Comparative History

                The problem posed is whether there is a pattern of history compatible with all other patterns.  In other words, when compared, are historical events so similar that a pattern can be identified as the core cause of their outcome.  This is an interesting and very important topic because it would mean human beings are predictable, within means.  It would also mean there is, and bring us closer to, a universal stream of consciousness, or some antiquated program we’ve run on since the beginning of time.  Phrases like, history repeats itself, and everything happens for a reason, are common pop-culture theories that may be found certifiably true by the end of this essay.

Comparative history is the technical term for identifying historical patterns.  The question it poses is what motivates people to compare historical patterns, like the life of JFK to Abraham Lincoln, or Othello (who is most likely fictional) to O.J. Simpson.  The three different types of comparative history are Macro-causal analysis, parallel demonstration of theory and contrast of contexts.  Each type holds its own prediction for why humans are drawn to comparing historical patterns. For demonstrating macro-causal, the authors note that S.N. Eisendstadt compares multiple ancient empires to one another.  In his article Nominal, Ordianl, and Narrative Appraisal James Mahoney breaks down macrocausal analysis into three techniques: nominal, ordinal and narrative strategy.  These strategies are all used to interpret cause and will be later examined in further in the essay.   The parallel demonstration theory, he argues is free of speculation over the differing particulars of each comparison.

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He best explains it by saying, the Parallel comparativeists seek above all to demonstrate that a theory similarly holds good from case to case; for them differences among the cases are primarily contextual particularities against which to highlight the generality of the processes with which their theories are basically concerned ( pg 178)  The contrasting form of study depends more on giving each moment in time its own respective honor, or as the authors put it preserving their historical integrity, by making sure all facts contrasted are authentic in nature and true to the time.  The authors cite theorist Reinhard Bendix and his argument that through contrasting these preserved respected histories, we better understand them.

Though Bendix feels that comparative history is to be used for historical understanding only, the authors point out that many other theorists do apply this perception to macro-causal interpretation.  In his preface to Social Origins, Barrington Moore Jr. argues that comparative analysis can lead to a better understanding of the common cause of revolutionary uprisings, or other similar social conflicts.  He argues that contrasting the two cultures with regards to their authentic history helps one to see the common traits they all hold dear.  The key concern for both Bendix and Moore is the fear of falling too deeply into their theories and overemphasizing.  The authors point out that the two men are actually taking two separate paths in their comparative history analysis.  Moore’s method is actually more initially concerned with key similarities, and Bendix, who claims to solely contrast history for histories sake, positions himself to better find exact contradictions and similarities between any two historical sets.  Skocpal and Somers present graphs that show the difference between the two methods. They call the one that relies on single core similarities The Method of Agreement, and the other form The Method of Difference.  The result of the graph comparison clearly shows that the Method of Difference produces more valuable results, in both differences and similarities between any two historical patterns being compared.

In his book, Lineages of the Absolutist State, Perry Anderson makes a triangle graph that is very contrast-oriented, but it basically compares from a parallel theorist perspective.  Anderson uses this graph to analyze the history of Western and Easter Europe. Anderson argues that Turkey and China contrast to European feudalism, while Japan, despite feudal elements, also contrasts to Europe because it experienced no prior mode of production comparable to Western antiquity (Skocpal & Somers).  This proves that Andersons method is very complex and inconclusive.  Skocpal and Somers also point out that Anderson never uses any form of macro-analytical strategy in his book.  The problem the authors find with Parallel comparison is that is relies on the analysis of singled out moments in time. For example a 100year block of time in China is evaluated based on a certain theory.  Whereas, with Macro-analytic and Contrast-oriented analysis, both types compare, and find, the particular similarities between two time-frames.  They both make a direct comparison as apposed to doing it indirectly the way Parallel analysis is done.  The authors later credit the lack of results caused by parallel analysis due its need for macro-causal research to clean up its mess.  Anderson’s triangle graph also looks quite similar to the cycle method they eventually present as the sum of all their research.

The authors eventually come to the conclusion that macro-analytic studies are the key form of comparative historical analysis.  They also identify that they are no substitute for theory building (pg196). But still, in order for any theories to be made about the cause of major changes in society, they will have to be done through, or with respect to Macro-analytic comparative research.  They also give reference to the same types of abstract pop-culture universal theories I mentioned in the opening of this essay.

Would-be “universal” theories, developed at high levels of abstraction without any reference to comparative-historical patterns, can end up not explaining any causal connections in history very well. But if general theories can be developed in tandem with Macro-analytic investigations, then we should be able, over time to improve the depth and, especially, the scope of our explanations of societal structures and their historical transformations (Skocpol and Somers, p.96)

            The authors conclude that though Macro-analytics is the best method for analyzing a large number of respective historical sets, any initial theory concerning comparative history must first be run through a parallel analysis.  This parallel analysis will set limits to the theory, and then identify contrasts between the two histories, which produces multiple factors for macro-analytical analysis. Another theory is supposedly developed from this process, according to the authors, and it is subject to parallel analysis, continuing the cycle.  Skocpol and Somers do not credit this method as a great discovery of modern science.  They present more like the end point for all new Comparative History theories to go through, until a better method is discovered.  In fact, the authors even acknowledge that if their system of inquiry analysis leaves open a need to further methodological studies, than their work will have served its exact purpose.  I guess the idea here is that anything to divert attention from the stone age of universally conscious generalities is a step in the right direction.

            It is in this exact direction that James Mahoney takes his discussion of their essay.  In his essay, Nominal Ordinal, and Narrative Appraisal in Macrocausal Analysis, he does a full methodological analysis of both Skocpol’s essay being discussed, and his work on France, Russia, China: A structural analysis of social revolutions. In which, Mahoney feels, Skocpol only found similarities compatible for only certain instances; and to find any pattern that could be universally applied, there would have to be further analysis.  Mahoney’s basic conclusion is that macro-causal analysis can’t truly be understood unless it is first understood that it’s broken up into three parts, these three parts being, nominal comparisons, ordinal comparisons, and narrative analysis.  Which is a basically a formal way of saying one needs to be well versed in historical rhetoric. He also argues that it is hard for people to understand or appreciate the work, because the methods of the research or unclear.

            In his essay, `Small n`s and big conclusions: An examination of the Reasoning in Comparative Studies Based on a Small Number of Cases, Stanley Lieberson points out that in most of the causal analysis the method is dictating the theory, as apposed to the theory dictating the method.  This could be a reasonable explanation for why Skocpol and Somers’ cycle of analysis is so unclear, but in the cycle the theory dictates which method is used.  Lieberson also credits the lack of results in many macro-causal studies to the multiple number of assumptions that occur.  His view is that there are too many variables to find this comparative pattern. He gives examples like: race riots, disease, subatomic physics, molecules of gas, star systems, geology, and biological evolution (Lieberson, 225-27) Lieberson poses some good arguments.  This is expected though.  In the end of his essay he doesn’t refute the attempts to find the pattern.  He merely makes suggestions on how to improve the methods used for this type of science.

            After reviewing these articles, I have to say I mostly agree with the argument Mahoney has in his methodological analysis.  There are certain aspects of Skocpol’s argument that are unclear.  Even in his comparison of the different revolutionary uprisings, he lacks results.  The majority of his studies seem to be studies for the sake of being studies, and inconclusive for the sake of inspiring others to further science. Granted hindsight is twenty-twenty, and Mahoney has the advantage of writing his work in 1999, almost 19 years after Skocpol and Somers published their research.  Mahoney also only studies their methods. Other than elaborating on the further specifications needed to analyze history with macro-analysis, he really brings nothing new to the table.  In truth, none of these scholars do.  They have attempted to tackle a very hope filled and exciting idea for the past twenty five years and all they have come up with is a reasonable method of study.  Not to mention, before anyone can even utilize this method, they must be well versed in world history, and sociological studies. Lieberson also brings up some good points as well.  It’s true that to analyze the entire spectrum of world history and past events, and come up with a common pattern is virtually impossible. Bendix would argue that all of these contemplative comparisons are for the purpose of better understanding the particulars within events of the past.  He’s partly correct, but he and the rest of these scholars aren’t doing this research to better know their history.  They are giving into the genuine need all humans have to connect with one another, and to feel like there is something greater than all of us.  I think the fact Skocpol and Somers fall short of their results is a good thing.  As Lieberson might argue, it leaves room for the unaccountable mystery.  I think the fact theorists are even attempting to solve these mysteries is amazing.  The idea that they we have even come up with a method for analyzing it is an even greater feat.  So, I can understand where Skocpol and Somers are coming from; and, it is most commendable that they would leave their work up for grabs to be carried on by the next generation.

Work Cited

France, Russia, China: A Structural Analysis of Social Revolutions (in The Analysis of Revolution)

Theda Skocpol
Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 18, No. 2. (Apr., 1976), pp. 175-210.

Nominal, Ordinal, and Narrative Appraisal in Macrocausal Analysis

James Mahoney
The American Journal of Sociology >Vol. 104, No. 4 (Jan., 1999), pp. 1154-1196

Small N’s and Big Conclusions: An Examination of the Reasoning in Comparative Studies Based on a Small Number of Cases

Stanley Lieberson

Social Forces, Vol. 70, No. 2. (Dec., 1991), pp. 307-320.

The Uses of Comparative History in Macrosocial Inquiry (in Approaches to Historical Comparison)

Theda Skocpol; Margaret Somers

Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 22, No. 2. (Apr., 1980), pp. 174-197.

Two Methods in Search of Science: Skocpol versus Trotsky

Michael Burawoy

Theory and Society, Vol. 18, No. 6. (Nov., 1989), pp. 759-805.

Why Not Equal Protection? Explaining the Politics of Public Social Spending in Britain, 1900-1911, and the United States, 1880s-1920

Ann Shola Orloff; Theda Skocpol

American Sociological Review, Vol. 49, No. 6. (Dec., 1984), pp. 726-750.


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Comparative History. (2017, Jan 17). Retrieved from