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The Uses of Comparative History in Macrosocial Inquiry

  • Theda Skocpol (a1) and Margaret Somers (a1)


Comparative history is not new. As long as people have investigated social life, there has been recurrent fascination with juxtaposing historical patterns from two or more times or places. Part of the appeal comes from the general usefulness of looking at historical trajectories in order to study social change. Indeed, practitioners of comparative history from Alexis de Tocqueville and Max Weber to Marc Bloch, Reinhard Bendix, and Barrington Moore, Jr. have typically been concerned with understanding societal dynamics and epochal transformations of cultures and social structures. Attention to historical sequences is indispensable to such understanding. Obviously, though, not all investigations of social change use explicit juxtapositions of distinct histories. We may wonder, therefore: What motivates the use of comparisons as opposed to focussing on single historical trajectories? What purposes are pursued—and how—through the specific modalities of comparative history?

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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Session on “Methods of Historical Sociology” at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, Boston, Massachusetts, August 1979. Thanks go to Bill Skocpol for helping us create the figures in the paper. We are also indebted for comments to Gary Hamilton, Michael Hechter, Lynn A. Hunt, Bruce Johnson, Barbara Laslett, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Gilbert Shapiro. The insights of their comments frequently outran our ability to make use of them in moderate revisions; consequently we alone are responsible for the arguments presented here.

1 Existing literature on “comparative methods” in sociology has tended either to focus heavily on macrosociological theories and theorists or to emphasize issues of conceptualization and measurement as these especially affect cross-cultural surveys and field research. The former tendency is exemplified by Robert M.Marsh, Comparative Sociology: A Codification of Cross-Societal Analysis (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1967); and Vallier, Ivan, ed., Comparative Methods in Sociology: Essays on Trends and Applications (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971). The latter tendency is exemplified by Warwick, Donald P. and Osherson, Samuel, eds., Comparative Research Methods (Englegwood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973).

2 Sewell, William H. Jr., “Marc Bloch and the Logic of Comparative History,” History and Theory 6(2) (1967):208–18; Lijphart, Arend, “Comparative Politics and the Comparative Method,” American Political Science Review 65(3–4) (1971): 682–93; and Smelser, Neil J., Comparative Methods in the Social Sciences (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976).

3 This tendency to collapse all comparative history into multivariate analysis has occurred despite the fact that both Max Weber (whose work is extensively surveyed by Smelser) and Marc Bloch (whose methodological views form the basis for Sewell's article) recognized that comparative history could be used not only for hypothesis testing, but also to contrast different societies or cultures and to highlight their respective individual features. Max Weber should be considered a prime practitioner among classical sociologists of the type of comparative history that we will label “Contrast-oriented” and discuss at length below. For Marc Bloch's views on comparative history, see his “A Contribution towards a Comparative History of European Societies,” in Land and Work in Medieval Europe: Selected Papers by- Marc Bloch, trans., Anderson, J.E. (New York: Harper and Row, 1967): 4481.

4 To be sure, the major logics of comparative history are sometimes combined in scholarly works. Later in this paper we will show that well-known recent books by Perry Anderson and Charles, Louise, and Richard Tilly combine different possible pairs of the major types of comparative history.

5 Eisenstadt, S. N., The Political Systems of Empires: The Rise and Fall of Historical Bureaucratic Societies (New York: Free Press, 1963); and Paige, Jeffery M., Agrarian Revolution: Social Movements and Export Agriculture in the Underdeveloped World (New York: Free Press, 1975).

6 Eisenstadt, , Political Systems, p. 12.

7 Although Parallel comparative history is Eisenstadt's predominant strategy in Political Systems, he also does a bit of causal analysis using an approximation to controlled comparison. Specifically Eisenstadt uses Macro-analytic comparative history when he argues (pp. 106–7) that some societies had one, but not both, necessary conditions to become bureaucratic empires, contrasting these “failed” cases to “successful” ones.

8 An interesting by-product of Paige's willingness to present detailed, integral case accounts (as opposed to Eisenstadt's scattered fragments) is that a reader skeptical of Paige's theory finds it relatively easy (unlike a reader skeptical of Eisenstadt's theory) to use the historical cases to criticize Paige's theory and to tease out alternative explanations. See, for example, Somers, Margaret R. and Goldfrank, Walter L., “The Limits of Agronomic Determinism: A Critique of Paige's Agrarian Revolution,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 21 (3) (July 1979):443–58.

9 Full references will be given below as each book is individually discussed or cited.

10 Geertz, Clifford, Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971).

11 Ibid., p. 3.

12 Ibid., p. 4.

15 Lang, James, Conquest and Commerce: Spain and England in the Americas (New York: Academic Press, 1975).

16 Ibid., dust jacket.

17 Bendix, Reinhard, “The Mandate to Rule: An Introduction,” Social Forces 55(2) (December 1976), p. 247.

18 Bendix, Reinhard, Nation-Building and Citizenship (new enlarged ed.) (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977; orig. 1964), pp. 1617.

19 Ibid.; and Bendix, Reinhard, Kings or People: Power and the Mandate to Rule (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978).

20 Bendix, , Kings or People, p. 5.

21 Ibid., p. 15.

22 Full references will be given below as each work is individually discussed or cited.

23 Moore, Barrington Jr, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), pp. xiii–xiv.

24 Ibid., p. xiii.

25 Ibid., p. xiv.

26 Mill, John Stuart, “Two Methods of Comparison” (excerpt from A System of Logic, 1888), in Etzioni, Amatai and Du Bow, Frederic L., eds., Comparative Perspectives: Theories and Methods (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970), p. 206.

27 Ibid., pp. 207–10.

28 For a summary of the variables, see the table in Theda Skocpol, “A Critical Review of Barrington Moore's ‘Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy,’” Politics and Society 4(3) (Fall 1973), p. 10. Insofar as Moore does any of our major kinds of comparative history in Social Origins, he uses the Macro-analytic approach. However, it is worth noting that much of Social Origins is intended by Moore as straightforward historical analysis of causal sequences specific to the individual countries. As he puts it in the Preface (p. xiii), “the analysis of the transformation of agrarian society in specific countries produces results at least as rewarding as larger generalizations … [F]or any given country one is bound to find lines of causation that do not fit easily into more general theories.”

29 Skocpol, Theda, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

30 Moulder, Frances V., Japan, China and the Modern World Economy: Toward a Reinterprelation of East Asian Development ca. 1600 to ca. 1918. (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

31 Moulder's book derives its central hypotheses from Immanuel Wallerstein's theory of the capitalist world-economy. For the basic tenets of this theory, see: Wallerstein, Immanuel, “The Rise and Future Demise of the World-Capitalist System: Concepts for Comparative Analysis,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 16(4) (September 1974): 387415; and Wallerstein, Immanuel, The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Academic Press, 1974). The theory of the capitalist world-system has been used in conjunction with at least two of the logics of comparative history: Wallerstein himself uses the Parallel approach to show that his overall world-system model can account for the histories of countries in the “core,” “semiperiphery,” “periphery,” and “external” arenas. And Moulder's book shows that Wallerstein's theory is also compatible with a Macro-analytic approach. True, there is only one world-economy. But there need not be only one unit of analysis, insofar as causal hypotheses about developments in nations, regions, cross-sections of “world time,” etc., can be formulated with the guidance of the theory. Approximations to controlled comparisons may then be possible to test such hypotheses, as Moulder's comparison of Japan and China demonstrates.

32 Brenner, Robert, “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe,” Past and Present no. 70 (February 1976): 3075; and Hamilton, Gary G., “Chinese Consumption of Foreign Commodities: A Comparative Perspective,” American Sociological Review 42(6) (December 1977): 877–91.

33 Brenner, , “Agrarian Class Structure,” p. 47.

34 Anderson, Perry, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: New Left Books, 1974); and Tilly, Charles, Tilly, Louise, and Tilly, Richard, The Rebellious Century, 1830–1930 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975).

35 Moore, , Social Origins, p. 315.

36 See especially Ibid., pp. 430–32.

37 Another work that uses Parallel comparative history in a non-repetitious and unusually interesting way is Poor People's Movements (New York: Pantheon, 1977) by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. The purpose of this book is to present a theory of the emergence and fate of insurgent movements by non-privileged groups in U.S. society. After the theory is outlined, four cases are presented to illustrate it. Each represents a particular protest movement and a specific “slice in time” from U.S. history between 1930 and the early 1970s. Taken together, the cases add up not only to four separate applications of Piven and Cloward's theoretical perspective on protest movements, but also to a coherent account of the course of U.S. politics since the 1930s, viewed from the bottom up. Piven and Cloward thus uniquely fuse the juxtaposition of cases characteristic of Parallel comparative history with the holism and drama characteristic of an in-depth exploration of a single national experience.

38 Mill, , “Two Methods,” in Etzioni, and Du Bow, , eds., Comparative Perspectives, pp. 210–13.

39 Bloch, Marc, “Une Étude Régionale: Geographie ou Histoire?Annales d'Histoire Economique el Sociale 6 (January 1934), p. 81 (our translation).

40 For examples see the articles cited in note 32 and Skocpol, Theda, “France, Russia, China: A Structural Analysis of Social Revolutions,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 18:2 (April 1976): 175210.

41 Levy, Marion J. Jr., “Contrasting Factors in the Modernization of China and Japan,” in Kuznets, Simon, Moore, Wilbert E., and Spengler, Joseph J., eds., Economic Growth: Brazil, India, and Japan (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1955): pp. 496536.

42 Moore, , Social Origins, p. xiv.

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