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Historical Methods for Social Scientists

Robert Adcock

American University

Robert Adcock teaches at the School of International Service at American University in Washington DC.

His interests focus on the politics and sociology of knowledge, the transatlantic history of the social sciences and their relationship to liberalism, and the philosophy and methods of the social sciences.

Robert is the author of Liberalism and the Emergence of American Political Science: A Transatlantic Tale (Oxford University Press, 2014), and was the co-editor of Modern Political Science: Anglo-American Exchanges since 1880 (Princeton University Press, 2007).

He also edited the newsletter of the Qualitative and Multi-Method Research organised section of the American Political Science Association from 2011 to 2014.

Course Dates and Times

Monday 5 to Friday 9 March 2018
15 hours over 5 days

Prerequisite Knowledge

This course presumes no prior detailed familiarity with historical methods or debates around them. All that is assumed is that students in the course have done, or are interested in undertaking social science research that engages the past, whether from positivist or interpretive methodological orientations.

Short Outline

This course offers a methodologically pluralist introduction to historical methods for social scientists. Rather than take the side of any specific stance as to what the valued terms “historical” and “method” do/should mean, the course emphasises and examines the perennial cleavages and contentions between methodologically diverse scholars who all understand themselves to be doing “historical” work. While some such social scientists see the critical use of primary sources as the core of their historical method, others make statistical data and analysis, formal models, or macro-comparative case studies central to their study of the past. Ranging across this spectrum, the course will survey four diverse contemporary research programs that self-identify as historical, and together encompass scholars from economists to political scientists and sociologists. For each contemporary research programme we examine both cutting edge methodological statements and substantive examples of how its practitioners approach the past.


Tasks for ECTS Credits

  • Participants attending the course: 2 credits (pass/fail grade) The workload for the calculation of ECTS credits is based on the assumption that students attend classes and carry out the necessary reading and/or other work prior to, and after, classes.
  • Participants attending the course and completing one task (see below): 3 credits (to be graded)
  • Participants attending the course, and completing two tasks (see below): 4 credits (to be graded)

Students may earn two ETCS credits graded on a binary pass/fail basis. Earning a pass requires completion of all reading prior to class and attendance of all course sessions.

Students seeking 3 ETCS credits are required to complete the additional task of completing memos to be posted to the course website to help set the stage for seminar discussions on day 2, 3, or  5. Students will write two memos. One reading memo (max 250 words) in which they engage the readings for one day: for example, by flagging confusing points they would like clarified; raising questions regarding the claims, premises, or practices of a reading; and/or exploring how readings compare/contrast. Each student will also post one research memo (max 500 words) exploring how the historical research program that most interests them relates to research of their own they have or might undertake.

Students seeking 4 ETCS credit will be required to develop their research memo into a final essay (max 2500 words) in which they frame a research project of their own in terms of the pronouncements, premises, and practices of one of the research programs surveyed in the course. This essay will be due a week after the class ends and should be emailed to me as an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .pdf).

Long Course Outline

This course offers a methodologically pluralist introduction to historical methods for social scientists. The goal of the course is to enable students who are (or are interested in) doing social science research that engages the past to:

  • Situate their interest in, and approach to, historical methods in relation to both classic debates and alternative contemporary research programs
  • Articulate and justify key methodological assumptions of their own approach to the past
  • Undertake historical research with greater clarity and confidence as to what they are and should be doing (and, as importantly, are not and need not be doing)

Ever since the language of “historical method” first came to be deployed by scholars during the mid-19th century, it has been used to identify, valorize, discipline, and contest multiple, diverse, and at times directly competing, research practices and traditions. During our first class session we explore the classic roots of recurrent methodological cleavages over such issues as the uses / limits of cross-societal comparison, and the pros / cons of making inferences about the beliefs of historical agents. Divergent approaches to these and other classic issues continue to differentiate alternative research programs—all self-avowedly historical—within the social sciences today.

Each of the following four days focuses on a contemporary research program, ranging widely from the new institutional economic history, to comparative historical analysis and historical institutionalism, process tracing, and interpretive historical sociology. As we examine and move across these research programs we follow inter-disciplinary connections and contests to treat scholarship by economists, political scientists, and sociologists. In our readings we engage both with works of meta-reflection on the substantive and methodological orientation of each program, and examples of historical work, in order to examine and tease apart the preaching and the actual research practices of each program.

Day One. “Historical Method”(s): The Classic Roots of Recurrent Cleavages

On day one we begin by reviewing the central role “historical method” played in crystallizing positivism as both a philosophy of history and a social science methodology. Readings from Comte and JS Mill showcase: 1) their advocacy of a historical method that would study macro-societal change over time, 2) their divergence over if/how macro-level social change should be related to individual psychology. We transition between the two sessions of the day with selections illustrating how proponents of a self-avowedly “scientific” history came, in turn, to discuss method. In closing, we take up Durkheim and debates he engaged in that highlight cleavages among views of historical method that continue to be contested across traditions of historical social science down to this day.

Day Two. New Institutional Economic History

On day two we shift focus to recent decades and begin our survey of contemporary research programs with the new institutional economic history as developed by Noble-Prize winning economist Douglass North, and especially prominent recently in the academic and popular works of Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson. In examining the development of this research program, we will also be charting its connection to rational choice scholarship in political science.

Day Three. Comparative Historical Analysis and Historical Institutionalism

On day three we consider the primarily qualitative research program of “comparative historical analysis.” This program stressing macro-societal comparison developed initially in sociology as one current within a broader upswing of historical sociology. We examine the methodological statements and practices of this research program as it came to frame itself as “comparative historical analysis,” and as it found its disciplinary home increasingly in political science, where it has steadily become interwoven with political science’s internally developed agenda of “historical institutionalism”.

Day Four. Process-Tracing and International History

The belief that critical use of sources provides the essential evidentiary foundation for “scientific” study of the past is today perhaps most evident beyond the discipline of history (which has in recent decades left behind much of its earlier scientific self-identity). Far from disappearing, however, this methodological concern is prominent in contemporary social science in connection with the practice of process tracing. Process-tracing is, moreover, applied especially to the political and diplomatic actors and events that were central to traditional history. On Day Four we join the Advanced Process-Tracing Methods course in an exercise critically analyzing sources for an international history case.

Day Five. Interpretive Historical Sociology

While the macro-causal analysis current of historical sociology that became “comparative historical analysis” has increasingly gravitated into political science, in sociology recent decades have seen historical scholars creatively pursue an array of new trends. In this final day we review these changes in historical sociology, with a focus specifically on the development of what may be called interpretive historical sociology and the ways in which sources are approached in such research.

Day Topic Details
1 “Historical Method”(s): The Classic Roots of Recurrent Cleavages

1st session 9.00-10.30; 2nd session 11.00-12.30

2 New Institutional Economic History

1st session 9.00-10.30; 2nd session 11.00-12.30

3 Comparative Historical Analysis and Historical Institutionalism

1st session 9.00-10.30; 2nd session 11.00-12.30

4 Process-Tracing and International History

1st session 9.00-10.30; 2nd session 11.00-12.30

5 Interpretive Historical Sociology

1st session 9.00-10.30; 2nd session 11.00-12.30

Day Readings

Auguste Comte, “The Positive Philosophy and the Study of Society” in Theories of History, ed. Patrick Gardiner (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959), 73-79. Further selections from The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, trans. Harriet Martineau (New York: Calvin Blanchard, 1858), 465-85.

John Stuart Mill, “Elucidations of the Science of History,” in Theories of History, ed. Patrick Gardiner (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959), 82-105.

Fustel de Coulanges, Selections, in The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present, ed. Fritz Stern (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 178-90.

Charles-Victor Langlois, and Charles Seignobos, Introduction to the Study of History, trans. G. G. Berry (New York: Holt, 1903), selections.

Selections from Emile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method and Selected Texts on Sociology and its Method, ed. Steven Lukes (New York: Free Press, 1982)


Johan Myhrman, and Barry R. Weingast, “Douglass C. North’s Contributions to Economics and Economic History,” Scandinavian Journal of Economics 96, no. 2 (1994): 185-93.

Douglass C. North, and Barry R. Weingast, “Constitutions and Commitment: The Evolution of Institutions Governing Public Choice in Seventeenth-Century England,” The Journal of Economic History 49, no. 4 (1989): 803-32.

Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson, “Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Institutions in the Making of the Modern World Income Distribution,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 117, no. 4 (2002): 1231-94. Daron Acemoglu, and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (New York: Crown Business, 2012), chap. 1, chap. 3 (p. 70-87), chap. 4, chap. 15 (p. 428-46).


Theda Skocpol, and Margaret Somers, “The Uses of Comparative History in Macrosocial Inquiry,” 22, no. 2 (1980): 174-97.

James Mahoney, “Nominal, Ordinal, and Narrative Appraisal in Macrocausal Analysis,” American Journal of Sociology 104, no. 4 (1999): 1154-96.

James Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschemeyer, “Comparative Historical Analysis: Achievements and Agendas, in Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences, eds. Mahoney and Rueschemeyer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), chap. 1.

James Mahoney, Colonialism and Post-Colonial Development: Spanish America in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), xiii-xv, 1-34, 264-70.

Kathleen Thelen and James Mahoney, “Comparative-Historical Analysis in Contemporary Political Science,” in Advances in Comparative-Historical Analysis, eds. James Mahoney and Kathleen Thelen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), chap. 1.  


Andrew Bennett, “Process-Tracing: A Bayesian Perspective,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Methodology, eds. Janet M. Box-Steffensmeier, Henry E. Brady, and David Collier, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 702-21.

Derek Beach, and Rasmus Brun Pedersen, Process-Tracing Methods: Foundations and Guidelines (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), chap. 6.

Ian S. Lustick, “History, Historiography and Political Science: Multiple Historical Records and the Problem of Selection Bias,” American Political Science Review 90, no. 3 (1996): 605-18.

Course packet on Cuban Missile Crisis


Julia Adams, Elisabeth S. Clemens, and Ann Shola Orloff, “Social Theory, Modernity, and the Three Waves of Historical Sociology,“ in Remaking Modernity: Politics, History, and Sociology, eds. Adams, Clemens, and Orloff (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2005), chap. 1.

William H. Sewell, Jr., “Theory, History, and Social Science,” in Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), chap. 1 (p. 1-18).

William H. Sewell, Jr., “Historical Events as Transformations of Structures: Inventing Revolution at the Bastille,” Theory and Society 25, no. 6 (1996): 841-81.

Simona Cerutti and Isabelle Grangaud, “Sources and Contextualizations: Comparing Eighteenth-Century North African and Western-European Institutions.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 59 (1): 5-33.

Software Requirements


Hardware Requirements


Recommended Courses to Cover Before this One

<ul> <li>Summer School: Case Study Methods Process-Tracing Methods Philosophy of Science Introduction to Interpretive Research</li> <li>Winter School: Philosophy of Science Introduction to Interpretive Research</li> </ul>

Recommended Courses to Cover After this One

<ul> <li>Summer School: Process-tracing Analysing Discourse Qualitative Data Analysis</li> <li>Winter School: Advanced Process-tracing</li> </ul>

Additional Information


This course description may be subject to subsequent adaptations (e.g. taking into account new developments in the field, participant demands, group size, etc). Registered participants will be informed at the time of change.

By registering for this course, you confirm that you possess the knowledge required to follow it. The instructor will not teach these prerequisite items. If in doubt, please contact us before registering.