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Introduction to Historical Methods

Member rate £492.50
Non-Member rate £985.00

Save £45 Loyalty discount applied automatically*
Save 5% on each additional course booked

*If you attended our Methods School in July/August 2023 or February 2024.

Course Dates and Times

Monday 5 – Friday 9 August

09:00–10.30 and 11:00–12:30

Robert Adcock

American University

This course offers a methodologically pluralist introduction to historical methods for social scientists.

Rather than take any specific stance on 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.

ECTS Credits for this course

Instructor Bio

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.

This course offers a methodologically pluralist introduction to historical methods for social scientists. If you are doing, or interested doing, social science research that engages the past, this course will enable you to:

  • Situate your interest in, and approach to, historical methods in relation to classic debates and alternative contemporary research programs
  • Articulate and justify key methodological assumptions of your own approach to the past
  • Undertake historical research with greater clarity and confidence as to what you are, and should, be doing (and, as importantly, what you 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, valorise, discipline, and contest multiple, diverse, and at times directly competing, research practices and traditions.

During our first 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 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 1 – 'Historical Method'(s): The Classic Roots of Recurrent Cleavages

We begin by reviewing the central role 'historical method' played in crystallising 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 2 – New Institutional Economic History

We shift focus to recent decades and begin our survey of contemporary research programs with the new institutional economic history as developed by Nobel Prize-winning economist Douglass North, and especially prominent recently in the academic and popular works of Daron Acemoğlu 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 3 – Comparative Historical Analysis and Historical Institutionalism

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 4 – 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 this day we join the Advanced Process Tracing Methods course in an exercise critically analysing sources for an international history case.

Day 5 – 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. On 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.

This course presumes no prior detailed familiarity with historical methods or debates around them.

All I assume is that you have done, or are interested in undertaking, social science research that engages the past, whether from positivist or interpretive methodological orientations.

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), 465–485

John Stuart Mill
'Elucidations of the Science of History' 
in Theories of History (as above), 82–105

Fustel de Coulanges
Selections, in The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present, ed. Fritz Stern (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 178–190

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

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


Johan Myhrman, and Barry R. Weingast
'Douglass C. North’s Contributions to Economics and Economic History' in Scandinavian Journal of Economics 96, no. 2 (1994): 185–193

Douglass C. North, and Barry R. Weingast
'Constitutions and Commitment: The Evolution of Institutions Governing Public Choice in Seventeenth-Century England' in The Journal of Economic History 49, no. 4 (1989): 803–832

Daron Acemoğlu, Simon Johnson and James A. Robinson
'Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Institutions in the Making of the Modern World Income Distribution' in The Quarterly Journal of Economics 117, no. 4 (2002): 1231–1294

Daron Acemoğlu 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. 428–446)


Theda Skocpol and Margaret Somers
'The Uses of Comparative History in Macrosocial Inquiry' Comparative Studies in Society and History 22, no. 2 (1980): 174–197

James Mahoney
'Nominal, Ordinal, and Narrative Appraisal in Macrocausal Analysis' American Journal of Sociology 104, no. 4 (1999): 1154–1196

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, 264–270

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), 702–721

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' in American Political Science Review 90, no. 3 (1996): 605–618

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): 841–881

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

Summer School

Case Study Methods

Process-Tracing Methods

Philosophy of Science

Introduction to Interpretive Research

Winter School

Philosophy of Science

Introduction to Interpretive Research

Recommended Courses to Cover After this One

Summer School


Analysing Discourse

Qualitative Data Analysis

Winter School

Advanced Process-tracing