine causality the task becomes even more challenging.

Identifying features[edit]

The three identifying issues of historical comparative research are causal relationships, processes over time, and comparisons.[21] As mentioned above causal relationships are difficult to support although we make causal assumptions daily. Schutt discusses the five criteria, which must be met in order to have a causal relationship. Of the five the first three are the most important: association, time order and nonspuriousness. Association simply means that between two variables; the change in one variable is related to the change in another variable. Time order refers to the fact that the cause (the independent variable) must be shown to have occurred first and the effect (the dependent variable) to have occurred second. Nonspuriousness says that the association between two variables is not because of a third variable. The final two criteria are; identifying a causal mechanism- how the connection/association among variables is thought to have occurred- and the context in which this association occurs. The deterministic causal approach requires that in every study, the independent and dependent variable have an association, and within that study every case (nation, region) the independent variable has an effect on the dependent variable.[21]

John Stuart Mill devised five methods for systematically analyzing observations and making more accurate assumptions about causality. Mill's Methods discusses; direct method of agreement, method of difference, joint method of agreement and difference, method of residues and method of concomitant variations. Mill's methods are typically the most useful when the causal relationship is already suspected and can therefore be a tool for eliminating other explanations.[22] Some methodologists contend Mill's methods cannot provide proof that the variation in one variable was caused by the variation of another variable.


There are several difficulties that historical comparative research faces. James Mahoney, one of the current leading figures in historical comparative research, identifies several of these in his book "Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences." Mahoney highlights key issues such as how micro level studies can be incorporated into the macro level field of historical comparative research, issues ripe for historical comparative research that continue to remain overlooked, such as law, and the issue of whether historical comparative research should be approached as a science or approached as a history.[23] This is one of the more prevalent debates today, often debated between Theda Skocpol, who sides with the historical approach, and Kiser and Hechter, who are proponents of the scientific view that should search for general causal principles. Both Kiser and Hechter employ models within Rational Choice Theory for their general causal principles. Historical researchers that oppose them (Skocpol, Summers, others) argue that Kiser and Hechter do not suggest many other plausible general theories, and thus it seems as though their advocacy for general theories is actually advocacy for their preferred general theory. They also raise other criticisms of using rational choice theory in historical comparative research.[24]

Role of general theory[edit]

In recent decades historical comparative researchers have debated the proper role of general theory. Two of the main players in this debate have been Edgar Kiser and Michael Hechter. They have argued that it is important to use a general theory in order to be able to test the results of the research that has been conducted. They do not argue that one specific theory is better than the other just that a theory needs to be used. Their chosen theory is rational choice. One of the main problems is that everyone has a different concept of what a theory is and what makes something a theory. Some of their opponents feel that any theory can be tested and they are arguing that some cannot be. Kiser and Hecter do acknowledge that this is a growing field and that their perspective may change in the future.


The comparative-historical method can be clarified with a recent and highly regarded example. In The Familial State, Julia Adams draws on both original archival work and secondary sources to analyze how merchant families contested with noble families for influence in the early modern Dutch Republic.[25] Adams argues that those contests produced the political institutions that became the modern Dutch state. She frequently makes reference to England and France, but the main topic is the Dutch Republic. Adams examines what earlier sociologists said about state formation in light of the Dutch case, finding there are decisive elements in the Dutch Republic, like patriarchal kinship structures in the ruling families, that aren't accounted for in the earlier theories. Adams draws on feminist theory, which was not originally intended to explain modern state formation, to create an expanded theory of how modern states came to be. This is an illustration of how comparative-historical analysis uses cases and theories together.

See also[edit]


  1. ^Mission of the Comparative and Historical Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association. www2.asanet.org/sectionchs/sectioninfo.htmlArchived 2011-09-14 at the Wayback Machine. (Accessed 15 December 2011).
  2. ^J. Adams, E.S. Clemens, and A.S. Orloff. 2005. Remaking Modernity: Politics, History, and Sociology. Duke University Press.
  3. ^For example, Democracy In America. 1969 [1835-40]. Trans. George Lawrence. Perennial Classics.
  4. ^For example, "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte." 1979 [1852]. In Marx/Engels Collected Works, Vol. 11. International Publishers. pg. 99-197.
  5. ^For example, The Division of Labor in Society. 1984 [1893]. Trans. W.D. Halls. The Free Press.
  6. ^For example, Economy And Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. 1968 [1922]. Ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. University of California Press.
  7. ^For example, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America 1638-1870. In W.E.B. Du Bois Writings. Library of America. pg. 1-356.
  8. ^D. Smith. 1991. The Rise of Historical Sociology. Temple University Press.
  9. ^For example, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. 1966. Beacon Press.
  10. ^For example, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China. 1979. Cambridge University Press.
  11. ^For example, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1992. 1992. Blackwell Publishing.
  12. ^For example, The Sources of Social Power, Vols. 1-2. 1986-93. Cambridge University Press.
  13. ^Revolution in the Development of Capitalism: The Coming of the English Revolution. 1987. University of California Press.
  14. ^For example, P. Bourdieu. 1988 [1984]. Homo Academicus. Trans. Peter Collier. Stanford University Press.
  15. ^For example, "The Rule of the Father: Patriarchy and Patrimonialism in Early Modern Europe." 2005. In Max Weber's Economy and Society: A Critical Companion. Ed. C. Camic, P.S. Gorski, and D.M. Trubek. Stanford University Press
  16. ^Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. 2002. University of California Press.
  17. ^The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe. 2003. University of Chicago Press.
  18. ^J. Mahoney. 2003. "Knowledge Accumulation in Comparative Historical Research: The Case of Democracy and Authoritarianism." In Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences. Ed. J. Mahoney and D. Rueschemeyer. Cambridge University Press.
  19. ^Revised and Second Ebook edition and digital format, The Jews of Kurdistan and their Tribal Chieftains: A Study in Survival, Mordechai (Moti) Zaken (Jerusalem, 2015); Jewish Subjects and their Tribal Chieftains in Kurdistan: A Study in Survival, (Leiden and Boston): Brill, 2007. ISBN 978-9004161900; Yahud Kurdistan wa-ru'as'uhum al-qabaliyun: Dirasa fi fan al-baqa'. Transl., Su'ad M. Khader; Reviewers: Abd al-Fatah Ali Yihya and Farast Mir'i; Published by the Center for Academic Research, Beirut, 2013; يهود كردستان ورؤساؤهم القبليون : (دراسة في فن البقاء) / تأليف مردخاي زاكن ؛ ترجمة عن الانكليزية سعاد محمد خضر ؛ مراجعة عبد الفتاح علي يحيى، فرست مرعي. زاكن، مردخاي، ١٩٥٨م-;خضر، سعاد محمد; بيروت, 2013  : المركز الأكاديمي للأبحاث. 27; D. MORDIXZI ZAKIN, CULEKEKANY KURDISTAN, ERBIL, 2015; French into Kurmanji translation of an article by Moti Zaken, "Jews, Kurds and Arabs, between 1941 and 1952", by Dr. Amr Taher Ahmed Metîn n° 148, October 2006, p. 98-123. 28; "Juifs, Kurdes et Arabes, entre 1941 et 1952," Errance et Terre promise: Juifs, Kurdes, Assyro-Chaldéens, etudes kurdes, revue semestrielle de recherches, 2005: 7-43, translated by Sandrine Alexie.
  20. ^"UNKNOWN". Archived from the original on 2007-10-31. Retrieved 2007-11-27. 
  21. ^ abcSchutt, R. K. (2006). Investigating the Social World: The Process and Practice of Research. London: SAGE Publications. 
  22. ^"UNKNOWN". Retrieved 2007-11-27. 
  23. ^Mahoney,, J; Rueschemeyer, D. (2003). Comparative historical analysis of the social sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  24. ^"UNKNOWN". Retrieved 2007-11-27. 
  25. ^J. Adams. 2005. The Familial State: Ruling Families and Merchant Capitalism in Early Modern Europe. Cornell University Press.

Further reading[edit]

  • Mahoney, James. 2004. "Comparative-Historical Methodology." Annual Review of Sociology, 30:81-101.
  • Deflem, Mathieu. 2015. "Comparative Historical Analysis in Criminology and Criminal Justice." Pp. 63-73 in The Routledge Handbook of Qualitative Criminology, edited by Heith Copes and J. Mitchell Miller. London: Routledge.
  • Deflem, Mathieu, and April Lee Dove. 2013. "Historical Research and Social Movements." pp. 560–563 in The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements, edited by D.A. Snow, et al. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Deflem, Mathieu. 2007. "Useless Tilly (et al.): Teaching Comparative-Historical Sociology Wisely,"Trajectories, Newsletter of the ASA Comparative & Historical Sociology section 19 (1): 14-17.
  • Kiser, Edgar, and Michael Hechter. 1998. "The Debate on Historical Sociology: Rational Choice Theory and Its Critics,". American Journal of Sociology104 (3): 785-816; (AN 2147972)

What is a comparative essay?

A comparative essay asks that you compare at least two (possibly more) items. These items will differ depending on the assignment. You might be asked to compare

  • positions on an issue (e.g., responses to midwifery in Canada and the United States)
  • theories (e.g., capitalism and communism)
  • figures (e.g., GDP in the United States and Britain)
  • texts (e.g., Shakespeare’s Hamletand Macbeth)
  • events (e.g., the Great Depression and the global financial crisis of 2008–9)

Although the assignment may say “compare,” the assumption is that you will consider both the similarities and differences; in other words, you will compare and contrast.

Make sure you know the basis for comparison

The assignment sheet may say exactly what you need to compare, or it may ask you to come up with a basis for comparison yourself.

  • Provided by the essay question: The essay question may ask that you consider the figure of the gentleman in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The basis for comparison will be the figure of the gentleman.
  • Developed by you: The question may simply ask that you compare the two novels. If so, you will need to develop a basis for comparison, that is, a theme, concern, or device common to both works from which you can draw similarities and differences.

Develop a list of similarities and differences

Once you know your basis for comparison, think critically about the similarities and differences between the items you are comparing, and compile a list of them.

For example, you might decide that in Great Expectations, being a true gentleman is not a matter of manners or position but morality, whereas in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, being a true gentleman is not about luxury and self-indulgence but hard work and productivity.

The list you have generated is not yet your outline for the essay, but it should provide you with enough similarities and differences to construct an initial plan.

Develop a thesis based on the relative weight of similarities and differences

Once you have listed similarities and differences, decide whether the similarities on the whole outweigh the differences or vice versa. Create a thesis statement that reflects their relative weights. A more complex thesis will usually include both similarities and differences. Here are examples of the two main cases:

  1. Differences outweigh similarities:

    While Callaghan’s “All the Years of Her Life” and Mistry’s “Of White Hairs and Cricket” both follow the conventions of the coming-of-age narrative, Callaghan’s story adheres more closely to these conventions by allowing its central protagonist to mature. In Mistry’s story, by contrast, no real growth occurs.

  2. Similarities outweigh differences:

    Although Darwin and Lamarck came to different conclusions about whether acquired traits can be inherited, they shared the key distinction of recognizing that species evolve over time.

Come up with a structure for your essay

  1. Alternating method: Point-by-point patternIn the alternating method, you find related points common to your central subjects A and B, and alternate between A and B on the basis of these points (ABABAB …). For instance, a comparative essay on the French and Russian revolutions might examine how both revolutions either encouraged or thwarted innovation in terms of new technology, military strategy, and the administrative system.
    AParagraph 1 in bodynew technology and the French Revolution
    BParagraph 2 in bodynew technology and the Russian Revolution
    AParagraph 3 in bodymilitary strategy and the French Revolution
    BParagraph 4 in bodymilitary strategy and the Russian Revolution
    AParagraph 5 in bodyadministrative system and the French Revolution
    BParagraph 6 in bodyadministrative system and the Russian Revolution

    Note that the French and Russian revolutions (A and B) may be dissimilar rather than similar in the way they affected innovation in any of the three areas of technology, military strategy, and administration. To use the alternating method, you just need to have something noteworthy to say about both A and B in each area. Finally, you may certainly include more than three pairs of alternating points: allow the subject matter to determine the number of points you choose to develop in the body of your essay.

    When do I use the alternating method? Professors often like the alternating system because it generally does a better job of highlighting similarities and differences by juxtaposing your points about A and B. It also tends to produce a more tightly integrated and analytical paper. Consider the alternating method if you are able to identify clearly related points between A and B. Otherwise, if you attempt to impose the alternating method, you will probably find it counterproductive.

  2. Block method: Subject-by-subject patternIn the block method (AB), you discuss all of A, then all of B. For example, a comparative essay using the block method on the French and Russian revolutions would address the French Revolution in the first half of the essay and the Russian Revolution in the second half. If you choose the block method, however, do not simply append two disconnected essays to an introductory thesis. The B block, or second half of your essay, should refer to the A block, or first half, and make clear points of comparison whenever comparisons are relevant. (“Unlike A, B . . .” or “Like A, B . . .”) This technique will allow for a higher level of critical engagement, continuity, and cohesion.
    AParagraphs 1–3 in bodyHow the French Revolution encouraged or thwarted innovation
    BParagraphs 4–6 in bodyHow the Russian Revolution encouraged or thwarted innovation

    When do I use the block method? The block method is particularly useful in the following cases:

    • You are unable to find points about A and B that are closely related to each other.
    • Your ideas about B build upon or extend your ideas about A.
    • You are comparing three or more subjects as opposed to the traditional two.


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